(I here avoid Greek, using instead T. S. Dorsch's translation, readily available in the Penguin Classical Literary Criticism.)
I have yet to hear a convincing case for assigning literary value. To argue that one poem is “better” than another – or “more beautiful” or “greater” – one must adopt an empirical approach: some texts have in the past produced richer, stronger, more sublime reactions in more readers. It is likely that new readers will find the same rewards, though in every age they will, of course, discard some classics and adopt new ones.
Apart from distinctions among individual works, of course, art’s value has been questioned since Greek antiquity. To Plato the transports of art are highly suspect. Either as author or reader, he considered seizure by poetry as risky as seizure by love or by any of the gods. His idea of imitation dooms art from the start to a position subsidiary both to ordinary perceived reality and to the loftier philosophic forms. Aristotle’s celebrated assertion of the superiority of poetry to history reduces the poet’s achievement to the ability to penetrate to broader generalizations than most observers, a sort of generalized “science” or predicting. Aristotle treats poetry as simply one of the artifact-generating activities of humankind, subject to analysis and description like species of fish. Most other ancient writers on the topic specialize in composing effective oratory.
And then this mysterious essay On the Sublime drifts into view. Its author never questions art’s positive value. His date, indeed one might almost say his era, is in doubt. His name is a mere convenience. Though a tenth century manuscript is headed with the names Longinus and Dionysius, the essay seems to belong to neither of the known figures with those names. There are no references to the work by any other author of antiquity. Its singular character is suggested by the fact that Longinus cites an ode by Sappho and the opening of Genesis with equal admiration.
Longinus’ essay, far more than most criticism of any age, focuses on the reader’s reaction more than on “truth,” expressive content or formal beauty. Though it is undoubtedly true that people learn from the poetry and plays they consume and all respond to intentional patterns, the primary motive of literary consumers is surely pleasure. Santayana’s celebrated axiom “Beauty is pleasure objectified – pleasure regarded as the quality of an object” restores pleasure to the foreground (while attempting to resist its subjectivity by the repetition of the word “object”).
Admittedly, Longinus’ pleasure principle is concealed behind the word “sublime,” an old-fashioned term about which we hear little these days. As the very use of the word indicates a value judgment, to approve the sublime would seem tautological, but Longinus uses the concept to put the spotlight on his subjective impressions. To him the sublime is what “entrances,” what the reader or listener finds “irresistible.” [Ch. 1] Sublimity seems in the end to mean simply excellence or distinction of a certain high-flown sort.
Sublimity is generated by the use of rhetorical figures (which are, after all, one of the primary markers of the literary text). According to Longinus, “rhetorical figures reinforce the sublime.” [Ch. 17] Too much, however is a bad thing. Though an “accumulation of figures” can have a moving effect, [Ch. 20] an excess is as pathological as a swelling in the body. [Ch. 3] Longinus understands that literary success and failure both stem from deviation from ordinary language – only taste can discern the right use of rhetoric. [Ch. 5]
Accustomed for several hundred years to the aesthetics of the sordid and the mean we might be puzzled by Longinus’ exclusive preference for the “noble,” “uplifting,” grand style is based an assumption unlikely to find many advocates today: “Sublimity is the echo of a noble mind.” [Ch. 9] Modern readers would not be inclined to make “character” an issue for authors as is has become for politicians. Since the Romantic glorification of the outsider and the anti-hero, conventional morality is required neither of protagonists nor of their creators. For Longinus rhetoric has decayed with the loss of democracy: “no slave ever becomes an orator.” [Ch. 44] He conflates aesthetic and moral/spiritual categories, thinking high-mindedness most attractive and literature a sort of pleasurable training program for self-improvement. For him literary acumen is not a specialized branch of knowledge but the measure of the whole man. “The ability to judge literature is the crowning achievement of long experience.” [Ch. 6]
Like Plato’s use of the dialogue form, Longinus’ epistolary pretense suggests a living human nexus and the pleasure and affection people experience in the exchange of ideas. At the outset he proposes setting forth his views to Terentianus at his friend’s prompting so they might together pursue truth.
Longinus’ praise of the author of Genesis provides thematic reinforcement of this sense of dignity. Whether or not he is a Hellenized Jew, he is impressed with the philosophical sophistication of the concept of the divine expressed in the creation by fiat. He contrasts it to Homeric passages in which the gods play a less dignified role. He says nothing about the Hebrew author’s stately monumental hieratic rhetoric describing the “unfolding” of reality in the establishment of binary oppositions: light/dark, heaven/earth, sea/land, and the rest. Surely not every statement of an absolute divine would win his praise, and indeed he finds excuses for the dubious Homeric material which, he says, must be “taken as allegory.” His subjectivity is in the lead.
Likewise a few pages later when he praises Sappho’s poem “Equal to the gods he seems to me . . .” he uses entirely impressionistic language, both positively (“Are you not astonished”) and negatively (“it is obvious to anyone” “he has made it trivial and elegant instead of terrifying”). [Ch. 10]
The fact is that each of us similarly makes intuitive value judgments about art. The ingenious can then invent rationalizations for them, some of which might prove useful in looking at other works. One’s unanalytical first reactions, though, like one’s sense impressions in daily life, provide the data with which everyone works. My strongest impression of the great critics, like Longinus, William Hazlitt, and Northrup Frye, are less their theoretical assumptions than the dependable accuracy of their value judgments. Longinus may annoy the modern reader with his lengthy discussions of figures of speech and thought bearing lengthy Greek names, most familiar only to a few specialists today, but he knows what is good. Further, the fact is that rhetoric, really the study of how aesthetic language differs from other discourses, long formed the base of literary theory and remains largely neglected today. ( I, for one, would welcome its revival, and one could do worse than to begin with Longinus on metaphor. [Ch. 32]) Another stylist, Edward Gibbon, justly said of Longinus, “He tells me his own feelings upon reading it, and tells them with such energy that he communicates them.”