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. His father was Patron of the Seven Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen from 1714 to 1728.
In May 1751, he married Barbara Black, third daughter of James Black, Dean of Guild of Aberdeen, and his wife Agnes Fordyce, daughter of Provost George Fordyce. They had no children. Thomas Blackwell died of a consumptive illness in Edinburgh on 6 March 1757. His remains were buried in Greyfriars Churchyard.
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.
Enquiry had a high reputation with Blackwell's contemporaries (Gibbon praised as "an effort of genius";Herder called a "key" to Homer) and he his credited as having revived the study of Greek literature in the North of Scotland.
Letters Concerning Mythology
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 worshiped 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.
Memoirs of the Court of Augustus (1753–63)
Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, Vol. 3, 1763
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.
After Blackwell's death John Mills continued and completed the third volume of Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, which was published in 1763.
Comparison with Hippolyte Taine
In a set of articles, published in 1897 by distinguished Brazilian scholar Tristão de Alencar Araripe Júnior, Blackwell was credited with being a precursor of Taine's ideas concerning the contextual study of works of art. "There was,... in the last century, a Scottish critic who innovatively applied to Homer the same processes of the master of modern criticism," Araripe Júnior wrote:
And what is more surprising, he did it before Montesquieu had put into circulation his theory on the influence of climate upon the laws and, therefore, upon all human social relations... This work [Enquiry] follows the same mental scheme used by Taine, except for the naturalistic technique. Blackwell does not speak of mesology; but, as the book goes on, we see that none of the factors identified by the French critic escaped his observation and analysis.
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.
^He became LL.D. in 1752. – See "Blackwell (Thomas)." In: A New General Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 4. B. Fellowes, 1853, p. 272.
^Suderman, Jeffrey M. (2001). Orthodoxy and Enlightenment: George Campbell in the Eighteenth Century. McGill-Queen's Press, p. 153.
^"As in learning and knowledge he was exquisite and equal to any, so in the address of a teacher he was perhaps superior to all. No man ever possessed, in a more eminent degree the talent of inspiring young minds with a love of learning; of begetting among them a generous emulation; and of forming them to a taste and perception of what was elegant and beautiful in the admired productions of antiquity." – Gerard, Alexander (1807). "A Character of Dr. Thomas Blackwell." In: Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Honourable Henry Home of Kames, by Alexander Fraser Tytler, Vol. I, Appendix No. VII. Edinburgh: William Creech, p. 49.
^Feldman, Burton (1972). "Thomas Blackwell, 1701–1757." In: The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680–1860. Indiana University Press, p. 102.
^Parts of this book were translated into German by J.J. Bodmer in 1743, and into French by Quatremère de Roissy in 1801: Recherches sur Homère.
^Translated into French in 1779: Lettres sur la Mythologie.
^Translated into French in 1757 by Feutry and again in 1799 by Quatremère de Roissy: Mémoires de la Cour d'Auguste.
^"In 1735 Thomas Blackwell, Professor of Greek at Aberdeen, had published his Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer. It made a considerable impression both at home and abroad, because it hit the mind of the age by tracing Homer's excellence to the happy concurrence of natural conditions." — Jebb, Richard Claverhouse (1904). "The Homeric Question." In: Homer: An Introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Boston: Ginn & Company, p. 116 (footnote).
^Labio, Catherine (2004). Origins and the Enlightenment: Aesthetic Epistemology from Descartes to Kant. Cornell University Press, pp. 39–40.
^Mack, Ruth (2009). Literary Historicity: Literature and Historical Experience in Eighteenth-century Britain. Stanford University Press, p. 139.
^"First, the state of the country, where a person is born and bred; in which I include the common manners of the inhabitants, their constitution civil and religious, with its causes and consequences: Their manners are seen in the ordinary way of living, as it happens to be polite or barbarous, luxurious or simple. Next, the manners of the times, or the prevalent humors and professions in vogue: These two are public, and have a common effect on the whole generation. Of a more confined nature is, first, private education; and after that, the particular way of life we choose and pursue, with our fortunes in it. From these accidents, My Lord, men in every country may be justly said to draw their character, and derive their manners. They make us what we are, in so far as they reach our sentiments, and give us a peculiar turn and appearance: A change in any one of them makes an alteration upon us; and taken together, we must consider them as the molds that form us into those habits and dispositions, which sway our conduct and distinguish our actions.” — Blackwell (1735). An Enquiry Into the Life and Writings of Homer. London: E. Dilly, p. 11.
