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     On the Sublime is listed among Aristotles’ Art of Rhetoric, Cicero’s De Oratore, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, and Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, as foundational to the evolution of modern rhetorical theory. Unlike the authors of other seminal texts, however, there is much dispute concerning the Greek rhetorician once assumed to be its author. Listed in the introduction to this treatise are the names “Dionysius or Longinus,” and elsewhere “Dionysus Longinus,” which once led scholars to believe the manuscript’s author to be Cassius Longinus or Dionysius of Halicarnassus, among many other suggested possibilities. It is now more commonly assumed that the author will remain unknown. Nevertheless, tradition allows us to attribute the foundational Peri Hypsos, most commonly translated On the Sublime, to “pseudo-Longinus,” or, for the purpose of simplicity, “Longinus.” The work was likely composed between the first and third centuries. Despite uncertain origins, this work was critical to both literary and rhetorical theory. In considering the various roles of these seminal texts and linking the progression of traditional principles of rhetoric, Kenneth Burke writes, “For while [On the Sublime’s] stress upon the sheer delight of literature (with even purposive oratory discussions from this ‘esthetic’ point of view) would assign it to a period of decadence, and Longinus himself regrets the triviality of the times, so far as new writing is concerned, the quality of the exaltation in his love of literature seems like a matching, in pagan terms, for the Augustinian fervor in Christian persuasion. Longinus’ treatise would seem to qualify perfectly as an estheticizing of the Christian motive before its institutional triumph, quite as much modern love of literature is a relique of Christianity, the reduction of its persuasion and passion to a cult of purely esthetic ‘grace’” (74).

     Longinus describes excellence, transcendence, beauty, and grandeur. His sublimity is experiential and may be discovered, felt, in both poetry (literature) and rhetoric: “sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression, and that it is from no other source than this that the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown. The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. At every time and in every way imposing speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and gratification. Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer.”

     Longinus considers various classical examples of effective writing, pointing out moments where sublimity was achieved and the methods by which it was obtained. (His familiarity with such a variety of texts from various cultures, traditions, and eras has fascinated critics.) The author warns against weak attempts at a lofty style; these rhetors attempt to “transcend the sublime,” but they end up sounding pompous and bombastic, which is crude and offensive. He also notes “defects” such as being falsely passionate (or overly frigid/passionate when the audience does not feel similarly). He adds: “Our defects usually spring, for the most part, from the same sources as our good points. Hence, while beauties of expression and touches of sublimity, and charming elegancies withal, are favorable to effective composition, yet these very things are the elements and foundation, not only of success, but also of the contrary.” Therefore, take caution to avoid these defects. In order to do so, one must first gain an understanding and “appreciation of the true sublime.”

     True sublimity will cause the soul to instinctively lift, to fill will incomparable joy. This is an encounter with pure beauty (though use of even this synonym risks departing from the author’s genuine intent). True sublimity causes the soul to experience “high thoughts.” You will know when you encounter this sublimity because you’ll be unable to forget it; you will be called back to it again, and you’ll be drawn to examine it further/deeper. 

     There are “five principal sources of elevated language.” The first two are mostly innate. The final three are primarily the product of art (may be learned). These are ways of cultivating greatness of soul.

  1. the power of forming great conceptions 
  2. vehement and inspired passion
  3. formation of thought and expression
  4. noble diction (choice of words, metaphors, and elaboration of language)
  5. dignified and elevated composition

     The most important thing is the elevation of the mind, because a thought itself can be sublime without verbalization. Then Longinus explores “sublimity of style.” First, one must be clear of lowly, dishonorable thoughts. He lists Homer as a prime example of this transcendent language when Homer represents the pure undefiled divinity of the gods (more-so than when he explores the battles and weaknesses of the gods). Next, he describes the beginning of Genesis as “a worthy conception of the might of the Godhead” when God calls forth light and then “there was light.”

     Next, Longinus describes the power of selecting/forming an articulate argument, using Sapho as an example. Her effectiveness of evocation comes from selection and organization of the elements. Then we have amplification, of which there are variety of kinds. Longinus disagrees with previous definitions of amplification, specifying that “sublimity consists in elevation, while amplification embraces a multitude of details.” He compares Plato, Demosthenes, and Cicero. We may also find our way to the sublime through the “imitation and emulation of previous great poets and writers.” Longinus even suggests that Plato likely arrived at poetic perfection by aspiring after Homer’s example. Images also contribute to elevation and powerful speech, but the purpose of the image for poets is enthrallment, and for the rhetor, vivid description. However, both “seek to stir the passions and the emotions.” Longinus then analyzes the benefits and hazards various methods of delivery and figures of speech. Burke writes: “Longinus tells us that in his day, imagination (phantasia, which contributes to enargeia) had ‘come to be used of passages where, inspired by enthusiasm and passion, you seem to see what you describe and bring it vividly before the eyes of your audience.’ After citing examples in poetry which ‘show a strongly mythic exaggeration, far beyond the limits of literal belief,’ he says that the ‘best use of imagination’ in rhetoric is convince the audience of the ‘reality and truth’ of the speaker’s assertions. He also cites passages from Demosthenes where, according to him, imagination persuades by going beyond mere argument. (‘When combined with argument, it not only convinces the audience, it positively masters them.’) And he ends by equating imagination with genius (megalophrosyne, high-mindedness) and with imitation. This is probably the highest tribute to ‘imagination’ in all Greek and Roman literature [...] But though he considers the aim of poetry ‘to strike with astonishment,’ and introduces talk of ‘ecstasy’ into literary criticism, he attributes a different role to imagination in rhetoric, where it presumably serves to make the real seem doubly real rather than to make us, within the conditions of a fiction, believe in the ‘reality’ of things which we may not otherwise believe at all” (79).




     Longinus notes that it is the author who instigates/triggers this lofty move beyond the self, which is why it was important for Longinus to explore all the methods of potentially doing so. Longinus claims that natural talent is not altogether devoid of method. This consideration of writing was a departure from traditional emphases of persuasion in rhetoric. He notes: “Great writing does not persuade; it takes the reader out of himself. The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive, ... [and] greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it and reveals the writer’s full power in a flash.”

     Longinus’s original concept of the sublime was appropriated by Edmunde Burke and Immanuel Kant, among others. Burke finds terror to be the most powerful of emotions and equates the sublime with this powerful feeling; for example, an encounter with terror and the subsequent relief or alleviation of that emotion results in a sublime sensation. Kant’s theory of the sublime expounds on this; he contrasts the aesthetic/beautiful and the sublime. The sublime exists exclusively in the mind, and involves disorder. It is a phenomenon which occurs when the imagination experiences something it cannot fully categorize or comprehend. Subsequent reinterpretations of “sublimity” were explored through literature (Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley). 






Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime

and Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.,



Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkley: University of California Press, 1969.


Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of the Power of Judgement. Ed. Paul Guyer. Trans. Paul

Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.


Longinus. On the Sublime. trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Internet: http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/longinus


Malm, Mats. “On the Technique of the Sublime.” Comparative Literature 52.1 (2000): 1-10.


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