The Structure of the Essay

  • The Structure of Longinus' Essay On the Sublime

It can be difficult to follow Longinus, so here is a convenient overview of the structure of his essay on the sublime. We’ve followed the conventional numbering of the sections.


1. Definition of the sublime.
2. Art vs. Nature.
3-7. The true vs. the false sublime (e.g., bombast).
8. The five aspects of the sublime:

A. Grand thoughts
B. Passionate language
C. Use of poetic figures
D. Noble diction
E. Harmonious sentence structure

The Five Aspects of the Sublime

A. Grand Thoughts
9. Greatness of soul (majestic descriptions, comparison of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey).
10. Selection of subject matter (poetic passages describing the frenzy of love, the terror of storms).
11-12. Amplification.
13-14. Imitating the great authors of the past (e.g., Plato imitated Homer).
15. Proper use of visual imagery.

B. Passionate Language
[This section is missing from the manuscript]

C. Figures of Speech
16. Swearing oaths (apostrophe).
17. Sublime rhetorical devices seem natural; mere rhetoric comes across as disingenuous.
18. Rhetorical questions.
19. Asyndeton (omission of conjunctions).
20. Combining figures to express passion.
21. Passion ignores conjunctions.
22. Hyperbaton (grammatical inversions).
23-24. Singulars as plurals (and vice versa).
25. Using the present tense for past events.
26. Direct personal address (use of the second person).
27. Sudden shift in person.
28-29. Periphrasis.

D. Noble Diction
30. Introduction to the power of words.
31. When homely and vulgar language is sublime.
32. Using a succession of metaphors to express passion.
33. Great writers will make mistakes; lesser writers are too concerned with correctness.
34. It is better to be great in only one or two things than second-best in everything.
35. Humans are made to long for greatness.
36. Exact mimesis is less important in literature than in sculpture.
38. Hyperbole should originate naturally from the context, not be inserted artificially.

E. Harmonious Sentence Structure
39. The proper arrangement of words is like a musical harmony or rhythm.
40. The phrasing of an entire passage makes it sublime, even if the words are common or plain.
41. The pace of sublime language is stately, not rushed or too lively.
42. Sublime writing is neither too brief nor too wordy.
43. Mundane and sordid details are best avoided.

44. Whether sublime works are more likely created under a democratic or despotic government.