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Hugh Blair – UnLocke(d)

“But there is a third, and still higher degree of eloquence, wherein a greater power is exerted over the human mind; by which we are not only convinced, but are interested, agitated, and carried along with the speaker; our passions are made to rise together with his; we enter into all his emotions….” (971).

Hugh Blair’s focus on eloquence, the “Art of Persuasion,” focuses upon the importance of cultivating taste and of moving the passions toward action. The above quote, and indeed Blair’s entire focus, posits a very different purpose for language than that put forth by Locke, whom he contests briefly in this work (968). Unlike the proponents of “clear,” simple language that communicates with as little ambiguity as possible, Blair insists upon the importance of beautiful language, figures of word and thought, and elevates the station of pathos noting that, “the high eloquence which I have last mentioned is always the offspring of passion” (971). Though “good sense is the foundation of all [and] no man can be truly eloquent without it [for] fools can persuade none but fools,” he likewise notes that logic alone does not bring about persuasion (970). In this, he is not unlike Cicero or Augustine, though now pathos is privileged as the most useful form of persuasion for a movement to action, rather than the “icing” on a logical cake.

I am struck by the teleologic assumptions underneath Blair’s rhetorical theory where white, male, European society is viewed as the highest accomplishment of humanity. For Blair, this progression can be seen with a society’s use of language and he sates that “among nations in a civilized state, no art has been cultivated with more care, than that of language, style, and composition. The attention paid to it may, indeed, be assumed as one mark of the progress of society towards its most improved period” (950). The pinnacle of these arts is reached in the acquisition of “taste,” a somewhat difficult to describe quality, but one that is not arbitrary and which Blair sees as being “a faculty common in some degree to all men” (955).  Taste, once it is cultivated to its highest form, can be divided into two categories – “delicacy,” which is associated with feeling, and “correctness,” which is associated with logic (957-8).  While Blair acknowledges that it is difficult to pin down this quality of taste, and that it is a contested term, he does believe that it is predicated upon nature and that when he says, “nature is the standard of taste, we lay down a principle that is very true and very just, as far as it can be applied” (959). It is clear that he believes that “polished” societies are superior to “uncivilized” societies, and that one place that this difference is notable is in the examination of what is meant by taste. Of course, the taste of upper-class white Europeans is the exemplar of the taste that Blair advocates, thus he unproblematically encourages an education in these models of taste in order to more fully develop those who may be lacking understanding or appreciation of it. Though this education can never substitute for natural genius, he believes that taste can be cultivated and improved.

Blair defines eloquence as “the Art of Persuasion” and refutes claims that eloquence seeks to trick or obfuscate; rather, “to be truly eloquent is to speak to the purpose” (970). He discusses figures of language and notes that, “eloquence is to be looked for only in free states” (972) and he sees ancient Athens as a model of that freedom, briefly discussing the rhetorical theories of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. He condenses the canons of rhetoric to three, offering Invention, Arrangement, and Delivery, and while noting the usefulness of ancient systems, dismisses the importance of topoi as “superfluous,” capable of only producing “discourse [that] could be no other than trivial” (975). In this way, Blair succinctly summarizes what pleases him from older systems of rhetorical theory, dismisses what he doesn’t like, and synthesizes these ideas into a new system of his own that predicates eloquence upon the acquisition of taste.

I see Blair’s focus on taste as an attempt to eloquently privilege a particular value system of the dominant culture, arguing that these values are inherently, “naturally” superior. Perhaps because of the growing numbers of people entering educational systems, this reinforcement of dominant cultural values offered a guard against “lower class” aesthetics gaining legitimacy. As noted by Ferreira-Buckley, the period of industrialization during the time Blair was writing brought about “political unrest, activism, and reforms that dispersed power beyond the traditional power bases, and the demand for education escalated” (173). Blair’s work offers both a manual for teaching what he found relevant in rhetorical theory, as well as an argument for the importance of maintaining the aesthetic values associated with traditional representations of power. Though this inculcation of “taste” into the greater numbers of students seeking literacy and education would not forestall them from entering the academy, it would at least insure that they would be properly socialized in the values of the upper classes before they completed their educations. Blair’s work is thus one site where this gate keeping function of education and language can be viewed where the aesthetics of power are integrated into a curriculum as part of what is being taught.
Ferreira-Buckley, Linda. “Writing Instruction in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Great Britian.” A Short History of Writing Instruction from Ancient Greece to Contemporary America. 3rd Edition. Ed. James Murphy. New York: Routledge, 2012.


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