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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Oct 7, 2016

Welcome Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today's episode is brought to you by the Humanities Media Project and viewers like you, because today is a listener-suggested topic.

Today we’re going to talk about Longinus, which is to say we’re going to talk about On the Sublime,which is to say we're going to talk about the sublime. We don’t know anything about Longinus except that he wrote On the Sublime, and, if we’re going to be strictly honest, we don’t know whether the author of On the Sublime  was actually named Longinus. So we have this key rhetorical text and the only thing we know for sure about its author is that they wrote this key rhetorical text.


Maybe that’s over-stating it. Maybe this was Dionysies of Halicarnassus. You remember him, Greek fellow, loved Romans? Maybe it was Hermagoras, whom you might remember from the stasis episode. Or it was this other bloke, Cassius Longinus. It’s all very confusing, and you’d think the Roman empire could come up with a naming system that didn’t rely on like the same four names and a series of embarrassing nicknames, but evidentally not. Also, authorship wasn’t so well documented. So all of this is conjecture, but  for the sake of the podcast today we’re going to say that Longinus was the author of “On the Sublime“ and leave it at that.


Historical vaguaries aside, in “On the Sublime,” Longinus advances a poetics that is rhetorical not in the sense that he expects poetry to develop and elaborate explicit persuasive claims, but rather seeks “to transport [audiences] out of themselves” (163). You may be familiar with a bastardization of the word “sublime” that talks about sublime chocolate or music, but the idea of the sublime is that it’s such a consuming process that you lose yourself completely. The chocolate becomes your entire experience.This  “irresistible power and mastery” has greater influence over the audience than any deliberate persuasive argument (163). Is the sublime, then a competitor with rhetoric or is it a mode of rhetoric? Is the sublime just high-falutin’ flowery language or something more? Longinus is vague about this point.


While the sublime comes from the world of poetry, it doesn’t exclusively reign there. Longinus may keep a traditional view of persuasion out of the sublime, but he does allow for sublime moments in traditionally persuasive orations, including legal discourse. Yes, in addition to waterfalls and chocolate, legal briefs can be sublime. I knew that, but then, I watched a lot of old school Law and Order. In such cases, when a sublime visualization is “combined with factual arguments it not only convinces the audience, it positively masters them” (223). Both poets and orators, then, can use the sublime to control an audience and “carry the audience away ” (227). With such incredible power, sublimity seems to be the ultimate skill to develop.

           But while Longinus advises us in methods to improve our likelihood of sublimity (choosing weighty words for weighty topics, considering the context, borrowing from the greats, etc.), ultimately he gives us no great writer, nor any great work, as a model of constant sublimity. The sublime comes rather as “a well-timed flash” or “a bolt of lightning” that “shatters everything […] and reveals the power of the speaker” (163-4). This lightning bolt metaphor highlights some of Longinus’ difficulty in teaching someone to be sublime: sublimity is sudden, short, and almost divine in origin.  As you put it, the sublime “takes you out of this world into a heavenly life” (22/02/2011).


           But just as we aren't so sure whether Longinus wrote On the Sulime, we also seem to be constantly redefining what the Sublime is and how much we think Longinus' conception of the Sublime should set the tone for every else. Pretty much, everyone wants to redefine the sublime. The modern mania for the sublime started in in 1671 with a translation of Longinus into the French. But the real break for Longinus in the modern work was Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” in 1757. That date make clue you in that this is the Burke who was a politician in the late 18th century, not the 20th century rhetorician. This Burke, Edmund, defined the sublime a little more narrowly: the sublime is “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger.” I can see where Burke is coming from on this--what takes you away from the every day and focuses your attention more than the threat of imminent danger? Still, it somewhat restricts what the sublime can be. Now rather  than just a “bolt of lightning” it’s a bolt of lightning on a dark and stormy night.

           This broodiness led to the sublime being picked up by all those romantic poets fifty years later, who loved to stand on top of Alpine cliffs in the fog and stare into the abyss and all that. Wordsworth, who was always have out-of-body sublime moments, wrote in “Tintern Abbey” about “of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood/ in which the burden of the mystery/ in which the heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world”--certainly solemn stuff. Wordworth’s sister, Dorothy, made fun of some tourists who were unforuntate enough to talk with Coleridge at a waterfall. She relates “Yes, sir’, says Coleridge, ‘it is a majestic waterfall.’ ‘Sublime and beautiful,’ replied his friend.” Coleridge thought this was the funniest thing ever and straight away ditched the tourists and came to his poet friends to laugh about how people were overusing the word “sublime.” Jerk move on Coleridge’s part, but gets to the point of how the “sublime” was becoming a specific term for the Romantics.

           This isn’t to say everyone in the 18th and early 19th century had one idea about what the sublime is. Kant, for instance, found the sublime not in nature, but in the “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason.” Yes, while Longinus describes the sublimity of language and the Romantics found the sublime in nature, Kant can be carried away by an abstraction. For Kant, the sublime isn't just about aesthetics, but about the contrast between something very big and grand and the littleness of man—you can try to comprehend something incomprehendable when you encounter the sublime. That's heavy stuff.

           The sublime has continued to fascinate modern rhetoricians and thinkers. More recently, in the 1980s Suzanne Guerlac has contended that Longinus' “On the Sublime" “has traditionally been read as a manual of elevated style and relegated to the domain of the 'merely' rhetorical. The rhetorical sublime has in turn been linked with a notion of affective criticism in which analysis of style and expression centers upon questions of subjective feeling and emotive force” (275). Instead, and remember this is the 80s, she salutes “on the sublime” as being an assault on simple subjectivity, disrupting binaries like form/content and means/ends (276). The sublime in Longinus is about being sincere, but a sincerity that can be forced.  This isn't the only contradiction, but one that is representative of the paradoxes of art. " The Longinian sublime implies a dynamic overlapping, or reciprocity, between the orders of the symbolic and the imaginary" writes Guerlac (286).

           The little essay that maybe Longinus wrote, or maybe someone else wrote, has had a big influence in art, literature and rhetoric. Also, evidentally, waterfall-watching.  Do you know what else is influential? Email I get. Even those I don't respond to for like, more than a year.  That's my bad. Mike Litts wrote in asking for an episode on the sublime back in 2015, but here we are, a year and a half later and by gum, we've done an episode about the sublime. If you like delayed gratification, please feel free to write in to and suggest your own favorite topic. No, I'm just kidding. I think I fixed my email problem, so if you write in, I'll respond in less than a year. And won't that be sublime?