Hugh Blair, ‘On the Proper Estimate of Human Life’: A Sunday Sermon for Garreteers

A sermon from an eighteenth century might seem an off-putting place to find advice for leading the life of a Laughing Garreteer. I’ll admit the title is not the catchiest and starting off with a quote from Ecclesiastes – ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity’ – might make this seem like a downer. But this is Hugh Blair and he is not the fire and brimstone type.

Hugh Blair (1718–1800) was what is known as a ‘moderate’ in the Scottish kirk. He took a compassionate view of human nature and his collected sermons became bestsellers when they were published throughout the 1770s through to the 1790s. Blair also taught rhetoric and belles lettres at the University of Edinburgh which gives some indication of his readable style. He is perhaps best known today for his unfortunate championing of the ‘Ossian’ poems. This is a shame. He was very influential in the Scottish Enlightenment and a friend to the major players in it.

When I read Blair’s sermon I was struck by how closely his thoughts echo my ideas about what being a ‘Laughing Garreteer’ means. Stoic rather than Epicurean (but not to any extreme), sense over sensibility. If I leave the bits about religion out, I can see a manifesto for a modern Garreteer lifestyle emerging – direct from the Scottish Enlightenment.

A few extracts will show what I mean.

After starting by defining vanities and their pitfalls, Blair announces that there is more to life than pursuing luxury or even what can be found in following a religious lifestyle. He says

Besides the enjoyments peculiar to religion, there are other pleasures in our pleasant state, which, though of an inferior order, must not be overlooked in the estimate of human life. It is necessary to call attention to these, in order to check that repining and unthankful spirit to which man is always too prone.

What are these?

Some degree of importance must be allowed to the comforts of health, to the innocent gratifications of sense, and to the entertainment afforded us by all the beautiful scenes of nature; some to the pursuits of social life; and more to the internal enjoyments of thought and reflection, and to the pleasures of affectionate intercourse with those whom we love. These comforts are often held in too low estimation, merely because they are ordinary and common; although that be the circumstance which ought, in reason, to enhance their value. They lie open, in some degree, to all; extend through every rank of life, and fill up agreeably many of those spaces in our present which are not occupied with higher objects, or with serious cares. (added emphasis mine)

But achieving these depends on an individual’s approach. Blair continues

Much vanity will always belong to [human life]; though the degree of its vanity will depend, in a great measure, on our own character and conduct. To the vicious, it presents nothing but a continued sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction. To the good, its is a mixed state of things; where many real comforts may be enjoyed; where many resources under trouble may be obtained; but where trouble, in one form or other, is to be expected as the lot of man.

So how can we be ‘the good’?

The first practical conclusion we are to draw is, that it highly concerns us not to be unreasonable in our expectations of worldly felicity….A tolerable and comfortable state is all that we can propose to ourselves on earth.

Fair enough, I can accept that I’ll not have all the stuff I might want but that I can still be comfortable. In fact, it’s rather pleasant to let some of ideas of things I ‘should’ want go.

But Blair also warns us against going too far with this idea.

But while we repress too sanguine hopes formed upon human life, let us…guard against the other extreme, of repining and discontent….a considerable degree of comfort is attainable in the present state. Let the recollection of this serve to reconcile us to our condition, and to check the arrogance of complaints and murmurs.

How can we get the balance right?

There are two great lines of conduct which offer themselves to our choice. The one leads towards the good of the mind; the other towards those of fortune. The former, which is adopted only by the few, engages us chiefly in forming our principles, regulating our dispositions, improving all our inward powers. The latter, which in every age has been followed by the multitude, points at not other end but attaining the conveniences and pleasures of external life.

So, it’s a choice. But surely the internal life is isolating and lonely? Well, no…

…to lay the world totally out of view, is a vain attempt. The numberless ties by which we are connected with external things, put it out of our power to behold them with indifference.

That’s a relief! What can we do?

…though we cannot wrap ourselves up entirely in the care of the mind, yet the more we make its welfare our chief object, the nearer shall we approach to that happy independence on the world, which places us beyond the reach of suffering from its vanity.

That discipline, therefore, which corrects the eagerness of worldly passions [just to be clear, the modern equivalents of this are, of course, celebrity culture, money, big cars and all the rest — ed.] which fortifies the heart with virtuous principles, which enlightens the mind with useful knowledge, and furnishes to it a matter of enjoyment from within itself, is of more consequence to real felicity than all the provision which was can make out of the goods of fortune.

So, I can be well-read, cultured, and so on. How will I measure my success if I don’t get rich and have loads of stuff?

Let us account our minds the most important province which is committed to our care; and if we cannot rule fortune, study at least to rule ourselves. Let us propose for our object, not worldly success, which it depends on us to obtain; but that upright and honourable discharge of our duty, in every conjecture, which…is always within our power. Let our happiness be sought where proper praise is found….

Leading a good life is about increasing knowledge, appreciating what you have, and doing what we know is right.

After this, I part ways with Blair since he thinks following religion is necessary to achieve this. (He would say that, of course, these are after all extracts from a sermon delivered in a church and he is preaching it.) Blair believes that people look up to a superior being by nature and need its support; I don’t agree but this disagreement only makes me appreciate his general sentiments all the more.

You don’t need money or possessions for this but you do need health, sense, a connection with nature, a good social life, opportunities for thought and reflection, and love. These are things that anyone can cultivate regardless of creed.

[Hugh Blair’s quotes are from ‘On the Proper Estimate of Human Life’, in The Scottish Enlightenment: An Anthology, ed. by Alexander Broadie (Edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1997), pp. 183-98]

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