‘On the Sublime’: Ancient Greek Rhetoric and Literary Criticism
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Longinus is the conventional name of the author of the treatise, On the Sublime (Περὶ ὕψους), a work which focuses on the effect of good writing (Russell xlii). Longinus, sometimes referred to as pseudo-Longinus because his real name is unknown, was a Greek teacher of rhetoric or a literary critic who may have lived in the first or third century AD. Longinus is known only for his treatise On the Sublime.
Authorship of ‘On the Sublime’
Biographical details about the author are unknown. In the reference manuscript (Parisinus Graecus 2036), the heading reports “Dionysius or Longinus,” an ascription by the medieval copyist that was misread as “by Dionysius Longinus.” When the manuscript was being prepared for printed publication, the work was initially attributed to Cassius Dionysius Longinus (c. 213-273 C.E.). Since the correct translation includes the possibility of an author named “Dionysius,” some have attributed the work to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a writer of the first century C.E. (Grube 1957, xviii). There remains the possibility that the work belongs to neither Cassius Longinus nor Dionysius of Halicarnassus, but, rather, some unknown author writing under the Roman Empire, likely in the first century. The error does imply that when the codex was written, the trails of the real author were already lost. Neither author can be accepted as the actual writer of the treatise. The former maintained ideas which are absolutely opposite to those written in the treatise; about the latter, there are problems with chronology.
Among further names proposed, are Hermagoras (a rhetorician who lived in Rome during the first century C.E.), Elius Teo (author of a work which had many ideas in common with those of “the Sublime”), and Pompey Geminus (who was in epistolary conversation with Dionysius).
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes under Augustus, publishing a number of works (Russell 1985, xxiii). Dionysius is generally dismissed as the potential author of On the Sublime, since the writing officially attributed to Dionysius differs from the work on the sublime in style and thought (Russell 1985, xxiv).
Accredited with writing a number of literary works, this disciple of Plotinus was “the most distinguished scholar of his day” (Grube 1957, xvii). Cassius received his education at Alexandria and becomes a teacher himself. First teaching at Athens, Cassius later moved to Asia Minor, where he achieved the position of advisor to the queen of Palmyra, Zenobia (Grube 1957, xvii-xviii).
Cassius is also a dubious possibility for author of the treatise, since it is notable that no literature later than the first century AD is mentioned (the latest is Cicero, dead in 43 B.C.E.), and the work is now usually dated to the early first century AD. The work ends with a dissertation on the decay of oratory, a typical subject of the period in which authors such as Tacitus, Petronius and Quintilian, who also dealt with the subject, were still alive.
The Treatise ‘On the Sublime’
The treatise On the Sublime (ΠΕΡΙ ΥΨΟΥΣ) is one of the most important ancient treatises on aesthetics, together with Aristotle’s Poetics. In addition the treatise is also a work of literary criticism, though unlike earlier manuals of rhetoric. It is written in an epistolary form and has an artistic dimension of its own. Unfortunately, during the centuries, the final part of the work was lost. Probably the author made some considerations on the freedom of speech, with thoughts very similar to those of Tacitus’s “Dialogus de oratoribus” (Dialogue over orators).
The treatise is dedicated to “Posthumius Terentianus,” a cultured Roman and public figure, though little else is known of him (Roberts 1907, 19). On the Sublime is a compendium of literary exemplars, around 50 authors spanning 1,000 years (Roberts 26). Along with the expected examples from Homer and other figures of Greek culture, Longinus refers to a passage from Genesis, which is quite unusual for the first century:
“A similar effect was achieved by the lawgiver of the Jews—no mean genius, for he both understood and gave expression to the power of the divinity as it deserved—when he wrote at the very beginning of his laws, and I quote his words: ‘God said’ — what was it?—’Let there be light.’ And there was. ‘Let there be earth.’ And there was.”
Given his positive reference to Genesis, Longinus has been assumed to be either a Hellenized Jew or readily familiar with the Jewish culture (“Longinus,” 2001, 135). As such, Longinus emphasizes that, to be a truly great writer, authors must have “moral excellence” (Russell 1985, xlv). In fact, critics speculate that Longinus avoided publication in the ancient world “either by modesty or by prudential motives” (Roberts 1907, 2). Moreover, Longinus stresses that transgressive writers are not necessarily prideless fools, even if they take literary risks that seem “bold, lawless, and original” (Russell xlviii). As for social subjectivity, Longinus acknowledges that complete liberty promotes spirit and hope; according to Longinus, “never did a slave become an orator” (Blair 2001, 972). On the other hand, too much luxury and wealth leads to a decay in eloquence, which Longinus believes to be the goal of the sublime writer (Roberts 1907, 13).
Longinus critically praises and blames literary works as examples of good or bad styles of writing (Roberts 1907, 6). Longinus ultimately promotes an “elevation of style” (Roberts 1907, 11) and an essence of “simplicity” (Brody 1958, 91). Longinus describes it thus, “the first and most important source of sublimity [is] the power of forming great conceptions” (Brody 1958, 54). The concept of the sublime is generally accepted to refer to a style of writing that elevates itself “above the ordinary” (“Longinus,” 2001, 135). Finally, Longinus sets out five sources of sublimity: “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement” (“Longinus,” 2001, 136).
The effects of the Sublime are: loss of rationality, an alienation leading to identification with the creative process of the artist and a deep emotion mixed to pleasure and exaltation. An example of sublime that the author quotes in the work is a Sappho’s poem, the so-called “Ode to jealousy” (431V), defined “Sublime ode.”
In the treatise, the author asserts that “the Sublime leads the listeners not to persuasion, but to ecstasy: for what is wonderful goes always together with a sense of dismay, and prevails over what is only convincing or delightful, since persuasion, as a rule, is within everyone’s grasp, while the Sublime, giving to the speech an invincible power and [an invincible] strength, rises above every listener.”
According to this statement, one could think that the sublime, for Pseudo-Longinus were only a moment of evasion from reality. On the contrary, he thought that literature could model a soul and that a soul could pour itself in a work of art. In this way, the treatise becomes not only a writing of literary inquiry, but also of ethical dissertation, since the Sublime becomes the product of a great soul (ΜΕΓΑΛΟΦΡΟΣΥΝΗΣ ΑΠΗΧΗΜΑ). This broadens the dimension of the work; born to disprove the theories of a pamphlet of literary criticism, it ends by inaugurating an idea concerning aesthetics taken all in all.
The sublime, in fact, is an indicator determining the greatness of who approaches to it, both the author’s and the viewer’s (or reader’s). And between them an empathic bound must set up. Then, the Sublime is a mechanism of recognition, (rouse from the impact with the work of art) of the greatness of a spirit, of the depth of an idea, of the power of speech. This recognition has its roots in the belief that everybody is aware of the existence of the Sublime and that the strain to greatness is rooted in human nature. Done these considerations, the literary genre and the subject the poet deals with assume a minor importance for the author, according to whom “sublimity” could be found in every literary work. Pseudo-Longinus proves a very clever critic, because he excels the Apollodoreans by speaking over the critic as a term of positive “canalizement” of the Genius. He exceeds the rigid rules of literary critic of his time, according to which only a regular style (or “second-rate,” as Pseudo-Longinus says) could be defined as perfect.
The author, on the other hand, admires the boldness of the Genius, which always succeeds in reaching the top, even though at the cost of forgivable falls in style. Thus, among the examples of sublime, can be found close, and without hierarchies, Homer, the tragedian, Sappho, Plato, even the Bible, and a play-wright like Aristophanes, since the author says that laughter is a jocose pathos, therefore, “sublime,” since he thinks that it is “an emotion of pleasure.” Nevertheless he did not appreciate the Hellenistic poets, maybe because he did not understand their culture: “Would you prefer being Homer or Apollonius? […] No sane would give just one tragedy, the ‹‹Oedipus King›› in exchange for all Iones’s dramas?.”
The Sublime, moreover, cannot identify itself only to what is simply beautiful, but also to what is so upsetting to cause “bewilderment” (ΕΚΠΛΗΞΙΣ), “surprise” (ΤΟ ΘΑΥΜΑΣΤΟΝ) and even “fear” (ΦΟΒΟΣ). It could be said that Helen of Troy will surely have been the most beautiful woman in the world, but she have never been sublime in Greek literature. Is certainly sublime Hecuba in Euripides’ The Trojan Women, when she expresses her endless sorrow for the bad destiny of her children.
