- Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres
The editors rightly note that Blair's Lectures were the Western world's source for rhetorical theory for a half century, touching even Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among many other eminent, and not so eminent, minds. This unabridged edition is faithful to the 47 lectures of the 1785 London edition and is best viewed as an update of the 1965 edition from Southern Illinois University Press edited by Harold F. Harding with a foreword by David Potter. The Lectures were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain at a reasonable cost, but this edition goes a step further by providing students with an introduction to Blair, his lectures, and some tools to study Blair more deeply that cannot be found in earlier iterations. This text should be of interest to those curious about eighteenth century rhetorical theory, eighteenth century education, the Scottish Enlightenment, the style of the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie, and the style of liberalism that arose from Blair's context—he was rubbing shoulders with Adam Smith and David Hume—that has shaped nearly all rhetoric in English for the past 200 years.
Though editions of Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters are far too numerous to count, Linda Ferreira-Buckley and S. Michael Halloran have produced a masterful scholarly edition. Readers will appreciate their introduction, which goes beyond the text itself to include the relevant aspects of Blair's life and times as well as a discussion of Blair's limits. Those new to reading Blair will value the very helpful four and a half page bibliography, indexing work by and about him.
Blair's lectures remind us of at least three important points. First, they indicate just how much the quality of knowledge has changed in the last 200 years. Blair's lectures contain many excellent examples for representing rhetorical [End Page 130] ideas, examples that could only be culled from his 24 years of lecturing on rhetoric. At times, however, our distance from these examples and from Blair's moral commonplaces is acute when the Lectures are read from the perspective of a twenty-first century teacher of rhetoric. The quality of knowledge in rhetorical studies has transformed, if not evolved, since Blair's time.
Second, the lectures are an excellent place to see the common origins of now somewhat disparate fields like communication, English, composition, journalism, political science, law, and religious studies. What they all share, then as now, is a concern for public communicative acts, the use and misuse of symbols and language, and rhetoric's consequences for the public and the imagination. Reading Blair points to this common ground. In fact, one can argue that Blair anticipated architectonic rhetoric and the rhetoric of inquiry, contemporary movements that attempt to see other forms of discourse from the perspective of the rhetorical.
Third, and related to the second point, Blair's lectures highlight one of rhetorical training's tremendous strengths: the capacity to synthesize. Blair comments on the popular press of his day, on the sublime, on taste, on the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, pastoral poetry, tragedy, comedy, the structure of sentences, the origin of languages, the progress of writing, perspicuity, precision, personification, other figures of speech, and worthy sermons. There is scarcely a communicative act that does not fall under his purview. Blair's "grand synthesis," Ferreira-Buckley and Halloran argue, following Abbott, is a great accomplishment and "the breadth and catholicity of his vision . . . invited worldwide attention." (xx). These lectures are indeed no small thing.
Readers interested in public affairs will appreciate Blair's focus on Greek and Roman eloquence, whether in popular assemblies, at the bar in his analysis of Cicero's Oration for Cluentius, or in the pulpit. They will also find Ferreira-Buckley and Halloran's introduction insightful regarding the background it provides on Blair's reception by the public as well as his commitment, at some personal cost and difficulty, to a liberal and open...