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The Older Rhetoric Revisited: Hugh Blair and the Public Virtue of Style

book cover imageLectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, by Hugh Blair. Edited with a Critical Introduction by Harold F. Harding. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965. Two Vols., 496 and 566 pp.

M. E. Bradford

One of the most successful of all nineteenth-century textbooks was Hugh Blair’s weighty Rhetoric. Between 1783 (the date of their first publication) and 1911 (the last full edition before that here under review) at least one hundred and thirty issues of this memorable course of lectures saw the light. Where English was spoken, Blair and rhetoric became almost synonymous; and in many another tongue translation brought similarly high repute. Now, thanks to the University of Southern Illinois’ “Landmarks in Rhetoric and Public Address” series, it is once again possible for the teacher and apprentice in this most civil and public of disciplines to inquire why his predecessors thought so well of the Edinburgh cleric-professor’s handiwork and to re-examine with Blair’s “original” in facsimile before them, the grounds and normative (i.e., historical) implications of their (ordinarily) very different preferences.

It is a natural mistake for the contemporary scholar, who has heard or come across some late evidence of the book’s authority, to assume that Blair’s text was received with universal acclaim. However, for reasons that will become apparent to him in a casual perusal of its content, such was not the case. Blair is often dry, even pedestrian. His reduction of the precepts of his Greek, Roman, and French progenitors is commonplace. Even his extensive illustrations of the best in style and organization for effect are wooden and monotonous. Moreover, his equivocation between a strict Neoclassical and a pre-Romantic position in questions of literary taste and in his aesthetic epistemology were predictably offensive to representatives of both positions. Of his contradictions and narrow range there was a hue and cry so long as his influence remained considerable. Yet, for reasons that are not far to seek, he prevailed over these objections and the more ingenious creations of rival rhetoricians so long his kind of rhetorical philosophy remained a staple in the education of the young.

Blair’s Rhetoric was by his own admission not a revolutionary, experimental, or speculative book, not a scholar’s treatise designed to rival George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric or Whately’s Elements of Criticism; instead (and most simply) it was intended as a useful tool—an adaptation of classical rhetoric and rhetorical criticism to suit the purposes of post-Augustan gentlemen, an affirmation of certain constants in the conduct and relations of civilized men and (by implication) of the “ethics” that belong to both: in the terms of two of its present-day admirers, a “rhetoric of belles lettres” for “all comparing in and judging of language.”

Blair knew very well what ends he would serve. For he was among the leading citizens of the old Scots capital in some of its greatest days, a friend of Lord Kames, Hume, and Robertson, a familiar of Boswell, Dr. Johnson, and Adam Smith; and for forty years he gave himself to the local university, to the perpetuation of his kind. As the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh—and even before—the rector of the High Kirk of St. Giles practiced upon Scotland’s future leaders and spokesmen what his own education, pulpit experience, and conversations with men of parts and learning convinced him was the art of rhetoric—of both the spoken and written word when considered as purposive, “designed.”

What the writer likes best about Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (and what kept the book popular among his fellow Southerners long after it was abandoned in New England) is its identification with (in Richard Weaver’s terms) “the spaciousness of the older rhetoric.” As a man of the Enlightenment, Blair affects a devotion to Senecan plainness. To it he allots a place and season. But his first rule is decorum or “good sense.” And according to that oldest and most authoritative of rhetorical dicta, the occasion and the audience demand the style, the person to be adopted by the speaker or writer and the “raiment” in which he is to perform. What does well enough in a repairman’s manual or a clubroom anecdote cannot serve for a ceremony of state, the investment of an academic or clerical official, or a solemn funeral. Cicero’s periods—Jeremy Taylor, Johnson, and even Sir Thomas Browne should preside over these moments, so long as flamboyance and rodomontade are made subservient to a worthy end. And as with loftiness of manner, so with the excuse and “ballast” of and for such fights, the confident use of general terms. Where there is community there are special times and places for putting away dissent and self-scrutiny, for the rehearsal of whatever axioms lend it dignity, vitality, and a sense of purpose. To cite Weaver once again, the rhetorician must provide his people, in the affirmation of the given, time-formed and time-tested assumptions or “prejudices” by which they live, what the dialectician can never supply—cohesion (Visions of Order, p. 65). If he fails to, none other can supply the lack.