The Decay of Rhetoric
The author speaks also about the decay of oratory, born not only from lack of freedom, but also from the corruption of morals, which destroys that high spirit which generates the Sublime. The treatise, thus, set itself in the burning controversy which raged in the first century AD in Latin literature. If Petronius pointed out, as causes of decay, the overload of rhetoric and the pompous and unreal methods of the schools of eloquence, nearer to Pseudo-Longinus was Tacitus, who thought that the origin of this decadence was the instauration of princedom (the Empire), which, though brought stability and peace, it also brought censure and the end of freedom of speech, thus turning oratory in a mere exercise of style.
Misleading Translations and Lost Data
Translators have been unable to clearly interpret the text, including the title itself. The “sublime” in the title has been translated in various ways, to include senses of elevation and excellent style. The word sublime, argues Rhys Roberts, is misleading, since Longinus’ objective broadly concerns “the essentials of a noble and impressive style” than anything more narrow and specific (23). Moreover, about one-third of the treatise is missing (Roberts 1907, 17); Longinus’ segment on similes, for instance, has only a few words remaining (Russell 1985, xxi). Matters are further complicated in realizing that ancient writers, Longinus’ contemporaries, do not quote or mention the treatise in any way (Roberts 1907, 2).
Limitations on the Writing
Despite Longinus’ critical acclaim, his writing is far from perfect. Longinus’ occasional enthusiasm becomes “carried away” and creates some confusion as to the meaning of his text (Grube 1957, xi). Furthermore, eighteenth-century critic Edward Burnaby Greene finds Longinus, at times, to be “too refined” (163). Greene also claims that Longinus’ focus on hyperbolical descriptions is “particularly weak, and misapplied” (146). Occasionally, Longinus also falls into a sort of “tediousness” in treating his subjects (Roberts 34). The treatise is also limited in its concentration on spiritual transcendence and lack of focus on the way in which language structures and determines the feelings and thoughts of writers (“Longinus,” 2001, 137). Finally, Longinus’ treatise is difficult to explain in an academic setting, given the difficulty of the text and lack of “practical rules of a teachable kind” (Russell 1985, xliii).
Writing Style and Rhetoric
Despite its faults, the treatise remains critically successful because of its “noble tone,” “apt precepts,” “judicious attitude,” and “historical interests” (Roberts 36). One of the reasons why it is so unlikely that known ancient critics wrote On the Sublime is because the treatise is composed so differently from any other literary work (Grube 1957, xx). Since Longinus’s rhetorical formula avoids dominating his work, the literature remains “personal and fresh,” unique in its originality (Grube 1957, x). Longinus rebels against the popular rhetoric of the time by implicitly attacking ancient theory in its focus on a detailed criticism of words, metaphors, and figures (Grube 1957, xvi). More explicitly, in refusing to judge tropes as entities unto themselves, Longinus promotes the appreciation of literary devices as they relate to passages as a whole (Grube 1957, xvi). Essentially, Longinus, rare for a critic of his time, focuses more on “greatness of style” than “technical rules” (Roberts 1907, 33). Despite his criticism of ancient texts, Longinus remains a “master of candor and good-nature” (Greene 40). Moreover, the author invents striking images and metaphors, writing almost lyrically at times (Grube xii). In general, Longinus appreciates, and makes use of, simple diction and bold images (Russell 1985, xli). A writer’s goal is, not so much to express empty feelings, but to arouse emotion in his audience (Brody 1958, 39).
As far as the language is concerned, the work is certainly an “unicum” because it’s a blend of expressions of the Hellenistic koinè diàlektos (ΚΟΙΝΗ ΔΙΑΛΕΚΤΟΣ = the common Greek language of the nations conquered by Alexander the Great) (see Koine greek) to which are added elevated constructions, technical expressions, metaphors, classic and rare forms which produce a literary pastiche at the borders of linguistic experimentations.
In reading On the Sublime, critics have determined that the ancient philosopher and writer Plato is a “great hero” to Longinus (Russell 1985, xvii). Not only does Longinus come to Plato’s defense, but he also attempts to raise his literary standing in opposition to current criticisms. Another influence on the treatise can be found in Longinus’ rhetorical figures, which draw from theories by a first century B.C.E. writer, Caecilius of Calacte (Roberts 1907, 12).
The sources of the Sublime are of two kinds:
- Inborn sources: “aspiration to vigorous concepts” and “strong and enthusiastic passion”
- Acquirable sources: rhetorical devices, choice of the right lexicon, and “dignified and high composition.”
The original treatise, before translation, is printed in a medieval manuscript and is attributed to “Dionysius or Longinus” (“Longinus,” 2001, 135)
A Byzantine rhetorician makes obscure references to what may be Longinus’ text (Grube 1973, vii).
The treatise is ignored by scholars until it is published by Francis Robortello in Basel, in 1554, and Niccolò da Falgano, in 1560 (“Longinus,” 2001, 136). The original work is attributed to “Dionysius Longinus” and most European countries receive translations of the treatise (Roberts 1907, 1).
Sublime effects become a desired end of much Baroque art and literature, and the rediscovered work of “Longinus” goes through half a dozen editions in the seventeenth century. It is Boileau’s 1674 translation of the treatise into French that really starts its career in the history of criticism. Despite its popularity, some critics claim that the treatise was too “primitive” to be truly understood by a “too civilized” seventeenth-century audience (Brody 1958, 98).
William Smith’s 1739 translation of Longinus on the Sublime established the translator and once more brought the work into prominence. Longinus’ text reaches its height in popularity (Grube 1973, ix). In England, critics esteem Longinus’ principles of composition and balance second only to Aristotle’s Poetics. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful owes a debt to Longinus’ concept of the sublime, and the category passes into the stock-in-trade of Romantic intellectual discourse. As “Longinus” says, “The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport,” a fitting sentiment for Romantic thinkers and writers who reach beyond logic, to the wellsprings of the Sublime. At the same time, the Romantics gain some contempt for Longinus, given his association with the “rules” of classical poets. Such contempt is ironic, given the widespread influence of Longinus on the shaping of eighteenth-century criticism (Russell 1985, xlv).
Early in the nineteenth century, doubts arise to the authorship of the treatise. Thanks to Italian scholar Amati, Cassius Longinus is no longer assumed to be the writer of On the Sublime (Roberts 1907, 3). Simultaneously, the critical popularity of Longinus’ work diminishes greatly; though the work is still in use by scholars, it is rarely quoted (Grube 1957, viii). Despite the lack of public enthusiasm, editions and translations of On the Sublime are published at the end of the century (Grube 1957, viii).
Although the text is still little quoted, it maintains its status, apart from Aristotle’s Poetics, as “the most delightful of all the critical works of classical antiquity” (Grube 1957, x-xi). Also see Neil Hertz’s great book, “The End of the Line,” and the essay praised by de Man before his death, “Longinus on the Sublime,” for the latest, greatest “deconstructionist” Longinus. Thomas Weiskel, Harold Bloom, and Laura Quinney have significant accounts of Longinus.
- Blair, H. “From Lectures on Rhetoric and Bells Lettres” in The Rhetorical Tradition, 2nd ed. Eds. Bizzell, P. & B. 950-979. Herzberg. Bedford Books, 2001.
- Brody, Jules. Boileau and Longinus. Genève, E. Droz, 1958. OCLC 1188973
- Greene, Edward Burnaby. Critical Essays: 1770. England: The Scholar Press, 1973.
- Grube, G.M.A. Longinus: On Great Writing (On the Sublime). New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1957. OCLC 2140473
- “Longinus, first century C.E.,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. edited by Vincent B. Leitch. 135-154. New York: Norton & Co., 2001.
- Roberts, Rhys W. Longinus on the Sublime. Cambridge: University Press, 1907. OCLC 16387560
- Russell, D.A. ‘Longinus:’ On the Sublime. New York: E. Mellen Press, 1985.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 06.24.2007, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.