Longinus (literature)

Longinus (literature)

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Longinus is the conventional name of the author of the treatise, On the Sublime (Περὶ ὕψους, Perì hýpsous), a work which focuses on the effect of good writing. Longinus, sometimes referred to as Pseudo-Longinus because his real name is unknown, was a Greek teacher of rhetoric
Rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western...

 or a literary critic who may have lived in the 1st or 3rd century AD. Longinus is known only for his treatise On the Sublime.

Authorship of On the Sublime


The author is unknown. In the reference manuscript (Parisinus Graecus 2036), the heading reports “Dionysius or Longinus," an ascription by the medieval copyist
Copyist
A copyist is a person who makes written copies. In ancient times, a scrivener was also called a calligraphus . The term's modern use is almost entirely confined to music copyists, who are employed by the music industry to produce neat copies from a composer or arranger's manuscript.-Music...

 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
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric, who flourished during the reign of Caesar Augustus. His literary style was Attistic — imitating Classical Attic Greek in its prime.-Life:...

, a writer of the 1st century CE. 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
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

, likely in the 1st century. The error does imply that when the codex
Codex
A codex is a book in the format used for modern books, with multiple quires or gatherings typically bound together and given a cover.Developed by the Romans from wooden writing tablets, its gradual replacement...

 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
Aelius Theon
Aelius Theon was an Alexandrian sophist and author of a collection of preliminary exercises for the training of orators. He probably lived and wrote in the mid to late 1st century AD and his treatise is the earliest treatment of these exercises...

 (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
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric, who flourished during the reign of Caesar Augustus. His literary style was Attistic — imitating Classical Attic Greek in its prime.-Life:...

 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
Plotinus
Plotinus was a major philosopher of the ancient world. In his system of theory there are the three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas and he is of the Platonic tradition...

 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
Palmyra
Palmyra was an ancient city in Syria. In the age of antiquity, it was an important city of central Syria, located in an oasis 215 km northeast of Damascus and 180 km southwest of the Euphrates at Deir ez-Zor. It had long been a vital caravan city for travellers crossing the Syrian desert...

, Zenobia
Zenobia
Zenobia was a 3rd-century Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in Roman Syria. She led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire. The second wife of King Septimius Odaenathus, Zenobia became queen of the Palmyrene Empire following Odaenathus' death in 267...

. 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
Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

, 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
Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

, Petronius
Petronius
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.-Life:...

 and Quintilian
Quintilian
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was a Roman rhetorician from Hispania, widely referred to in medieval schools of rhetoric and in Renaissance writing...

, who also dealt with the subject, were still alive.

The Treatise On the Sublime


On the Sublime is both a treatise on aesthetics
Aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste...

 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
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

 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 prideless 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
Sappho
Sappho was an Ancient Greek poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life...

, 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 (ΜΕΓΑΛΟΦΡΟΣΥΝΗΣ ΑΠΗΧΗΜΑ). 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
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

 the tragedian, Sappho
Sappho
Sappho was an Ancient Greek poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life...

, Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

, even the Bible
Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

, and a playwright like Aristophanes
Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...

 (since the author maintained that laughter is a jocose pathos - and therefore, “sublime”, being "an emotion of pleasure"). Nevertheless he did not appreciate the Hellenistic poets, perhaps because he did not understand their culture: “Would you prefer to be Homer or Apollonius? […] No sane person would give just one tragedy, the Oedipus Rex, in exchange for all Iones’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 (ΕΚΠΛΗΞΙΣ), surprise (ΤΟ ΘΑΥΜΑΣΤΟΝ) and even fear (ΦΟΒΟΣ). 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
Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke PC was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party....

