“On the Sublime” By Longinus

Sublimity is the image of greatness of soul.

The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport. Skill in invention, and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard-won result not of one thing nor of two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plenitude.

If any work, on being repeatedly submitted to the judgment of an acute and cultivated critic, fails to dispose his mind to lofty ideas; if the thoughts which it suggests do not extend beyond what is actually expressed; and if, the longer you read it, the less you think of it,—there can be here no true sublimity. But when a passage is pregnant in suggestion, when it is hard, nay impossible, to distract the attention from it, and when it takes a strong and lasting hold on the memory, then we may be sure that we have lighted on the true Sublime.

Sources of Sublimity

1) grandeur of thought (2) vigorous and inspired passion. These two are mostly innate, whereas the remaining are partly derived from art. (3)figures of thought and of speech (4) dignified expression, (a) selection and amplification of ideas, and (b) the use of metaphors and other ornaments of diction. The fifth cause, which embraces all those preceding, is (5) majesty and elevation of structure.

Homer

Homer has made the whole structure of the Iliad, which was written at the height of his inspiration, full of action and conflict, while the Odyssey for the most part consists of narrative, as is characteristic of old age. Accordingly, in the Odyssey Homer may be likened to a sinking sun, whose grandeur remains without its intensity. There is not the same profusion of accumulated passions, nor the supple and oratorical style, packed with images drawn from real life. You seem to see henceforth the ebb and flow of greatness, and a fancy roving in the fabulous and incredible, as though the ocean were withdrawing into itself and was being laid bare within its own confines.

The genius of great poets and prose-writers, as their passion declines, finds its final expression in the delineation of character. For such are the details which Homer gives, with an eye to characterisation, of life in the home of Odysseus.

Plato, Cicero and Demosthenes

Plato, like the sea, pours forth his riches in a copious and expansive flood. His strength lay in a sort of weighty and sober magnificence;

Demosthenes is vehement, rapid, vigorous, terrible; he can consume by fire and carry away all before him, like a thunderbolt or flash of lightning.

Cicero, on the other hand, after the manner of a widespread conflagration, rolls on with all-devouring flames, having within him an ample and abiding store of fire, distributed now at this point now at that, and fed by an unceasing succession.

Plato, from the great Homeric source, drew to himself innumerable tributary streams. (Ammonius and his followers selected and recorded the particulars.) There would not have been so fine a bloom of perfection on Plato’s philosophical doctrines, and he would not have found his way to poetical subject-matter and modes of expression, unless he had with all his heart and mind struggled with Homer for the primacy, entering the lists like a young champion matched against the man whom all admire. And in truth that struggle for the crown of glory is noble and best deserves the victory in which even to be worsted by one’s predecessors brings no discredit.

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3 thoughts on ““On the Sublime” By Longinus

  1. I would have never thought of Cicero rolling “on with all-devouring flames”. For me, there is a subtleness to his words until they strike like a dagger. But then, I’ve only read his Defence Speeches, which I loved. I’ll have to perhaps read some more of his works to experience the fire! A great description of Demosthenes!

    1. Cicero is subtle and urbane, but also passionately intense and thoroughly relentless, especially as a prosecutor. Experience the fire in Catiline Orations. 🙂 His thoroughness is showcased in Against Verres, the case that helped launch his career.

      I’ve always wanted to read Demosthenes, but this pushed him to the front of my to-read list.

      1. Ah yes, I could imagine fire in the Catiline Orations. My favourite speech was Pro Roscio Amerino, made when Cicero was only 26 years old. In it, you can see the effort and passion of an up-and-coming orator, flavoured with a little cheekiness as well. His other speeches are wonderful too, but one gets the feeling that he is able to skate on his reputation a little. I’d love to read Against Verres; thanks for the tip!

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