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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Jun 15, 2015



Henry Hume, Lord Kames (1696-1782)




Henry Hume, Lord Kames was a distant relative as well as friend to David Hume, although they spell their names differently.  David Hume changed the spelling so that his English readers would pronounce it properly.  Henry Hume kept the original spelling H-O-M-E.        




Unlike David Hume, Lord Kames did not go to university nor even have the benefit of a sojourn to France to broaden his education. Much more like Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennet, Kames was born the third son out of nine children to a heavily indebted but well-respected family.  He was educated at home with his siblings and was apprenticed as a solicitor.  Unlike Lizzie Bennet, who faces limitations due to her gender, Kames was able to participate in a number of philosophical societies and gentlemen’s clubs.  He further expanded his knowledge through jobs such as Curator of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh which gave him access to a wealth of books. 




There are a number of factors contributing to Kames success.  Clearly two of these factors were his talent and his drive.  Another was the luck of a long life.  Kames was born in 1696 and lived through much of the eighteenth century to the ripe age of 86.  Contemporaries commented on his remarkable good health in old age, the longevity of his memory, and his feisty personality.  Kames is quoted as saying of old age “why should I sit with my finger in my cheek waiting for death to take me?’  He did not specify which cheek. 




After his apprenticeship he worked his way up through the judicial ranks to become a highly respected judge, which is how he acquired the title Lord—it was not a hereditary title but an honor associated with his work as a judge.  Lord Kames again like Lizzie Bennett benefited from a lucky marriage.  He waited until age 47 to finally decide to marry.  His bride, Agatha Drummond, an attractive socialite eleven years his junior came from the wealthy Blair Drummond family.  James Boswell’s journals praise her for her looks, conversational skills and sense of humor—high praise from Bozzie.  Agatha’s original marriage portion was a moderate £1000 without any prospects due to an older brother with a family of his own.  However in 1766, Agatha unexpectedly became heiress to the entire Blair Drummond estate upon the unfortunate death of her brother and his son.  Thereafter, she and her children styled themselves Home-Drummond to acknowledge her family’s legacy and her husband Kames actively worked to enjoy and care for the sumptuous estate.




The inheritance impacted Kames’ work by providing a country writing retreat.  He was a prolific writer with 8 legal histories, plus books on diverse subjects like agriculture, and political science.  His book with the greatest impact on the history of rhetoric and the subject of our talk today was Elements of Criticism.  Published in 1761, Elements of Criticism brought the Enlightenment’s “scientific” view of human nature to the critical evaluation of the fine arts.  I would like to highlight how this interesting eighteenth century text connects to some very recent conversations about multimodal, visual and spatial rhetorics.          




Elements of Criticism made a splash and was a bit controversial due to its expansive inclusion of the visual arts with belle lettres.  Developing a theory of criticism for the fine artsrequired Kames to take sides in debates about human nature, beauty, and human nature.  He is participating in these with writers like Frances Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and Edmund Burke.  At the time he was writing the orthodox and moderate factions of the Presbyterian church were vying for power in Scotland.  Based on theological ideas going back to the Reformation, both sides had mixed feelings about the impact of visual arts like paintings and sculpture on the viewer. In some areas theater was illegal.   




Most of Elements of Criticism engages with literary texts for its examples and illustrations but his methods take into account the multimodality of the work.  For example, Kames takes encourages readers to take into account the musical and melodic qualities of poetry in his analysis of meter.  In spite of the disapproval of theater in Edinburgh, he works in criticism of plays and operas—not just the librettos but also of the staging and sets tacitly indicating through these inclusions his views on theater debate.




For those listeners interested in spatial theory or rhetorics of space, Kames applies the final chapter of the book the criticism of gardening and architecture.  The chapter thinks about how progression through space and the arrangement of objects in space can influence the mind and especially the emotions.  Kames emphasizes the natural style of gardening over more ornate or fantastic styles.  He presents the ornate French gardens as an example of what not to do, and praises the harmony of Chinese models.




Many of Kames’s proscriptive and prescriptive critiques participate in a larger Scottish Enlightenment conversation about taste in which moderates posed that fine arts were acceptable if morally improving to the audience or reader.  In this argument the wealthier members of society had an obligation to develop their taste as a sort of moral education.  For Kames, taste could also be developed by the lower classes through proximity to and observation of tasteful public works.  This idea represents a synthesis of ideas about the human tendency towards imitation and new concepts of the moral sense.  This chapter along with Sir John Dalrymple’s Essay on Landscape Gardening popularized the natural garden trend in mid-eighteenth century Scotland.        




Elements of Criticism had a lasting impact as a textbook well into the 19th century and was by no means confined to Scotland.  The work was quickly translated into German and appeared in the library of Emmanuel Kant.  It crossed the Atlantic where it was taught in rhetoric courses at Yale side-by-side with texts by authors like Hugh Blair and George Campbell, according to the research of Gregory Clark.  




To close our discussion of Elements of Criticism I would like to bring things back to the author himself.  Lord Kames, after all, did not have the benefit of a formal education, nor did he have the restrictions.  Although his writing is clear, he does not aspire to the heights of rhetorical eloquence.  In his judicial practice he was well known for using casual and even ribald language with his colleagues.  According to local legend, Kames at his retirement took leave of his colleagues with a cheery “Fare ye a’weel, ye bitches!”




Thanks for listening to our podcast today.  This is Connie Steel at the University of Texas for Mere Rhetoric.    




Chambers, Robert.  Traditions of Edinburgh, Vol 2.  Edinburgh:  W. & C. Tait 1825, p 171.   Googlebooks Web. 




Clark, Greg.  “Timothy Dwight's Moral Rhetoric at Yale College, 1795–1817.” Rhetorica:  A Journal of the History of Rhetoric.  Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 1987) pp 149-161.


Home, Henry, Lord Kames. Elements of Criticism.  Edited with an Introduction by Peter Jones (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). 2 Vols. May 31, 2015. Web.




Lehmann, William C. Henry Home, Lord Kames, and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Study in National Character and in the History of Ideas.  The Hague:  Martinus Hijhoff, 1971.  (International Archives of the History of Ideas.  Info on Agatha and the family, on Agatha p 64-65.  “Bitches” 135 (from Chambers).




Miller, Thomas.  “The Formation of College English:  A Survey of the Archives of Eighteenth-Century Rhetorical Theory and Practice.”  Rhetoric Society Quarterly.  Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1990) pp 261-286.