On the Sublime

by Longinus

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What are the sources of sublimity in On the Sublime?

The sources of sublimity in On the Sublime are great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement. The final one of these is a synthesis of the previous four.

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Great thoughts. In order to produce a sublime work, one must have sublime thoughts. No one whose life consists of mean thoughts and servile ideas and habits can possibly do anything admirable or worthy of an immortal life.

In order to cultivate great thoughts, it is necessary to acquaint oneself with the undisputed masters such as Homer, Plato, and Demosthenes. This is not mere imitation, but, as Longinus puts it, catching fire from the spirit of others.

Strong emotions. The sublime also emerges out of powerful emotions. But these are not just any emotions; they must be true emotions in the right place. If this can be done, then the words of the writer will be inspired by divine frenzy.

Certain figures of thought and speech. Figures of speech must not be used mechanically; they must be rooted in the true emotion that we examined above. They must also be employed judiciously, used at the right time and in the right place to heighten the grandeur of the text. If figures of speech and thought are separated from the emotions, then they will also become divorced from sublimity.

Noble diction. Diction involves word choice, and word choice must be used with care and discrimination if it is to partake of the sublime. Such words have great rhetorical value in that they have a seductive effect upon the reader. This is because they lend a sort of glittering charm to writing in keeping with its lofty, elevated subject matter.

Dignified word arrangement. The fifth source of the sublime is the arrangement of words. This is largely a synthesis of the previous four sources of the sublime that we’ve already examined. It is a harmonious blend of thoughts, emotions, figures of speech, and the words themselves.

The proper arrangement of words makes it possible for the reader or the hearer to share in the emotions of the speaker or writer. It also possesses a natural power of persuasion and giving people pleasure.

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The text On the Sublime by Longinus describes the sources of sublimity and how to achieve sublimity in writing. Being sublime is the state of being highly elevated, intelligent, and transcendent, leaving behind worldliness and base desires and intentions. Essentially, sublimity is enlightenment, and Longinus concerns himself with how to incorporate the sublime into one's writing or oration. He believes there are five main sources of the sublime.

The five sources of sublime are as follows: grand thoughts, powerful emotions, nobility of diction, particular figures of thought and speech, and dignified word arrangement. Essentially, with these sources, he is stating that we need to elevate our thoughts to a level where they are enlightened and transcendent, and we must be willing to experience deep emotions. Beyond that, we must use well-crafted writing and be able to properly convey those thoughts and feelings in a refined and dignified manner with good speech and proper diction.

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Longinus describes five sources for sublimity. He felt that good literature and writing can evoke the true soul of the author and of humanity if it achieves the sublime. These are all ways in which a writer can elevate his or her writing far above the ordinary. These five sources are "grand thoughts, powerful emotions, particular figures of thought and speech, nobility of diction, and dignified word arrangement."

By "grand thoughts," Longinus meant that no one can elevate their writing to the sublime unless their thoughts themselves are sublime. A truly great writer must be familiar with the great thoughts of previous masters and use these to inform their own grand ideas.

"Powerful emotions" are a source of sublimity because they inspire passion. A writer of the sublime must imbue his or her work with their true feelings. Otherwise, the tone and subject matter will fall flat. Longinus prefers strong emotion because "it inspires the words, as it were, with a wild gust of mad enthusiasm and fills them with divine frenzy."

"Figures of thought and speech" refers to the style of the writer. The proper use of figures of speech can serve to elevate writing. They must be rooted in emotion or they will come off as empty rhetorical devices and will not resonate with the audience.

By "nobility of diction," Longinus means that sublimity can be achieved through the proper arrangement of words and language. Words, when employed well, have the effect of evoking a response from the audience. This includes the use of hyperbole and metaphor. When used well, noble diction will affect the reader without them even being truly aware of it.

"Dignity of word arrangement" is Longinus's way of saying that a work should be a harmonious blend of words, thoughts, ideas, and emotions. All the other four sources of sublimity must work together as a unit in order for the author's true effect to be achieved.

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According to Longinus, author of the treatise On the Sublime (Περὶὕψους) who lived in the 1st or 3rd century AD, there are two different sources of sublimity: inborn sources and acquirable sources.

- Among the inborn sources, there are two. The first and most important source is “the power of forming great conceptions”, that is, lofty thoughts or concepts. Within this group of inborn sources Longinus also includes a “strong and enthusiastic passion”.

- Among the acquirable sources, Longinus includes three elements: a masterful use of certain rhetorical devices; the choice of the right lexicon (use of noble diction), and, finally, a “dignified and high composition”.

Essentially, Longinus thinks of the poet as an individual elevated in thought and feeling. He focuses more on inspired passion and loftiness of thought than on technical rules, which is noteworthy for a critic of his time.

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