Hugh Blair's Use of Quintilian
and the Transformation of Rhetoric
in the 18th Century
S. Michael Halloran
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
A widely held view of the 18th-century Scottish rhetorics emphasizes their discontinuity with classical rhetoric. W. S. Howell influential Eighteenth-Century British Logic and Rhetoric, for example, states flatly that "British writers on rhetoric in the second half of the eighteenth century regarded Ciceronian rhetoric as an anachronism" (441) and goes on to articulate the idea of a "new rhetoric" rooted in philosophical empiricism and French belletrism. According to Howell's analysis, the new rhetoric is exemplified in the lectures and treatises of Adam Smith, George Campbell, David Hume, John Lawson, Joseph Priestley, Hugh Blair, and John Witherspoon. While recognizing that there are important differences among these writers and acknowledging that they drew in certain ways upon classical rhetoricians, Howell nonetheless sees them as unified in a "discordant consensus" that turned its back on the classical tradition.
Howell had at his disposal previous work on 18th-century British rhetoricians by scholars such as Vincent Bevilacqua, Lloyd Bitzer, Herman Cohen, Douglas Ehninger, and James Golden, as well as more general studies of enlightenment thought by Ernst Cassirer, Walter John Hipple, Samuel Monk, George Saintsbury, and many others. Although few of these scholars are as categorical as Howell in distinguishing between 18th-century and classical modes of thought, all of them place some emphasis on the differences. And among the many works on 18th-century rhetoric subsequent to Howell's, I am aware of none that challenges the idea of a new rhetoric that is sharply distinct from the old. For example, in explaining what moved her to undertake the study that resulted in The Sixth Canon: Belletristic Rhetorical Theory and Its French Antecedents ( 1993), Barbara Warnick notes: