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On the Sublime

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A Philosophical Enquiry i, An Apology for Poetry, Observations on the Feeling of, Critique of Judgment, Ars Poetica

Edmund burke on the sublime

On the Sublime is a Roman-era Greek work of literary criticism dated to the 1st century AD. Its author is unknown, but is conventionally referred to as Longinus (/lɒnˈnəs/; Ancient Greek: Λογγῖνος Longĩnos) or Pseudo-Longinus. It is regarded as a classic work on aesthetics and the effects of good writing. The treatise highlights examples of good and bad writing from the previous millennium, focusing particularly on what may lead to the sublime.


The author's identity has been debated for centuries. The oldest surviving manuscript, from the 10th century, indicates the original author was named "Dionysius or Longinus", which was later misread as "Dionysius Longinus". Subsequent interpretations have attributed the work to Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1st century) or Cassius Longinus (c. 213–273 AD), though neither is now widely accepted.


The author is unknown. In the 10th-century 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 Longinus (c. 213–273 AD). 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 1st century AD. 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 1st 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 1st century AD), Aelius Theon (author of a work which had many ideas in common with those of On the Sublime), and Pompeius Geminus (who was in epistolary conversation with Dionysius).

Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote under Augustus, publishing a number of works. 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.

Cassius Longinus

Accredited with writing a number of literary works, this disciple of Plotinus was "the most distinguished scholar of his day." Cassius received his education at Alexandria and became 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. Cassius is also a dubious possibility for author of the treatise, since it is notable that no literature later than the 1st century AD is mentioned (the latest is Cicero, dead in 43 BC), and the work is now usually dated to the early 1st 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. Longinus was the minister of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. He was executed by Aurelian, the Roman emperor who conquered Palmyra. The reason for his execution in 273 AD, were on charges of conspiring against the Roman state. This was most likely because of what Longinus had written for Queen Zenobia of Palmyra while she was still in power. Longinus is reported to have written answers for the Queen, which were used in response to Aurelian, the man who would soon rise to power as the Roman emperor.


On the Sublime is both a treatise on aesthetics and a work of literary criticism. It is written in an epistolary form and the final part, possibly dealing with public speaking, has been lost.

The treatise is dedicated to Posthumius Terentianus, a cultured Roman and public figure, though little else is known of him. On the Sublime is a compendium of literary exemplars, with about 50 authors spanning 1,000 years mentioned or quoted. 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 1st 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. As such, Longinus emphasizes that, to be a truly great writer, authors must have "moral excellence". In fact, critics speculate that Longinus avoided publication in the ancient world "either by modesty or by prudential motives". Moreover, Longinus stresses that transgressive writers are not necessarily shameless fools, even if they take literary risks that seem "bold, lawless, and original". As for social subjectivity, Longinus acknowledges that complete liberty promotes spirit and hope; according to Longinus, "never did a slave become an orator". On the other hand, too much luxury and wealth leads to a decay in eloquence—eloquence being the goal of the sublime writer.

The sublime

Longinus critically applauds and condemns certain literary works as examples of good or bad styles of writing. Longinus ultimately promotes an "elevation of style" and an essence of "simplicity". To quote this famous author, "the first and most important source of sublimity [is] the power of forming great conceptions." The concept of the sublime is generally accepted to refer to a style of writing that elevates itself "above the ordinary". Finally, Longinus sets out five sources of sublimity: "great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement".

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 in pleasure and exaltation. An example of sublime (which the author quotes in the work) is a poem by Sappho, the so-called Ode to Jealousy, defined as a "Sublime ode". A writer's goal is not so much to express empty feelings, but to arouse emotion in his audience.

In the treatise, the author asserts that "the Sublime leads the listeners not to persuasion, but to ecstasy: for what is wonderful always goes 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: whereas, the Sublime, giving to speech an invincible power and [an invincible] strength, rises above every listener".

According to this statement, one could think that the sublime, for Longinus, was only a moment of evasion from reality. But on the contrary, he thought that literature could model a soul, and that a soul could pour itself out into a work of art. In this way the treatise becomes not only a text of literary inquiry, but also one of ethical dissertation, since the Sublime becomes the product of a great soul (μεγαλοφροσύνης ἀπήχημα, megalophrosunēs apēchēma). The sources of the Sublime are of two kinds: inborn sources ("aspiration to vigorous concepts" and "strong and enthusiastic passion") and acquirable sources (rhetorical devices, choice of the right lexicon, and "dignified and high composition").

The ethical aspect and attention to the "great soul" broaden the dimension of the work; begun in order to disprove the arguments of a pamphlet of literary criticism, it ends by creating a new idea within the entire framework of aesthetics. The sublime, in fact, is a denominator of the greatness of the one who approaches to it, both the author's and the viewer's (or reader's). Between them an empathetic bond must arise. Then, the Sublime is a mechanism of recognition (arising from the impact of 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 everyone is aware of the existence of the Sublime, and that the striving towards greatness is rooted in human nature. In the wake of these considerations, the literary genre and the subject-matter chosen by the poet assume a minor importance for Longinus, who affirms that "sublimity" might be found in any or every literary work. He proves to be a very clever critic, for he excels the Apollodoreans by speaking of the critic as a form of positive "channeling" of the Genius. He passes beyond the rigid rules of the literary critics of his time, according to which only a regular (or "second-rate", as Longinus says) style could be defined as perfect.

On the other hand, he admires the boldness of the Genius, which always succeeds in reaching the zenith, even if at the expense of forgivable lapses in style. Thus among examples of the Sublime may be rated (not in any order) Homer, the tragedians, Sappho, Plato, even the Bible, and a playwright like Aristophanes (since the author maintained that laughter is a jocose pathos—and therefore, "sublime", being "an emotion of pleasure"). He admires Hellenistic poets like Apollonius of Rhodes and Theocritus for their sophistication, but ranks them below authors of the classical age because they did not take risks and fought shy of the "brave disorder" without which one could not hope to attain the sublime. "Would you prefer to be Homer or Apollonius?... No sane person would give just one tragedy, the Oedipus Rex, in exchange for all Ion's dramas."

The Sublime, moreover, does not manifest itself only in what is simply beautiful, but also in what is sufficiently distressing to cause bewilderment (ἔκπληξις, ekplēxis), wonder (τὸ θαυμαστόν, to thaumaston) and even fear (φόβος, phobos). It could be said that Helen of Troy may certainly have been the most beautiful woman in the world, but she was never sublime in Greek literature: however Edmund Burke cites the scene of the old men looking at Helen's "terrible" beauty on the ramparts of Troy—he regards it as an instance of the beautiful, but his imagination is captured by its sublimity. Hecuba in Euripides's The Trojan Women is certainly sublime when she expresses her endless sorrow for the terrible destiny of her children.

Decay of rhetoric

The author speaks also about the decay of oratory, as arising not only from absence of personal freedom but also from the corruption of morals, which together destroy that high spirit which generates the Sublime. Thus the treatise is clearly centred in the burning controversy which raged in the 1st century AD in Latin literature. If Petronius pointed out excess of rhetoric and the pompous, unnatural techniques of the schools of eloquence as the causes of decay, Tacitus was nearer to Longinus in thinking that the root of this decadence was the establishment of Princedom, or Empire, which, though it brought stability and peace, also gave rise to censorship and brought an end to freedom of speech. Thus oratory became merely an exercise in 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. Moreover, about one-third of the treatise is missing; Longinus' segment on similes, for instance, has only a few words remaining. Matters are further complicated in realizing that ancient writers, Longinus' contemporaries, do not quote or mention the treatise in any way.

Limitations of 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. Furthermore, 18th-century critic Edward Burnaby Greene finds Longinus, at times, to be "too refined". Greene also claims that Longinus' focus on hyperbolical descriptions is "particularly weak, and misapplied." Occasionally, Longinus also falls into a sort of "tediousness" in treating his subjects. The treatise is also limited in its concentration on spiritual transcendence and lack of focus on the way in which language structures determine the feelings and thoughts of writers. 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."

Writing style and rhetoric

Despite its faults, the treatise remains critically successful because of its "noble tone," "apt precepts," "judicious attitude," and "historical interests". 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. Since Longinus' rhetorical formula avoids dominating his work, the literature remains "personal and fresh," unique in its originality. 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. 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. Essentially, Longinus, rare for a critic of his time, focuses more on "greatness of style" than "technical rules." Despite his criticism of ancient texts, Longinus remains a "master of candor and good-nature". Moreover, the author invents striking images and metaphors, writing almost lyrically at times. In general, Longinus appreciates, and makes use of, simple diction and bold images.

As far as the language is concerned, the work is certainly a unicum because it is a blend of expressions of the Hellenistic 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 experimentation.


In reading On the Sublime, critics have determined that the ancient philosopher and writer Plato is a "great hero" to Longinus. 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 1st-century BC writer, Caecilius of Calacte.

Historical criticism and use of On the Sublime

  • 10th century - The original treatise, before translation, is copied into a medieval manuscript and attributed to "Dionysius or Longinus."
  • 13th century - A Byzantine rhetorician makes obscure references to what may be Longinus' text.
  • 16th century - The treatise is ignored by scholars until it is published by Francis Robortello in Basel, in 1554, and Niccolò da Falgano, in 1560. The original work is attributed to "Dionysius Longinus" and most European countries receive translations of the treatise.
  • 17th century - 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 17th 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" 17th-century audience.
  • 18th century - 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. 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 and Immanuel Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment owe a debt to Longinus' concept of the sublime, and the category passes into 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 18th-century criticism.
  • 19th century - Early in the 19th 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. Simultaneously, the critical popularity of Longinus' work diminishes greatly; though the work is still in use by scholars, it is rarely quoted. Despite the lack of public enthusiasm, editions and translations of On the Sublime are published at the end of the century.
  • 20th century - 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." Also see Neil Hertz's essay on Longinus in his book, The End of the Line. Hertz is in part responding to Thomas Weiskel's book The Romantic Sublime, probably the most influential recent account of British and German Romantic attitudes towards the Sublime of both Burke and Longinus. Laura Quinney treats the attractions grim demystification in analyzes of Longinus, particularly Weiskel's. Jonathan Culler has an appreciation of Hertz on Longinus in "The Hertzian Sublime." Anne Carson and Louis Marin have occasion to discuss Longinus as well and Harold Bloom and William J. Kennedy have significant accounts of his work. William Carlos Williams also uses three lines from the work as an epigraph to the Prologue to Kora in Hell.
  • German film director Werner Herzog claims to have an affinity with the work of Longinus, in a talk entitled "On the Absolute, the Sublime and Ecstatic Truth", presented in Milan. Herzog says that he thinks of Longinus as a good friend and considers that Longinus's notions of illumination has a parallel in some moments in his films. He quotes from Longinus: "For our soul is raised out of nature through the truly sublime, sways with high spirits, and is filled with proud joy, as if itself had created what it hears."


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