All of this is, I suppose, a roundabout way of asserting that Blair’s book served a moral purpose and served it well. For that reason it was much beloved. Blair never loses sight of how rhetoric stems from and addresses itself to the will, does so even when—as transformed into image and fable in imaginative literature—its call is to perception, not action. And the will is a (or the) moral faculty. Without other evidence, it is possible to establish the intention of the good Scots dominie out of his choice of exemplary material from various levels of style and kinds of composition.

No student could come away from a close perusal of his Rhetoric without some knowledge of the big shoulders he stood upon or the legacy of civilization—as old as Aristotle and immediate as the morning chapel or convocation—of which he was custodian. How great was the service performed with this endowing, the modern rationalist professors of speech or language are unlikely to recognize. The truism, acknowledged from the sophists’ exposure onward, that a mechanical knowledge of the persuasive arts, held in vacuo, is sterile or dangerous, is lost upon them and their intellectual progeny. However, it is still true that to know rhetoric is to know what it has accomplished and meant, not just what it can do and how it can be applied. As Paul Fussell (The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism) and James T. Boulton (The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke) have recently and persuasively argued, the “educated” man, ignorant of either the discipline or its public function is, in a symptomatic and revealing fashion, unable to read the literature Blair levies upon for his illustrations. More importantly, the influential citizen oblivious of the responsibilities that go with the powers of rhetoric Is either at their mercy or unsafe with them in his keeping.

In this age of “communications skills” and “socially purified terminology” (echoes of Francis Bacon’s ancient stupidity) it is both necessary and hard to remember the difference between the teaching of rhetoric and mere communication or “speech.” The former is to the latter (both) as a heterogeneous pile of building materials is to an architect’s blueprint. What is humanly “positioned” and committed is not neutral. It carries with it (even when the general terms are kept quiet) the inference of a way of life. With these distinctions forgotten in the number of current compilations calling themselves “rhetorics” and with the axiological authority and necessity of the discipline lost upon and among its practitioners, how could the popularity of Blair be other than puzzling?

The war on the older rhetoric waged in the last three quarters of a century is part of the wider war on memory, of the Jacobin hunger to abolish history (and the values history has made and sustained) which has been the most noteworthy characteristic of our era. Predictably enough, it is likewise our time that has been “richest” in would-be mass “persuaders.” We drown in rhetoric qua information, argument disguised as narrative and/or exposition. And these bland, jargon-enveloped “announcements” seek a hold upon their audience no traditional rhetorician would dare to covet. The death of Reason is their objective. Control, not activation of the will, is their byword. For the cause their antistructures serve is a new one—sophisticated, conscious, malleable barbarism. It has a thousand respectable names but no more valid defenses than those advanced by its primordial champions in the councils of Pandemonium. Devils often change their names—but their natures, never.

As Blair insisted, “eloquence” has never flourished save in the midst of free men who share in the determination of their own destiny while safe from the jealous exactions of “arbitrary power” (II, p. 34). In Hugh Blair’s legitimate heirs and their pupils (and in the impulse which stands behind his republication) eloquence yet breathes. The sources of its authority in the hearts of pious men, though diminished, remain substantial. What sort of order will accompany the last sounding period of the old high rhetoric we are now in a position to foresee. To forestall its establishment we must follow in the tradition Blair helped (to the limits of his understanding) to keep alive, employ that Misrule’s mortal enemy at every opportunity and with all the craft at our command—“wise as serpents” in the “midst of wolves.”  

Dr. M. E. Bradford (1934–1993) was professor of English at the University of Dallas. At the time of publication he was writing a life of the late Donald Davidson.

Posted: June 26, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.

Russell Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things, 1969

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