First century A.D.

Literary critic

The name Longinus refers to the unknown author of On the Sublime, an important essay of literary criticism. For a long time, the work was mistakenly attributed to Cassius Longinus, a Greek teacher of rhetoric* who lived in the A.D. 400s. It is now generally believed that the work was written during the first century A.D., perhaps during Nero’s reign (a.d. 54-68). It was rediscovered by European scholars in the A.D. 1500s and had a major influence on literary theory and criticism in the 1700s and 1800s.

On the Sublime is an examination of the elements that make for great literature. In the essay, which is written in the form of a letter from a teacher to a student, Longinus challenges the idea that writing is simply a technical skill that can be mastered by understanding and applying a set of rules. This was the traditional view of classical rhetoricians. Rather, Longinus insists, there is something more to writing than that which can be taught or learned. That “something more” is the power of inspiration or genius. While the rules of rhetoric and composition are important, writing is an art that balances technical skill and talent. The mark of a great poem or other literary work is that it reaches the sublime. In other words, important ideas and elegant language come together to form perfect expression. Sublime art transports the listener or reader beyond the ordinary and the merely good. It does more than simply persuade or please an audience. The idea of the sublime became popular among poets and philosophers* of the A.D. 1700s and especially influenced the Romantic movement in literature, music, and the visual arts.

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

In his essay, Longinus analyzes numerous passages from classical Greek literature, particularly from Homer, as examples of sublime expression. His remarks show him to be an insightful and original literary critic, as well as a persuasive theorist. {See also Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Literature, Greek; Literature, Roman.)

* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science

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