 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
Hecuba
Hecuba was a queen in Greek mythology, the wife of King Priam of Troy during the Trojan War, with whom she had 19 children. These children included several major characters of Homer's Iliad such as the warriors Hector and Paris, and the prophetess Cassandra...

 in Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

’s The Trojan Women
The Trojan Women
The Trojan Women is a tragedy by the Greek playwright Euripides. Produced during the Peloponnesian War, it is often considered a commentary on the capture of the Aegean island of Melos and the subsequent slaughter and subjugation of its populace by the Athenians earlier in 415 BC , the same year...

 is certainly sublime when she expresses her endless sorrow for the terrible destiny of her children.

The 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
Petronius
Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a Roman courtier during the reign of Nero. He is generally believed to be the author of the Satyricon, a satirical novel believed to have been written during the Neronian age.-Life:...

 pointed out excess of rhetoric and the pompous, unnatural techniques of the schools of eloquence as the causes of decay, Tacitus
Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

 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’s 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 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
Koine Greek
Koine Greek is the universal dialect of the Greek language spoken throughout post-Classical antiquity , developing from the Attic dialect, with admixture of elements especially from Ionic....

) to which are added elevated constructions, technical expressions, metaphors, classic and rare forms which produce a literary pastiche at the borders of linguistic experimentations.

Influences


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 BCE writer, Caecilius of Calacte
Caecilius of Calacte
For others of this name see Archagathus Caecilius, of Calacte in Sicily, Greek rhetorician, flourished at Rome during the reign of Augustus....

.

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
    Francis Robortello
    Francesco Robortello was a Renaissance humanist, nicknamed Canis grammaticus for his confrontational and demanding manner.-As scholar:...

     in Basel
    Basel
    Basel or Basle In the national languages of Switzerland the city is also known as Bâle , Basilea and Basilea is Switzerland's third most populous city with about 166,000 inhabitants. Located where the Swiss, French and German borders meet, Basel also has suburbs in France and Germany...

    , 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
    Baroque
    The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

     art and literature, and the rediscovered work of "Longinus" goes through half a dozen editions in the 17th century. It is Boileau
    Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux
    Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux was a French poet and critic.-Biography:Boileau was born in the rue de Jérusalem, in Paris, France. He was brought up to the law, but devoted to letters, associating himself with La Fontaine, Racine, and Molière...

    '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
    William Smith (scholar)
    Very Revd. Dr William Smith , Dean of Chester, Greek and Latin scholar.Smith was born in Worcester in 1711, the son of the rector of St Nicholas' Church. He was sent to RGS Worcester after which he proceeded to New College, Oxford in 1728. He remained here for many years gaining four degrees...

     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
    Edmund Burke
    Edmund Burke PC was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party....

    's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
    A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful
    A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful is a 1757 treatise on aesthetics written by Edmund Burke. It attracted the attention of prominent Continental thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant....

     and Immanuel Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment owe 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 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
    Anne Carson
    Anne Carson is a Canadian poet, essayist, translator and professor of Classics. Carson lived in Montreal for several years and taught at McGill University, the University of Michigan, and at Princeton University from 1980-1987....

     and Louis Marin
    Louis Marin
    Louis Marin was a French philosopher, historian, semiotician and art critic of the 20th century.He was born in La Tronche, He is usually referred to as a French Post-Structuralism thinker. He attended the University of Paris, Sorbonne and graduated with a Licence in Philosophy in 1952...

     have occasion to discuss Longinus as well and Harold Bloom
    Harold Bloom
    Harold Bloom is an American writer and literary critic, and is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He is known for his defense of 19th-century Romantic poets, his unique and controversial theories of poetic influence, and his prodigious literary output, particularly for a literary...

     and William J. Kennedy have significant accounts of his work. William Carlos Williams
    William Carlos Williams
    William Carlos Williams was an American poet closely associated with modernism and Imagism. He was also a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine, having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania...

     also uses three lines from the work as an epigraph to the Prologue to Kora in Hell.

Further reading

*
  • Martin Fritz, Vom Erhabenen. Der Traktat 'Peri Hypsous' und seine ästhetisch-religiöse Renaissance im 18. Jahrhundert (Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

External links