Assigned: Longinus. From On Sublimity (146-64). Also read the editors’ introduction (144-46).

From On Sublimity (first century C.E.)


1. On 146-47 (“My dear Postumius Terentianus…”), what first sketch does Longinus offer of “sublimity”? How does he immediately differentiate the impact of sublimity from the effects generated by rhetoric, the art of persuasion? How, too, does he respond to his own question regarding whether “there is in fact an art of sublimity or profundity” (147 middle)—in essence, does Longinus appear to believe that the production of sublimity is at least in part the result of craft, something one can learn to generate and control?

Some Marks of True Sublimity

2. On 148 (“At this stage, the question we must…”), does Longinus discuss sublimity only in terms of the individual perceiver of art, or are his standards to be taken as communal and universally valid? How do we know as listeners or readers when something is truly sublime, and not just a gaudy effect? Is “Real sublimity,” as Longinus describes it, merely a temporary achievement, or does it produce durable effects? Explain.

The Five Sources of Sublimity; The Plan of the Book

3. On 148-49 (“8.1 There are, one may say, five…”), what does Longinus identify as the five main sources of sublimity? Which ones are natural, and which are the product of art or craft? Moreover, what relationship between emotion and sublimity does Longinus explore—is emotion always necessary to the production of sublimity? Which emotions do not lead to sublimity in listeners or readers, and why?

(i) Greatness of Thought

4. On 149 (“9.1 The first source, natural greatness…”), what initial impression of “greatness of thought” does Longinus offer? Although this capacity is “a matter of endowment rather than acquisition,” what, according to Longinus, is more important to keep in mind? How can artists supplement whatever capacity they have, and what kind of person would not be able to produce greatness of thought? Finally, according to Longinus, to what extent can sublimity be separated from language itself?

Selection and Organization of Material

5. On 150-51 (“10.1. Now have we any other means of…”), how, according to Longinus, can greatness of thought be enhanced by means of the author’s capacity to select and organize material? How does he use the works of Sappho and Homer to illustrate the manner in which selection and organization can generate sublime effects? Why is what these two authors produce much better than the merely refined and “polished” (150) effects of others? How can poor word choice and arrangement, according to Longinus, ruin an otherwise promising composition? What examples of such error does he provide? (151)


6. On 151-52 (“11.1. The quality called ‘amplification’ is…”), how does Longinus define “amplification,” and what are the most important differences between amplification and sublimity itself? What is the relationship between amplification and sublimity? Why does Longinus disagree with “the rhetoricians” (152) regarding their definition of amplification?

Imitation of Earlier Writers as a Means to Sublimity

7. On 152-53 (“13.2. Plato, if we will read him with…”), in what way, according to Longinus, can “imitation and emulation” (152) of the ancient writers help an aspiring author—or even a renowned author such as Plato—produce sublime works of art or other material? Is Longinus offering us a full-fledged theory of inspiration here, or is he mostly talking about a kind of competition that involves emulating others as a principle of excellence? Explain. Moreover, in what sense, according to Longinus, does the thought of posterity or lasting fame enhance the potential for sublimity?

Visualization, (Phantasia)

8. On 153-54 (“15.1. Another thing which is extremely…”), how does Longinus define visualization, and to what extent is it related to speech? What examples of visualization does he offer, and how do they illustrate the necessary qualities conducive to the experience of sublimity? What use does visualization apparently have for rhetoricians rather than only poets? What principle of human perception, according to Longinus, allows well-executed visualization technique to carry listeners to a state beyond mere persuasion? (154)

(iii). Figures: An Example to Illustrate the Right Use of Figures; The Relation between Figures and Sublimity

9. On 154-55 (“16.1. The next topic is that of figures…”), how does the example Longinus gives from the oratory of Demosthenes show us the proper way to deploy a figure of speech in the service of sublimity? Moreover, how, according to Longinus, do figures prove to be the “natural allies of sublimity” and at the same time “profit wonderfully from the alliance” (155)?

