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Longinus (lahn-JI-nuhs) wrote in Greek, had a broad knowledge of literature, nursed an antipathy to conventional rhetoric-oriented modes of criticism, and addressed his essay On the Sublime to a Roman citizen named Postumius Terentianus. His essay challenged and used as a point of departure an identically titled essay by one Caecilius of Calacte, a Sicilian rhetorician of the first century b.c.e. Apart from wisps of biographical information to be inferred from the text itself, such as his having written two treatises on synthesis (which are not extant), there is not much more, if anything, that one can say with certainty about Longinus.

Longinus’s real identity is difficult to establish. The earliest manuscript includes in the title of the work the name “Dionysius Longinus” and, in a list of contents, the cryptic addition “Dionysius or Longinus.” The author commonly known as Longinus could be Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a prolific rhetorician who lived in Rome after 30 b.c.e., or Cassius Longinus, an Athenian rhetorician of philosophical inclination who was a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of the philosopher Plotinus (c. 204-270 c.e.). Cassius Longinus went on to teach at Palmyra and Zenobia and was executed in 273 as an enemy of Rome. That the author was probably neither of these individuals but a rhetorician of the first century is the argument of scholars who assume that the work’s style is different from that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and is alien to the style of the third century. These scholars maintain that the work itself reflects temporal proximity to Caecilius of Calacte. The argument is far from convincing, but, until the identity of the author is indisputably established, the name Longinus will be used.

Longinus was little known and received scant attention during the Middle Ages. The earliest extant manuscript of On the Sublime was produced in the tenth century. It is now identified as “Parisinus 2036” (or simply “P”). Seventeen pages (about 1,050 lines) of this folio manuscript were lost after its production, and ten subsequent manuscripts, obviously based on P, have the same lacunae except for their retention of the work’s first and last pages, both among the seventeen missing from P.

The first printed version of On the Sublime appeared in 1554 in Basel; it was edited by Francesco Robortelli. Between 1555 and 1694, there were seven more printed editions, five of them Latin translations and one French translation by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, published in 1674. In the eighteenth century, as editions of the work proliferated, the great wave of Longinianism came into being, succeeded by waves of scholarly interest during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Textual scholarship on On the Sublime tended to supplant Longinian formation of literary and critical theory.

So it is that one must turn to the eighteenth century to estimate properly the import of Longinus. Adumbrating this import was the first English translation in 1652, by John Hall. Eight years earlier, John Milton, in Of Education, had listed Longinus—along with Plato, Aristotle, Phalereus, Cicero, and Hermogenes—as an exemplary student of poetics. Boileau’s French translation initiated a Longinian continuity in critical theory that was not to wane until the early nineteenth century.

John Dryden, in the late seventeenth century, and John Dennis, in the early eighteenth, propagated the work. Joseph Addison referred to it in a number of The Spectator essays during 1711 and 1712. Alexander Pope, the author, with John Arbuthnot and John Gay, of a comedy entitled Three Hours After Marriage (1717), presented Dennis as “Sir Tremendous Longinus.” Earlier, Pope had included an accolade to Longinus in his Essay on Criticism

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Essay on Criticism (1711). Later, in 1727, Pope published a prose parody entitled Bathous: Or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry. Casual overtures to Longinus by Jonathan Swift, in On Poetry: A Rhapsody (1733), for example, and Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), indicate the extent to which Longinus had become familiar to the literate and commonplace as an arbiter of taste.

The chief contributions of On the Sublime to standards of excellence in the eighteenth century were the work’s concentration on the relationship of the artist’s character to his or her art (and to the recipients of that art) and the concept of reconciled antitheses, or the union of dissimilar elements. Oddly, both notions are consistent with Romanticism, which nevertheless came to reject On the Sublime as a set of classical rules.

Serious but limited consideration was given to Longinus by T. R. Henn and Samuel H. Monk in the 1930’s and by Elder Olson and Allen Tate in the 1940’s, but later critics and critical theorists largely ignored the “sublimist.” He did, however, regain a modicum of favor with a few modernist critics, particularly among the deconstructionists, who strove to obliterate the distinction between criticism of literature and criticism of criticism, and ultimately between literature and criticism. The observation by Geoffrey H. Hartman that “Longinus is studied as seriously as the sublime texts he comments on” conveys well the lofty status of the theorist.


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