On the Sublime

by Longinus

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How does Longinus' On the Sublime exemplify practical and comparative criticism?

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Longinus’s writing can be termed “practical” if we understand him to be writing a kind of guidebook. The text, which is fragmentary, nevertheless has a unifying rhetorical structure in that it is addressed to a friend (“my dear Postumius Terentianus”) and seeks to clarify the principles of “great writing.”

The work can be considered “comparative” because the nature of Longinus’s address to his friend is, in effect, a kind of extended discussion of another work they have both read, “Caecilius’s monograph on Great Writing,” which they both feel is inadequate. Not only are Longinus’s ideas about writing developed in comparison to Caecilius, but there is implicit in his address to Postumius a sense that his discussion of the sublime in writing will be collaborative in nature: he asks his friend to correct him if he goes astray.

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Longinus' On the Sublime resembles many ancient works of rhetorical theory and differs from modern literary criticism in that it is addressed to an audience of practitioners rather than passive recipients of literary and oratorical works. That is to say, his concern is not so much an abstract analysis of reader experience but rather a manual for those attempting to create sublime effects in their own work. Thus when Longinus outlines the five techniques one can use to create sublimity, he gives very precise details and numerous examples, as well as discussing how each technique can fail and lapse into bombast.

His method is essentially empirical, inductive, and comparative in that he typically does close reading of similar examples to show which is more sublime. He often illustrates the contributions of specific word choices or syntax by taking a famous text and showing how altering a few words or even the order of the words might make it less sublime. 

The excellence of his work lies not only in its highly original treatment of sublimity but in its detailed use of examples rather than vague generalizations. This has made his work of enduring interest to writers as well as literary critics. 

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