Hyperbaton; Conclusion of the Section on Figures

10. On 156-57 (“22.1. Hyperbaton is an arrangement of…”), how does Longinus define hyperbaton? How does this figure follow the principle that “Art is perfect when it looks like nature, nature is felicitous when it embraces concealed art”? (156) what main example from Dionysius of Phocaea does Longinus offer in support of his explanation? Finally, how does he sum up his commentary on figures (157 top)?

(iv) Diction: General Remarks; Use of Everyday Words

11. On 157 (“30.1. Thought and expression are of course…”), with what definition of “diction” does Longinus set up this section? What does skillful and appropriate diction add to a given speech or literary passage? What example from Theopompus does Longinus offer of appropriate everyday diction?


12. On 157-59 (“32.1. As regards number of metaphors…”), with regard to metaphors, when can they be used to greatest effect, according to Longinus? How can an author avoid blame for using particularly audacious or numerous metaphors in a given passage? Why are metaphors also good for filling out “commonplaces and descriptions” (158)? Finally, Longinus suggests that Plato sometimes takes figuration and metaphor too far. In what sense, then, does Plato sometimes go astray in this regard? (In responding to this last question, consider how we usually regard the proper function of metaphor: it is often said to explain or provide a sense of something difficult by means of something easier to understand, such as an image or tactile representation.)

Digression: Genius versus Mediocrity

13. On 159-61 (“32.8. Faults of this kind formed…”), how does Longinus respond to his own pair of key questions at this point: firstly, should we prefer “grandeur attended by some faults of execution,” or “a modest success of impeccable soundness” (159)? Secondly, should we prefer “the greater number of good qualities or the greater good qualities…” (159)? What is Longinus’s rationale in answering each of these questions? How does he enlist an appreciation of Demosthenes against the smoother and more flawless orator Hyperides? (160-61) What skill or quality does Demosthenes have that his lesser colleague does not? In light of this example, what seems to be Longinus’s sense of the true purpose of art and even, to some extent, oratory?

14. On 161-62 (“35.1. To return to Plato and Lycias…”), Longinus continues his digression on genius by again considering the difference between Plato and Lycias. How does this comparison offer us a sense of his view of human nature—how is Longinus’s reasoning at this point an attempt to answer the question, of so much importance to the Greeks, of humanity’s place in the cosmos? How does “sublimity” help to raise humankind almost to the status of gods? Finally, how do Longinus’s comments shed light on what he believes to be the relationship between nature (meaning an artist’s natural endowment) and art, or craft, and in what sense might he be said to offer on these pages a “sublime” defense of the role and value of art and literature in human life?

(v) ‘Word-Arrangement or Composition; Effect of Rhythm; Effect of Period Structure; and Conclusion

15. On 162-64 (“39.1. There remains the fifth of the factors…”), Longinus discusses rhythm and harmony in speech. Why, according to him, is human speech so much better than musical effects? What does Longinus apparently mean by his key terms “composition” and “period structure”? How can skillful composition of a given utterance help an author or speaker achieve sublimity?

16. General question: Longinus is not the only author in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism who develops the topic of sublimity. Briefly compare his concept of the sublime and its aesthetic, spiritual, and social value in On Sublimity with the theories of either Edmund Burke (Leitch 464-73) or Immanuel Kant (Leitch 445-63). Which of the two conceptions of sublimity do you find most illuminating and valuable, and why?

17. General question: It is sometimes said that in modern times, theorists and critics—and indeed literature itself—have taken a decided turn towards sublimity, the concept first and so well explored by Longinus in On Sublimity, and away from the more down-to-earth, reaffirming or even comforting dimension of literature. We know that literature can do many things: it can be realistic or fantastical, politically engaged or aloof, didactic (teacherly) or determined to entertain, uplifting or unsettling, and so forth. Which of these functions do you generally prefer, and why? Do you find the experience of sublimity most important, or do you prefer other qualities in art? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake