John Stuart Blackie was a close friend of George John Douglas Campbell 1st & 8th Duke of Argyll, Matthew Arnold, Alexander Bain, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, James Anthony Froude, William Ewert Gladstone, John Ruskin, Caroline Skene (goddaughter of Walter Scott), George Granville William Sutherland Leveson Gower 3rd Duke of Sutherland, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, George Wilson,
John Stuart Blackie was born in Glasgow, and educated at the New Academy and afterwards at the Marischal College, in Aberdeen, where his father (Alexander Blackie) was manager of the Commercial Bank, (his mother was Helen Stodard),
After attending classes at Edinburgh University (1825-1826), Blackie spent three years at Aberdeen as a student of theology. In 1829 he went to Germany, and after studying at Gottingen and Berlin (where he came under the influence of Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren, Ottfried Muller, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Johann August Wilhelm Neander and Philipp August Bockh) he accompanied Christian Charles Josias Bunsen to Italy and Rome.
The years spent abroad extinguished his former wish to enter the Church, and at his father’s desire he gave himself up to the study of law.
He had already, in 1824, been placed in a lawyer’s office, but only remained there six months. By the time he was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates (1834) he had acquired a strong love of the classics and a taste for letters in general. A translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s Faust, which he published in 1834, met with considerable success, winning the approbation of Thomas Carlyle.
After a year or two of desultory literary work he was (May 1839) appointed to the newly instituted chair of Humanity (Latin) in the Marischal College.
Difficulties arose in the way of his installation, owing to the action of the Presbytery on his refusing to sign unreservedly the Confession of Faith; but these were eventually overcome, and he took up his duties as Professor in November 1841.
In the following year he married.
From the first his Professorial lectures were conspicuous for the unconventional enthusiasm with which he endeavoured to revivify the study of the classics; and his growing reputation, added to the attention excited by a translation of Aeschylus which he published in 1850, led to his appointment in 1852 to the Professorship of Greek at Edinburgh University, in succession to George Dunbar, a post which he continued to hold for thirty years.
He was somewhat erratic in his methods, but his lectures were a triumph of influential personality. A journey to Greece in 1853 prompted his essay On the Living Language of the Greeks, a favorite theme of his, especially in his later years; he adopted for himself a modern Greek pronunciation, and before his death he endowed a travelling scholarship to enable students to learn Greek at Athens.
Scottish nationality was another source of enthusiasm with him; and in this connection he displayed real sympathy with highland home life and the grievances of the crofters. The foundation of the Celtic chair at Edinburgh University was mainly due to his efforts.
In spite of the many calls upon his time he produced a considerable amount of literary work, usually on classical or Scottish subjects, including some poems and songs of no mean order.
Blackie was a Radical and Scottish nationalist in politics, of a fearlessly independent type; possessed of great conversational powers and general versatility, his picturesque eccentricity made him one of the characters of the Edinburgh of the day, and a well known figure as be went about in his plaid, worn shepherd-wise, wearing a broad brimmed hat, and carrying a big stick.
In the 1880s and 1890s, he lectured at Oxford on the pronunciation of Greek, and corresponded on the subject with William Hardie. In May 1893, he gave his last lecture at Oxford, but afterwards admitted defeat, stating: “It is utterly in vain here to talk reasonably in the matter of Latin or Greek pronunciation: they are case hardened in ignorance, prejudice and pedantry”.
His published works include (besides several volumes of verse) Homer and the Iliad (1866), maintaining the unity of the poems; Four Phases of Morals: Socrates, Aristotle, Christianity, Utilitarianism (1871); Essay on Self-Culture (1874); Horae Hellenicae (1874); The Language and Literature of the Scottish Highlands (1876); The Natural History of Atheism (1877); The Wise Men of Greece (1877); Lay Sermons (1881); Altavona (1882); The Wisdom of Goethe (1883); The Scottish Highlanders and the Land Laws (1885); Life of Burns (1888); Scottish Song (1889); Essays on Subjects of Moral and Social Interest (1890); Christianity and the Ideal of Humanity (1893). Amongst his political writings, may be mentioned a pamphlet On Democracy (1867), On Forms of Government (1867), and Political Tracts (1868).
He died in Edinburgh.