1.5. "Longinus"

(probably 1st century AD)





1.5.1. Introduction

1.5.2. Sublimity

1.5.3. Democracy and sublimity

1.5.4. Homeric criticism

1.5.5. Posterity

1.5.6. Conclusion




1.5.1. Introduction



Longinus is the wrong name. We know nothing about the author of the treatise Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime ), but it was long attributed to a rhetorician named Longinus. Now we know it was not his work, so we may call the author "Pseudo-Longinus" or "anonymous", or whatever we like. We may as well call him Longinus. The date of the treatise is unknown : somewhere in the centuries 1 to 3 AD. It was discovered in the XVIth century, and was published by the Italian critic Robortello in 1554.

The treatise On the Sublime takes an approach to criticism which is completely different from that of Aristotle. If Aristotle is the model for all neoclassic and systematic approaches to literature, Longinus may be looked upon as a forerunner of the intuitive and romantic views of the later neoclassical age, when several critics (Boileau, Burke, Kant) wrote works on the subject of the sublime. The key concept in Longinus is no longer "decorum," but rather "sublimity."





1.5.2. Sublimity Definition Inspiration and technique Sublimity and rhetoric Definition



Longinus is not too explicit while defining sublimity: "Sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in expression" (On the Sublime , chapter I). One reason may be that the feeling of the sublime defies expression. It is there when the audience is no longer simply convinced, or approves of the work, but is transported with admiration instead:

As if instinctively, our soul is lifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy, and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard. (VII)

Sublimity cannot be accurately defined by criticism, because it is beyond reason and technique. Sublimity is that which ravishes the mind, that which cannot be despised. It withstands the judgement of learned men, of different ages and nations, and is acclaimed by common consent. Now we may think that this is a bit too ambitious. There are no divisions in Longinus' public.

There are five sources of sublimity: 1) great ideas, 2) passion, 3) the appropriate use of figures, 4) the right diction, and 5) a skilful composition. The first two are qualities of the poet, the others of the poem. They are identified with natural and artistic sources respectively. Also, the first two are those proper to sublimity; the others we might wish to link to beauty as well as to sublimity. So it is not very clear at times how sublimity is supposed to manifest itself in the poem. Nature (the part of the poet) and art (the poem) are divorced to some extent in Longinus' theory.
 Inspiration and Technique



Sublimity is a natural gift. Two of the main causes of sublimity, the power of forming great conceptions and the power to feel a vehement and inspired passion, are inborn in the great poet. They cannot be learned through art. The great poet must be stirred and carried away by his conception; he must feel the same great emotions his characters feel, and pass them over to his audience. This, by the way, may be taken as a somewhat anti-cathartic pronouncement.

Sublimity raises the writer near to the majesty of God. The poet who is attempting sublimity must be daring, even at the cost of committing faults which could be avoided with the reasonable advice of technique. The way to sublimity is dangerous, it is attended by great risks. Longinus says it is safer to follow all the rules of art, but it is clear he prefers the sublime even at the cost of some small faults. The rules of art, he thinks, may curtail the flights of inspiration, so that a work which is perfect according to the rules of art is rarely found to be sublime. "Invariable accuracy incurs the risk of pettiness" (XXXIII). A new note in classical criticism rings here: art and technique are seen for the first time as machinery, which will not ensure the success of the work; Longinus seems to suggest that the rules of poetry are an obstacle rather than a help when the poet tries to achieve greatness.

The opposition between the beautiful and the sublime, which will be an important critical concept in eighteenth-century aesthetics, can be traced back to these ideas of Longinus. A knowledge of art may produce grace or beauty, but that is not enough to attain sublimity. Sublimity requires transport, genius, permanent value and a subject of physical grandeur. Here Longinus sings the praise of human imagination, which goes beyond the limits which even great things in nature set to it.

Grandeur with its attendant faults is preferable to moderate success: Demosthenes is better than Hyperides. Mere impression of skill results from the whole texture of the composition, but the sublime manifests itself in concrete ideas or expressions, which flash forth at the right moment like a thunderbolt. This idea of the touch of genius in which greatness is revealed independently from the whole of the work will influence eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English critics like Addison, Ruskin and Arnold. We can measure here the full distance between Longinus' aesthetics and Aristotle's. However, they are not as far apart all the time. Longinus makes a difference between a sublimity of invention (the one we have mentioned) and a sublimity of composition, in which the impression of sublimity results from the whole, each part being unremarkable in itself. This idea forms a bridge between the poles of art and inspiration. There is an important place for art and technique in Longinus' aesthetics too, even if Longinus never draws a direct relationship between sublimity and the right use of figures.

