Longinus Introduction - Essay


Longinus fl. c. First Century

Roman critic. Also known as Dionysius Longinus, Cassius Longinus, and pseudo-Longinus.

Despite its relative anonymity prior to its rediscovery in 1554, Longinus' treatise Peri Hypsos [On the Sublime] strongly influenced the English and European literary landscape from John Dryden onwards. It served as a touchstone for English Neoclassical critics, and its emphasis on the emotive element of poetry and on the author as the focus of poetical meaning resonated with such Romantic writers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. On the Sublime is now considered one of the most important works of ancient literary theory.

Biographical Information

When On the Sublime was first published in its original Greek by Franciscus Robortello in 1554, the volume-previously unknown to modern scholars-was attributed to Dionysius Longinus, a prolific rhetorician and critic of the third century. Longinus served as prime minister to Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and was put to death after a failed insurrection against Aurelian. The attribution of the manuscript held until 1808, when a version of the treatise at the Vatican was shown to refer to the author as 'Dionysius or Longinus.' On the Sublime was later attributed to Cassius Longinus, a third-century critic; however, because the treatise was not listed among his accredited writings, and because the treatise differs fundamentally from his other writings with regard to style, terminology, and literary judgment, this attribution seems likewise without basis. Literary historians now believe that textual evidence-the lack of references to writers later than the early part of the first century, and the treatment of contemporary authors and schools that flourished during that time-supports the attribution of the text to a first-century Roman critic whose name cannot be determined. Most translators and commentators, then, have adhered to the convention of referring to the unknown author of On the Sublime simply as "Longinus."

Major Works

The only work attributed to Longinus is On the Sublime, a treatise designed as a pedagogical corrective to a (now lost) essay by Caecilius. Longinus confronts a pupil named Postumius with a treatment of the role of emotion, which, he claims, Caecilius had omitted from his study. Longinus thus focuses on the human condition generally rather than merely on literary genres and explores the worth of writing in terms of its elevating the soul of the audience-that is, its sublimity. According to Longinus, the sublime issues from five sources: grandeur of thought, inspired passion, effective use of stylistic figures, noble diction and phrasing, and elevated composition. For Longinus, rhetorical techniques become instruments for the author to convey his own sublimity, so that great writing results not only from honed skill but from a cultivated sublimity of the soul attending the innate ability to have elevated ideas and strong passions.

Textual History

Eleven manuscripts of On the Sublime are extant, all of which are imperfect tenth-, fifteenth-, and sixteenth-century copies that contain lacunae, or gaps, amounting to approximately one-third of the original text. The oldest and most complete manuscript, known as Paris MS 2036, has traditionally been considered the authoritative (though incomplete) version, and was used for the first modern publication of the Greek treatise by Robortello. Two other versions of the Greek text were published in Italy before Pagano published its first translation into Latin in 1572. A Latin edition also appeared at Oxford in 1636, marking the text's introduction in England, followed by its first English translation by John Hall in 1652. However, not until Nicolas Boileau's translation of On the Sublime into French in 1674, and the subsequent non-literal translation of his edition into English by John Pulteney (1680) and Leonard Welsted (1712), did Longinus gain widespread acceptance by the larger literary community.

Critical Reception

There is no mention of On the Sublime in any ancient text still extant, and it was largely unknown prior to its rediscovery during the Italian Renaissance. Following Boileau's popular translation of 1674, however, the treatise became a standard object of study for literary critics from Dryden onwards. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Neoclassical critics, primarily in England, frequently cited the text. Its influence is evident in such works as Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and extends to such critics as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Burke, Joseph Addison, Coleridge, and Alexander Pope. Despite its relative anonymity prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, modern critics have found On the Sublime to prefigure their own literary perspectives and to be as relevant and insightful as other standard ancient texts by Aristotle, Horace, and Quintilian.