It is difficult to discuss every last aspect of Longinus’ essay On the Sublime. He covers many specific literary devices and provides examples from numerous authors.
Instead, we’ll touch on several points of interest. Think of this as taking a drive through the mountains and stopping at some viewpoints along the way.
If there is a refrain to Longinus’ essay, it’s that passion trumps everything:
“For I would confidently pronounce that nothing is so conducive to sublimity as an appropriate display of genuine passion, which bursts out with a kind of ‘fine madness’ and divine inspiration, and falls on our ears like the voice of a god.” (Section 8)
To put it another way, you can be hyper correct and know every last rhetorical device, but in the end it doesn’t matter if you lack passion. Great writers take risks. They write with feeling and inspiration. Although they often make mistakes, the whole is greater than the parts. Their writing is so vivid that you feel like you’re in the middle of a storm or that you’ve been in love yourself.
For Longinus, writing is completely different from winning the pentathlon (Section 34). In such a competition you can be second best in every event and yet have the highest total score. Sublimity is much more like the hundred-meter dash, where the athletes are superbly trained for a single task and would do progressively worse at longer distances.
When you’re passionate, the rhetorical devices will seem natural and there is no need to disguise them (Section 17). For example, hyperbole falls flat if added artificially, but if it stems naturally from the emotional context, then it will be entirely fitting. Similarly, while sublimity rarely involves sordid or mundane topics (e.g., bodily functions, trivial events, etc.), it is possible to use common and plain language and still create a masterpiece (Section 31).
Passion is therefore also more important than mimesis. Whereas a sculptor will want to make a realistic statue, authors are free to go beyond nature. Their standard of realism is whether their writing resonates emotionally. For instance, when you’re carried away with excitement, it makes sense to provide a flood of images, or to omit conjunctions (Sections 19-21, 31). As Longinus writes,
“passion requires a certain disorder of language, imitating the agitation and commotion of the soul.” (Section 20)
Because the sublime is all about passion, Longinus is fascinated by the psychology of reading and listening. When we are captivated by a passage, then we identify with the author’s perspective, to the point that we feel as if we’ve written the work ourselves:
“It is natural to us to feel our souls lifted up by the true Sublime, and conceiving a sort of generous exultation to be filled with joy and pride, as though we had ourselves originated the ideas which we read.” (Section 7)
Similarly, good writers identify with their characters. In a sublime depiction of battle, “the mind of the poet is swept along in the whirlwind of the struggle” (Section 9).
Such description suggests that great writing is inspired. It is something that happens to you. This explains why Longinus insists that while rhetoric can be sublime, it also involves an element of premeditation and artfulness. The sublime is more spontaneous.
If the sublime takes you by surprise, do you have any control over what is sublime for you? After all, Longinus also believes that our moral views determine what we find noble and worthy of admiration. In Section 7, he writes,
“It is proper to observe that in human life nothing is truly great which is despised by all elevated minds. For example, no man of sense can regard wealth, honour, glory, and power, or any of those things which are surrounded by a great external parade of pomp and circumstance, as the highest blessings.”
In other words, a good person would have viewed Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies as just hollow displays of power. Likewise, some people might find big stadium concerts today an empty celebration of materialism, success, and self-indulgence.
So does morality have anything to do with the sublime? In the eighteenth century, when Edmund Burke develops Longinus’ ideas, he argues that power is a key feature of the sublime. What do you think? Does such power have to be exercised for good before it can be sublime?
Another source of the sublime is rivalry. When writers strive to outdo each other, their agon (struggle) will lead them to greater heights. Longinus describes this contest as a kind of “emulous imitation,” where an author borrows from a famous predecessor, but only to do it better. Here is how Longinus describes Plato’s desire to topple Homer:
“Nor in my opinion would so many fair flowers of imagery have bloomed among the philosophical dogmas of Plato, nor would he have risen so often to the language and topics of poetry, had he not engaged heart and soul in a contest for precedence with Homer, like a young champion entering the lists against a veteran.” (Section 13)
Longinus’ observation is particularly funny when we recall that Plato distrusted poetry and railed against copying and imitation. Ironically, he couldn’t avoid falling under Homer’s spell and becoming a copy himself!
The twentieth-century critic Harold Bloom has called this rivalry between younger and older poets a case of “anxiety of influence.” Bloom uses Freudian psychology to argue that the new poet on the block sees the established writer as a father figure who must be killed (metaphorically anyway). The death blow is often dealt via a literary allusion: in this way the younger writer ostensibly pays his respects to the senior figure while actually subverting the original passage and making it better.
The issue of competition resurfaces in the final chapter of On the Sublime, where Longinus reflects on the importance of politics. The question is whether sublime art is more likely to be produced in a democracy or under a dictatorship.
Longinus first gives the opinion of a “certain philosopher” who wonders whether enjoying liberty and freedom in a democratic society does not provide great opportunity for the sublime. By contrast, tyranny turns us into slaves and flatterers.
Longinus responds that democracy also enslaves us, but in this case to materialism, apathy, and sloth:
“Are we not enslaved, nay, are not our careers completely shipwrecked, by love of gain, that fever which rages unappeased in us all, and love of pleasure?” (Section 44)
The lawless pursuit of pleasure and money stifles the sublime, and people no longer understand anything about the supernatural or about what is truly important.
In sum, the sublime is not just an aesthetic experience (like saying “that’s a nice piece of art!”), but it should be the expression of a good person who is not deceived by empty values and pleasures.
Longinus. On the Sublime. Translated by H. L. Havell, Macmillan, 1890. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17957/17957-h/17957-h.htm