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Significant Scots
Thomas Blackwell


BLACKWELL, THOMAS, the restorer of Greek literature in the North of Scotland, and a learned writer of the eighteenth century, was brother to the subject of the preceding article. He was born at Aberdeen, August 4th, 1701, and after receiving the rudiments of his education at the Grammar School of his native city, [The history of the origin of what are technically, in Scotland, denominated Grammar Schools, is involved in considerable obscurity. The probability is, that they were in most cases founded by generous individuals, who wished well to the cause of literature, and who, to secure that proper care should be taken in the management of the funds by which the establishment was supported, vested the money appropriated for that purpose in some public body, or corporation. It does not admit of a doubt, that this took place in several of the principal Scottish burghs; but it is very singular, that those schools were limited to the Latin language alone. This proceeded from the dread that there was a design in the founders of such seminaries to supersede Universities, where Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were taught. The Grammar School of Aberdeen was founded by Dr Patrick Dun, Principal of Marischal College, who was a native of the city, and had resided at Padua, where he took his degree of Doctor of Medicine.] entered his academical course at the Marischal College, where he took the degree of A. M. in 1718. A separate professorship of Greek had not existed in this seminary previous to 1700, and the best of the ancient languages was at that period very little cultivated in Scotland. Blackwell, having turned his attention to Greek, was honoured, in 1723, when only twenty-two years of age, with a crown appointment to this chair. He entered upon the discharge of the duties of his office with the utmost ardour. It perfectly suited his inclination and habits. He was an enthusiastic admirer of the language and literature of Greece, and the whole bent of his studies was exclusively devoted to the cultivation of polite learning. He had the merit of rearing some very eminent Greek scholars, among whom may be mentioned Principal George Campbell, Dr Alexander Gerard, and Dr James Beattie. The last has borne ample testimony to the merit of his master, in his "Essay on the Utility of Classical Learning," where he styles Principal Blackwell "a very learned author."

Dr Blackwell first appeared before the public, as an author, in 1737. His Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer was published at London during the course of that year, but without his name. It has been positively affirmed with what truth it is impossible to say, that its being anonymous, was in imitation of Lord Shaftesbury, of whom he was a warm admirer, and whose works were published after that manner. The style, also, is vitiated by a perpetual effort at the Shaftesburian vein, which is, perhaps, the principal fault in the writings of Blackwell. A second edition of the work appeared in 1746, and shortly after, "Proofs of the Inquiry into Homer’s Life and Writings." These proofs chiefly consisted of a translation of the Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French notes subjoined to the original work. The Inquiry contains a great deal of research, as well as a display of miscellaneous learning. Perhaps its principal defect consists in the author’s discovering an over anxiety in regard to both; at least, he has not been sufficiently careful to guard against time imputation of sometimes going out of his way to show what labour he had bestowed in examining every source of information, both ancient and modern, foreign and domestic. Though the life of Homer has been written by Herodotus, by Plutarch, and by Suidas, among the Greeks, and by an innumerable host of writers scattered through other nations, yet there is hardly one point in his history about which they are agreed, excepting the prodigious merit of his poems, and the sophist Zoilus would not even grant this. How great uncertainty prevailed respecting the time and place of his birth, abundantly appears from seven Grecian cities contending in regard to the latter point. When the field was so extensive, and so great diversity of opinion prevailed, it cannot fail to be perceived how arduous an enterprise Dr Blackwell had undertaken. His criticisms on the poems themselves are always encomiastic, often ingenious, and delivered in language that can give no reasonable ground of offence. The work will be read with both pleasure and profit by all who are prepared to enter upon such inquiries. It is generally esteemed the best of his performances.

He published, in 1748, "Letters concerning Mythology," without his name also. In the course of the same year, he was advanced to be principal of his College, succeeding Dr John Osborne, who died upon the 19th of August. Dr Blackwell, however, was not admitted to the exercise of his new office till the subsequent 9th of November. The first object of his attention respected the discipline of the College. Great irregularities had crept into the institution, not in his predecessor’s time only, but probably almost from its foundation. Through the poverty of the generality of the students in those days, their attendance, short as the session was allowed to be, was very partial; to correct this, he considered to be indispensably necessary. Accordingly, about the middle of October, 1749, previous to the commencement of the session, an advertisement in the public papers informed the students, that a more regular attendance was to be required. This, it would appear, did not produce the intended effect. Accordingly, to show that the Principal and Professors were perfectly in earnest when they gave this public notice, three of the Bursars who had not complied with the terms of the advertisement, were, on the 10th of November, expelled. This decision gave general satisfaction, and indeed deserved high commendation.

But, that the Professors themselves might be more alert and attentive to their duty, he revived a practice which, it is likely, had at an early period been common, for every Professor in the University to deliver a discourse in the public school upon some subject connected with his profession. He himself set the example, and delivered his first oration upon the 7th of February, 1749. When Blackwell was promoted to the principality, instead of sinking in indolence, he seems to have considered it rather as affording an excitement to exertion. In February, 1750, he opened a class for the instruction of the students in ancient history, geography, and chronology. Prelections on these branches of education, he thought necessary to render more perfect the course at Marischal College. He, therefore, himself undertook the task. The design of his opening this class evidently was to pave the way for the introduction of a new plan of teaching into Marischal College, which, accordingly, he soon after accomplished. At the commencement of the session 1752, public notice was given that, "the Principal, Professors, and Masters, having long had under their consideration the present method of academical education, the plan of which, originally introduced by the scholastic divines in the darkest times, is more calculated for disputes and wrangling than to fit men for the duties of life, therefore have resolved to introduce a new order in teaching the sciences." The order which was then adopted, is what still continues in force in that University. Three years afterwards, when the new plan had been put to the trial for as many sessions, the faculty of the college ordered an account of the plan of education which was followed to be printed. This formed a pamphlet of thirty-five pages. It concludes thus:— "They have already begun to experience the public approbation by the increase of the number of their students." So that he had the agreeable pleasure of witnessing the success of the plan he had proposed.

In 1752 he took the degree of Doctor of Laws, and in the subsequent year, was published, in quarto, the first volume of "Memoirs of the Court of Augustus." A second volume appeared in 1755, and a third, which was posthumous, and left unfinished by the author, was prepared for the press by John Mills, Esq. and published in 1764. In this work, the author has endeavoured to give an account of Roman literature as it appeared in the Augustan age, and he has executed the task with no small share of success. Objections might easily be started to some of his theories and opinions, but every classical scholar who is fond of literary history will peruse the work with pleasure as well as profit.

Dr Blackwell died, at Edinburgh, upon the 6th of March, 1757. He was certainly a very extraordinary person, and like every man of acknowledged talents, formed a very general subject of conversation. He was formal, and even pompous. His dress was after the fashion of the reign of Queen Anne. The portly mien and dignified manner in which he stepped through the public school, impressed all the students with a deep sense of his professional importance. He was, nevertheless, kind and indulgent to them, and of a benevolent disposition. He left a widow, but no children. Mrs Blackwell, in 1793, founded a chemical professorship in Marischal College, and appointed a premium of ten pounds sterling to be annually bestowed on the person who should compose, and deliver, in the English language, the best discourse upon a given literary subject.


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