Last Updated September 6, 2023.
On the Sublime explores the concept of sublimity in literature and writing, examining how exceptional writing can evoke intense emotions and profoundly impact its audience. The author of this treatise contends that with great writing,
…our souls [are] 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. (VII)
Written in the Greco-Roman world sometime during the late 1st Century C.E., only around two-thirds of the original text is known. Although it was attributed to Longinus in the 10th Century, the true identity of the actual author remains a mystery. Throughout this work, the author examines the ability of a skilled writer to inspire awe, admiration, terror, or any strong emotion in readers.
While some of the concepts in this work could be applied to other media, the concepts in this treatise are largely limited to the written word. The author writes:
the sublime, wherever it occurs, consists of a certain loftiness and excellence of language. (I)
Repeatedly making comparisons to a lightning bolt, the author contends that the sublime (Περì Ὕψους) is something that can suddenly strike both reader and writer with intense passion. This differs from rhetoric which lacks the spontaneity of sublime writing as it takes a more premeditated approach to connect with its audience. To the author, the lighting quickness of passionate sublimity has a much deeper impact than the slow-moving fire of rhetoric.
While On the Sublime examines several broad philosophical concepts concerning the transcendent potential of writing, it also offers practical advice. For instance, the author explores the effect of certain grammatical structures and rhetorical devices that enhance the effectiveness of sublime writing.
To help prove his points, the author includes numerous examples of what he considers to be effective, as well as ineffective, writing. To do so, he draws from about fifty sources ranging from Homer to the Hebrew Bible.
On the Sublime is often considered one of the most important works concerning the nature of writing from the ancient past. Many scholars consider it second to only Aristotle's Poetics regarding the subject. Preserved through the Middle Ages, the work gained importance during the European Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th Centuries, influencing essential writers such as Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Immanuel Kant, and Edmund Burke.
On the Sublime is written and dedicated to Posthumius Terentianus, a little-known Roman public figure. The work starts with a critique of a similarly themed treatise by Caecilius, which the author feels focuses too much on defining the concept of the sublime rather than providing advice on "how we might be able to exalt our own genius to a certain degree of progress in sublimity" (I). In other words, the author prefers a text that explains how to achieve mastery of the sublime in one's writing.
Even so, the author provides his definition of the sublime. He concludes that it is writing that effectively uses high-minded language that goes beyond simply convincing the reader of something. Instead, it "takes him out of himself" (I). Sublime writing can transport the reader out of their own experience and connect them with the writer's desires without them being fully aware of it.
In the second section of On the Sublime , the author ponders questions concerning the difference between nature and art. He acknowledges that some people believe mastery of the sublime is a natural gift. Different from art, which has rules that can be learned, people either have the skills or...
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they do not. The author of On the Sublime disagrees. He argues that the rules of art are derived from nature. Therefore, the divisions between nature and art are primarily artificial. As a result, it is possible to learn and master the ways of the sublime.
The author describes some traps that authors seeking the sublime often encounter. He warns of using bombastic and exaggerated phrases and images that can transform tragic expressions into something comical and absurd. He also cautions against false sentiment, where emotions are displayed inappropriately or in excessive measure. These serve to merely showcase the writer's intentions rather than transport the reader's imagination.
With descriptions and many examples, the author explains the effects of the sublime. When executed properly, it creates an exalted, joyful, and proud feeling. This is because when someone reads a sublime work, they tend to identify with the writer and feel as though they had written it themself. Thus, sublime writing will also elevate the reader's sense of self.
In Section VIII, the author describes five sources of the sublime. The first two, "grandeur of thought" and a passion for "vigorous and spirited" language, are naturally endowed. The rest - the skillful use of figures of speech, word choice, and majesty and elevation of structure - can all be learned and mastered.
The author frequently addresses the paradox that some of the same elements that make for ineffective writing can, when executed well, lead to sublime writing.
Those ornaments of style, those sublime and delightful images, which contribute to success, are the foundation and the origin, not only of excellence but also of failure. (V)
Consequently, it can be difficult to explain the difference, which the author acknowledges. To discern the difference, one must judge the effects of the writing. Simply put, when sublimely employed, complex language will transport the reader beyond their own experience. Poor writing will fall flat, calling attention to the writer's attempted style use without achieving their intentions.
The author ends his treatise by lamenting the lack of sublime writing during his own time. He acknowledges that some of his contemporaries blame the absence of democracy and liberty that once nurtured genius. The author, however, places the blame on internal factors, namely human greed. People's desire to enrich themselves, the author contends, leads to indifference concerning matters of sublime art.