Sunday, October 23, 2011

Greatness of Thought

One of the more intriguing notions discussed by Longinus in his text about sublimity is the "greatness of thought" topic, and I must say that I was a little thrown off by it. He says that when a person wishes to use sublimity, "the first source, natural greatness, is the most important (350)." The thought, story, idea in which a writer is trying to communicate must be initially "great." One cannot pour emotion and passion into a thought that isn't great in the first place. Something like that would most likely fall under the category of one of Longinus's faults in attempting to use sublimity. He writes while explaining this notion of greatness of thought that, "those whose thoughts and habits are trivial and servile all all their lives cannot possibly produce anything admirable or worthy of eternity (351)." He basically believes that in order for sublimity to work correctly and to its full potential, the base thought must be great to begin with. It is almost as if he is saying that only certain minds can generate a greatness of thought.

My initial question to this theory is what constitutes a thought being anointed "great" from that get go? Longinus seems to only categorize times of heavy action and emotion as thoughts of greatness, as he uses the Iliad as one of his main examples, and in particular the battle scenes. I can see what Longinus means when he refers to natural greatness, I am just not totally sure that I agree with him. What exactly constitutes as trivial? It would seem that this might be an idea that would vary from culture to culture and society to society. A group of people might not see a thought like love (Longinus uses Sappho's work as an example) as extremely great and worthy of sublimity, while another group does. It also seems like it could be a little reliant on situation as well and relatability. Not everyone thinks the same. While some thoughts resonate as great with most people, I am not sure how many are universal. If there are any universal naturally great thoughts, then their can't be that many of them.

I am also not sure how much I agree with the notion that some thought or habit that are for the most part trivial as something that cannot be enhanced with sublimity. I feel like sublimity is used with thoughts of everyday things all of the time, and I would not say that they are failures. That is pretty much what advertising is all about. Sublimity of trivial thoughts and habits. Sublimity can make a trivial thought more interesting and appealing. It can allow you to appreciate the everyday, and I really don't see a problem with that.


  1. This is also something that I had questioned when reading Longinus. You mention in your post that Longinus seems to claim that only certain minds have the ability to achieve the "greatness of thought" that is required in achieving the sublime in literature. While Longinus seems to beat around the bush a little in tackling this notion, I think that he would agree with your claim to some degree. He begins by discrediting the claim that greatness is a natural product. He refutes this claim by stating three arguments, most notably his assertion that " not a random force and does not work without method." Longinus continues by stating that grandeur is even "dangerous" without being accompanied by knowledge and morality (pg. 347). To me, Longinus is proposing that greatness is a natural trait, but the sublime cannot be achieved without training and further knowledge. While this is confusing due to his use of the word "natural" it seems as if Longinus proposes that talent is inherited, something that one is born with, but the use of that talent to achieve and present the sublime is acquired. His quotation of the Athenian general Demosthenes hammers home this idea: "What Demosthenes said of life in general is true also of literature: good fortune is the greatest of blessings, but good counsel comes next, and the lack of it destroys the other also" (347).

  2. I'm in full agreement with your disagreements, but I think I might have an idea as to where Longinus is coming from when he is deciding for everyone in whole world what is great and what is not. At first, I was reading Longinus's essay thinking that he was an arrogant jerk who was annoying me to no end. Then I had to remember that Longinus isn't writing this for the whole world. He's writing it for his friend/student. When it's something that personal, it's narrowing down his notion of "greatness." He is basing his explanation off of shared ideas of one other human being.

    That being said, perhaps Longinus still narrows down the possibilities of greatness too much. Like you said, everyone thinks differently. Longinus is, granted, just trying to get a point across, but even if he is only intending to address one person, it isn't up to him to decide what is great and what is not. Greatness changes from generation to generation, from place to place, from person to person. It's not something that can be set in stone. That being said, Longinus might have been wrong to even decide how a writer could create sublimity. There is no concrete greatness, and so how could there be concrete sublimity?

  3. Like all three of you, I also thought this was one of the more fascinating arguments that Longinus presents. When discussing what makes something sublime, he notes that in terms of text, it is a “kind of eminence or excellence of discourse” (347). I find this to be interesting because greatness is really a term based on individual perspective. What one person might deem great, or grand, may seem exceedingly ordinary to a different person. Similarly, going along with your notion of it being necessary for the base thought to initially be great, the statement “words will be great if thoughts are weighty” really sticks out to me (351). I feel that this claim may actually be related back to arguments made by Locke, and reinforce this notion of perspectivism. Longinus is essentially arguing that thoughts must originally be great in order for them to be sublime, but what if the person responsible for these “great” thoughts is incapable of presenting the appropriate words so to instill the same understanding to others?


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