^Grobman, Neil R. (1979). "Thomas Blackwell's Commentary on The Oral Nature of Epic", Western Folklore38 (3), pp. 186–198.
^"Blackwell's Enquiry was one of the most influential works of eighteenth-century classical philology, an inspiration not only to British scholars but to intellectuals in other countries, principally Germany, as well." — Bauman, Richard & Charles L. Briggs (2003). Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality. Cambridge University Press, p. 90.
^Coleridge, Samuel Taylor (1984). Biographia Literaria, Or, Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, Vol. 7, Princeton University Press, p. 40.
^Simonsuuri, Kirsti (1979). "Thomas Blackwell: The Problem of Homer's Genius." In: Homer's Original Genius: Eighteenth-century Notions of the Early Greek Epic (1688–1798). Cambridge University Press, p. 101.
^Anderson, Peter John (1906). Studies in the History and Development of the University of Aberdeen. Aberdeen University Press, p. 207.
^"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).
^The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Vol. 15, W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1763.
^The first article was originally published in Revista do Brasil, Ano I, No. 3, September 1897, pp. 73–76; the conclusion, in the following issue of the magazine, No. 4, 31 October 1897, pp. 94–98.
^Araripe Júnior (1963). "Um Precursor de Taine." In: Obra Crítica de Araripe Júnior, Vol. III, 1895–1900. Rio de Janeiro: Ministério da Educação e Cultura/Casa de Rui Barbosa, pp. 249–256.
^Montesquieu (1748). De l'Esprit des Loix ou du Rapport que les Loix Doivent Avoir avec la Constitution de Chaque Gouvernement, les Moeurs, le Climat, la Religion, le Commerce. Geneve: Barrillot & Fils.
^"It's essential at the outset to understand the meaning of climate in the eighteenth century. It does not have its meteorological denotation; instead, Johnson defines it as 'A space upon the surface of the Earth, measured from the Equator to the polar circles in each of which spaces the longest day is half-an-hour longer' (Dictionary, 10th E. [London, 1792]). Cf. the 1771 Encyclopædia Britannica: climate is "a space upon the terrestrial globe." — Berry, Christopher J. (1974). "'Climate' in the Eighteenth Century: James Dunbar and the Scottish Case," Texas Studies in Literature and Language16, No. 2, p. 281.
^"In the division, commonly made of climates, the rough and cold are observed to produce the strongest bodies, and most martial spirits; the hotter, lazy bodies with cunning and obstinate passions; but the temperate regions, lying under the benign influences of a genial sky, have the best chance for a fine perception, and a proportioned eloquence. Good sense is indeed said to be a product of every country, and I believe it is; but the richest growths, and fairest shoots of it, spring, like other plants, from the happiest exposition and most friendly soil.” — Blackwell (1735), p. 5.
^Norton, Robert Edward (1991). Herder's Aesthetics and the European Enlightenment. Cornell University Press, p. 60.
^"Taine's indebtedness to Herder has not yet fully been recognized. Every element of Taine's theory is containd in Herder's writings." — Koller, Armin H. (1912). "Johann Gottfried Herder and Hippolyte Taine: Their Theories of Milieu," PMLA27, p. xxxix.
^Hoyrup, Jens (2000). Human Sciences: Reappraising the Humanities Through History and Philosophy. SUNY Press, p. 157.
^Sternhell, Zeev (2004). "Fascism: Reflections on the Fate of Ideas in Twentieth-Century History." In: Michael Freeden, Ed., Reassessing Political Ideologies: The Durability of Dissent. Routledge, pp. 92–115.
^Evans, Brad (2005). Before Cultures. University of Chicago Press, p. 90.
^Greene, Donald (2009). The Politics of Samuel Johnson. University of Georgia Press, p. 173.
^"Inexplicably, historians have often made short shrift of Blackwell." — Norton (1991), p. 60 (footnote).