Longinus is the name associated with the Latin treatise commonly known as "On the Sublime, " one of the most influential and perceptive works of literary criticism ever written.

There has been considerable dispute as to the author of On the Sublime. One Cassius Longinus, born about 210, was a critic, scholar, and teacher of rhetoric in the 3rd century and a friend and teacher of Porphyry, the pupil of Plotinus and author of many literary works. He also earned a reputation as the most famous scholar of his time. Educated at Alexandria, he probably taught at Athens and then traveled to Asia Minor as a minister of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Along with Zenobia he is reported to have been executed by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 273 on charges of conspiring against the Roman state.

Some critics date the author of On the Sublime to the 1st century and assign authorship to an otherwise unknown literary critic, for there is no mention of this work in ancient sources. In modern times it was not until 1554 that the treatise was published, and it was subsequently translated by the French critic Boileau in 1674. Those who argue for a 1st-century author point to the fact that Caecilius of Calacte of 1st-century Rome is being addressed and that the decay of eloquence, which was a live question in the 1st century, was not a real issue in the 3rd century of Cassius Longinus.


Contribution and Significance

Regardless of the author or dates the work is of major significance for the history of literary criticism. The 18th century particularly saw the golden age of "Longinus, " and interest in him has continued unabated. On the Sublime is second only to Aristotle's Poetics in its influence. Its concern is with great writing (perhaps a better translation than "the sublime"). The five "sources, " or "causes, " of great writing are listed as vigor and nobility of mind (the ability to seize upon great ideas); powerful emotion; skill in the use of figures; diction (including the use of metaphors and new words); and the appropriate arrangement of words. Of these the first two are the most important. As Moses Hadas said in his History of Greek Literature, "Longinus' object is to define true grandeur in literature as opposed to sophomoric turgidity and frigid pretentiousness."

Longinus insists that greatness does not come from rules but from the search for ecstasy, and it is an ecstasy that must affect the reader and hearer. The most famous passage in Longinus is probably the following, on what makes great literature (chapter 7, 3-4):

"For that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface. In general, consider those examples of sublimity to be fine and genuine, which please all and always. For when men of different pursuits, lives, ambitions, ages, languages, hold identical views on one and the same subject, then the verdict which results, so to speak, from a concert of discordant elements makes our faith in the object of admiration strong and unassailable."

Longinus has thus raised and examined the persistent question of what constitutes a literary classic—a question still relevant for literary criticism.


Further Reading on Longinus

The following are indispensable for a study of Longinus: W. Rhys Roberts, trans., Longinus: On the Sublime (1899); the section on Longinus translated by W. H. Fyfe and appearing in Aristotle: The Poetics; "Longinus": On the Sublime; Demetrius: On Style (1927); and G. M. A. Grube, trans., Longinus: On Great Writing (1957). In addition see T. R. Henn, Longinus and English Criticism (1934), and G. M. A. Grube, The Greek and Roman Critics (1965).