Inspiration may be a natural gift, but nevertheless, Longinus says, nature does not act without system. A knowledge of art will help to eliminate some of the faults which beset the aspirant to sublimity. Technique will help to avoid bombast, frigidity or untimely expression of passion. The test that we have failed to reach sublimity is that hearers are not moved. So, inspiration may be guided by art the better to achieve its end. But art, technique, must always be subservient. It must know how to set its own limits, as well as those of inspiration. So it must not be too noticeable; it must escape attention. This is not exclusive of Longinus' romantic criticism; the principle of "hiding art by means of art" (ars celare artem ) is one of the tenets of classical criticism.

 Sublimity and Rhetoric



In spite of his tendency to leave sublimity unanalyzed, Longinus does make some interesting remarks on the use of rhetoric to achieve the right effect. The sublime is the result of selecting the basic elements in things, suppressing all that is mean or diminishing, and combining these elements into a single whole. For instance, Homer at one point forces words together in unusually harsh combinations to imitate the meaning which is being expressed. Longinus speaks of the use of amplification, of images, and of figures both of thought and of expression, such as asyndeton, polysyndeton, hyperbaton, polyptoton, periphrasis, the use of direct style and of feigned objections, as well as of combinations of figures. Under 'figures' he includes any abnormality of syntax; metaphor he studies under 'diction'. He observes that an excess of rhythm is felt to be lacking in passion, and lowers sublimity: "overrhythmical style does not communicate the feeling of the words, but simply the feeling of the rhythm" (XLI). The same happens with the opposite, an excessive ruggedness. The extremes of prolixity and concission are also to be avoided. Vulgar words may be used sometimes for the sake of lively expression, but in general a dignified utterance is the best way to sublimity.





1.5.3. Democracy and Sublimity



Longinus quotes an unknown rhetorician as saying that the decay of rhetoric and of sublime utterance in general was due to the loss of liberty under the Roman empire. Freedom, democracy and free competition are stimuli to greatness of thought and expression; the unknown rhetorician sees servitude as a cage both to soul and thought: under an authoritarian regime, the human spirit cannot find its proper expansion. But Longinus does not agree, and he blames instead the vices of the age, excessive love of riches and ostentation, and unrestrained passions --a moral rather than a political theory of invention.




1.5.4. Homeric Criticism



Homer is the model for sublime poets; he is fierce and passionate, he feels the same emotions of his characters as they fight. Longinus opposes this Homer of the Iliad to the Homer of the Odyssey; he sees the latter as the product of old age, characterized by the episodic action and the taste for delineation of character. In this way Longinus tries his hand at a biographical approach to criticism and the psychology of literary creation. This interest in the figure of the author which is lacking in the approaches of Aristotle or Horace will not find its full expression until the Romantic age.




1.5.5. Posterity



Longinus is the first critic to be concerned with the judgement of posterity, even though the idea had already appeared in the poets themselves (cf. Horace, or Pindarus before him). He considers it the definite test of sublimity; the sign of maturity in a poet is that he writes for posterity. All this gives a distinctive touch to the critical perspective of Longinus: he looks upon the classics much as we do, with the idea of a literary tradition in mind. We must not forget that this is the first study on literature by someone who is neither a poet nor a philosopher.






1.5.6. Conclusion



Longinus cannot define what the sublime is, but he is also concerned with lively and elevated style in general, and to that he provides a more explicit approach, also based on the reactions of the audience. Longinus' most characteristic idea is his use of intuitive response to measure the greatness of a passage. However, we may not feel that we understand that greatness much better once we have recognized it.

At its worst, Longinus' idea of sublimity is redundant, a variety of purely rapturous and impressionistic criticism. But at its best it defines a limit to both art and criticism; it sets us before the indefinable, that which escapes our power of judgement and can only grasped through emotion. In this way, Longinus sets a decorum of his own to poetry, but it is one opposed to that of Horace. It is not a decorum of restraint, but of transport. Longinus will be forgotten for many centuries, but his treatise was rediscovered in the Renaissance and his sentimental approach to literature became fashionable in pre-Romantic criticism, when "sublimity" is resurrected as a criterion to determine literary excellence. Longinus lays the stress in an area of criticism --valuation-- which is crucial when it comes to determine the ultimate aims of literature or to make a selection of authors in the mass of written material. Valuation is an area of heated debate in twentieth-century criticism. Some critical schools (F. R. Leavis and the New Critics) hold that valuation is the primary aim of the critic, his moral and social function; other schools (structuralism, deconstruction, feminism) have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the traditional criteria of valuation, and have stressed the relativity and ideological nature of evaluative criticism.