Hugh Blair


Hugh Blair was a Scottish minister and professor of rhetoric in Edinburgh. He was a popular preacher, though his oratory skills were said to be lacking. He was considered to be an outstanding writer of sermons and a good editor. His area of specialty was in rhetorical theory and in the “Belles Lettres”, what would now be referred to literary theory and criticism. His reputation came from his two-volume book drawn from 1759 lectures given at the University of Edinburgh on rhetoric and belles letters. The book, entitled Lectures on rhetoric and belles letters was published in 1783. It contained 47 lectures offering a guide for written composition and oral language. The audience was students who were aiming for upward mobility in society. The book drew from classical theorists such as Quintilian and Cicero, and combined them with modern writers such as Edmund Burke.

The first 10 chapters of his two-volume work were on oratory discourse. They included the history of oratory, types of oratory, and ways of improving delivery. He departed from Cicero’s idea that invention is key in rhetoric and subscribed instead to …

In the second part of his book, Blair covered the history of written discourse. He identified four kinds of writing: historical, philosophical, fictitious history and poetry. His basic assumption was that writing is learned through the study and analysis of examples.

Blair's literary theory was grounded in a positivist epistemology, faculty psychology, and a mechanistic view of language. (more on this)

Blair’s book was successful for over a century, going through 130 editions and being translated into many languages.

In 1756, Blair wrote a treatise in which he makes a plea for a proper British education that would emphasize elocutionary studies. His expansive title explains his broad hopes for a new kind of British Education:

British Education: Or, The Source of the Disorders of Great Britain. Being an Essay towards proving, that the Immorality, Ignorance, and false Taste, which so generally prevail, are the natural and necessary Consequences of the present defective System of Education. With an Attempt to shew, that a Revival of the Art of Speaking, and the Study of our own Language, might contribute in a great measure, to the Cure of those Evils.

Writings by Hugh Blair

Blair, H. (1817). Lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres. P.N. Green & Thomas Carey. (This work went through 130 editions in England and America after being published in 1783, the last appearing in 1911).

Writings about Hugh Blair

Berlin, James (2010). Notes and quotes about Hugh Blair. Retrieved on June 18, 2010 from

Ferreira-Buckley, Linda (1994). Hugh Blair (1718-1800). In M. Moran (Ed.). Eighteen century British and American rhetorics and rhetoricians: Critical studies and sources. (pp. 21-33). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Golden, J. & Corbett, E. (1990). The rhetoric of Blair, Campbell, and Wheately. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.