On the Sublime

by Longinus

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According to Longinus in On the Sublime, what is the test of excellence in literature?

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Longinus believes that the sublime in literature is rooted in the author’s ability to, through words, excite great thoughts and strong emotions. These must be combined with noble diction and beautiful word arrangement to create a work that stands out from all others, that is pregnant with ideas, and that conveys these powerfully to the reader.

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For Longinus, excellence in literature as to do with the following factors: “great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement." These combine to create in the reader an elevated emotional state, or a sense of heightened sensitivity to the author’s argument. Longinus says “when a passage is pregnant in suggestion, when it is hard, nay impossible, to distract the attention from it, and when it takes a strong and lasting hold on the memory, then we may be sure that we have lighted on the true Sublime. In general we may regard those words as truly noble and sublime which always please and please all readers.” (Longinus VII) The sublime in literature is the product of noble thoughts expressed in refined language that endures in the memory.

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Longinus argues that the test of excellence in literature is whether it achieves the status of being sublime. He further goes on to describe what he means by this word by saying that sublime literature has an unmistakable impact on the reader that results in their soul becoming elevated. Note how Longinus describes this impact:

For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.

The metaphor of flight is therefore used to describe the impact of excellent literature in depicting the effect it has on the reader. The second definition that Longinus gives the reader of sublime literature is that it can be re-read any number of times without losing its original impact. Longinus argues that sublime literature has to "please all and always," because such literature captures something about the essence of humanity that is unchanging and will never diminish in value.

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