Thomas Blackwell (scholar)
Thomas Blackwell the younger, (1701- 6 March 1757) was a Scottish classical scholar and historian.
He was born on 4 August 1701 in the city of Aberdeen, son of Rev. Thomas Blackwell (?1660-1728), one of the ministers of Aberdeen. He attended the Grammar School of Aberdeen and studied Greek and philosophy at Marischal College, graduating M.A. in 1718. He was presented to the chair of Greek at Marischal in 1723, becoming the college’s principal in 1748. He taught a number of important Enlightenment figures including Principal George Campbell, Dr Alexander Gerard, and Dr. James Beattie, and strongly influenced James Macpherson, the godfather as it were of Ossian, and Adam Ferguson.
Thomas Blackwell died of a consumptive illness in Edinburgh on 6 March 1757.
Blackwell's works, including An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer (1735), Letters Concerning Mythology (1748) and Memoirs of the Court of Augustus (3 vols., 1753–63), established him as one of the premier figures in the Scottish Enlightenment.
In the Enquiry Blackwell considered why Homer was supreme as an epic poet and concluded that this was owing almost entirely to natural forces. Homer was the outcome of a specific society and natural environment, which combined to shape the inherited culture and produce a setting highly favourable to epic poetry. Blackwell’s idea that, instead of being innate as hitherto supposed, culture was learned and continually changing, was to become one of the basic assumptions of modern cultural anthropology. Civilisation brought advances in material terms but also artificiality and corruption and a loss of the heroic vision of earlier periods. Homer bridged the transition between modernity and the old heroic ethos, and as a plebeian was heir to a rich popular culture which gave realism and vividness to his verses. Blackwell argued that Homer had been an oral poet whose songs had been edited into developed epic form long after his death.
As the Letters Concerning Mythology were first published in 1748 there were nineteen letters in all, the first six by an anonymous hand. Blackwell was responsible for letters seven to nineteen. Their content was as bold and original as the book on Homer had been. Classical mythology had been discussed throughout the Christian era from a variety of unsympathetic standpoints: firstly by Euhemeristic critics who saw it as a fanciful form of history; next by Christian commentators who treated the classical gods as thinly-disguised demons; and finally by modern rationalists who saw the system as ultimately irrational and meaningless. Blackwell took a radically different view. He saw mythology as a deeply civilising influence, which, if its allegorical intention were interpreted sympathetically, was an important key to the world-view of classical antiquity. Ordinary people may have accepted the stories of the gods at face value, but the intelligentsia had regarded ‘the old Divinity’ as conveying profound insights into the nature of reality but doing so in symbolic terms, and these Blackwell set himself to interpret, beginning in earnest with his Ninth Letter, of mythology as "Instruction conveyed in a Tale". He drew on a wide range of evidence from a variety of sources including not only the literary myths in Greek and Latin and the Orphic Hymns, but French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and Arabic texts, attempting to isolate the surviving original mythic strain from layers of later accretions. Blackwell compared the early Jewish world view with contemporary Near Eastern cosmographies, analysing the account of creation in the Book of Genesis along with ancient Phoenician texts transmitted through Sanchuniathon to trace the transformation of Chaldean monotheism into polytheism as the stars began to be worshipped as lesser deities. Throughout this wide-ranging study Blackwell insisted that the past was not a foreign country but perfectly coherent and intelligible when viewed in its own terms.
In Memoirs of the Court of Augustus (3 vols., 1753–63), Blackwell approached his subject as a practitioner of intellectual history, calling it ‘This difficult Science of Men’. (p. 5) He showed how individuals were defined by society, and went on to trace the causes of Rome's developing from an obscure hamlet into a great imperial power. Rome’s ethos had originally been austere and military and its original institutions democratic ones. But insufficient separation of powers meant that if the republican impulse faltered there was little to prevent a slide into tyranny. A balanced constitution was therefore essential to enduring political success, a lesson reinforced by his comparative studies of later great powers including France, Venice and the Spanish Empire. Politics and empire formed only a part of this wide-ranging study. The ability of power to mould behaviour patterns fascinated Blackwell, and his study of Virgil and Horace demonstrated the responsiveness of the arts to their political context and explored how they might influence it in turn.
Blackwell’s work enjoyed a high contemporary reputation and for nearly half a century he was regarded as the foremost Homeric scholar in Europe. But his Scottish Whig politics attracted bitterly hostile criticism from conservatively-minded English critics like Samuel Johnson, and his achievement was long cast into the shadow. He is only now beginning to re-emerge as one of the most distinctive and original thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment.
- Neil R. Grobman, "Thomas Blackwell's Commentary on The Oral Nature of Epic", Western Folklore 38.3 (July 1979), pp. 186-198.
- "The Gods of the Ancients, you see, appear in a double Light; as the Parts and Powers of Nature to the Philosophers, as real Persons to the Vulgar; the former understood and admired them with a decent Veneration; the latter dreaded and adored them with a blind Devotion," and he added, "Has not the same thing happened in modern religious Matters?" (8th Letter, p. 62f).
- Ninth Letter, p. 60.
- Tenth Letter.