Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.25

James I. Porter, The Sublime in Antiquity.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxii, 690.  ISBN 9781107037472.  $160.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen Halliwell, University of St Andrews (


James Porter’s new book, like its equally bulky and polemical predecessor, The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece (2010),1 is a bravura exercise in a kind of conceptual expansionism. Just as the previous book advocated a substantial enlargement of the idea of aesthetics as applied to ancient modes of experience, so The Sublime in Antiquity contends that sublimity, far from being a novel concept when it surfaces as the subject of the treatise Peri hupsous, was actually a fundamental, even ‘pervasive’ (32) part of the traditions of Graeco-Roman thought, including aspects of philosophy and religion as well as literature, rhetoric and criticism. To impose some order on what he sees as its ‘promiscuousness’ (xviii) and ‘multiform’ character (xxii, 559), Porter argues that the ancient sublime displayed two main varieties, the ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’, the first focussing on properties of sensual and tangible experience, the second on a desire for transcendence.

This expanded perspective on the sublime scales down the significance of Peri hupsous itself, whose unknown author I shall follow Porter in simply calling Longinus. For Porter, modern interpretations of the sublime – ever since Boileau’s famous translation of Peri hupsous in 1674, but more especially in twentieth-century classical scholarship – have been unduly Longino-centric, ascribing to the author an exceptionalism that has obscured the broader evidence for a ‘cultural and literary sensibility’ (185) that Porter wishes to equate with the sublime. On this account, Longinus was no innovator but a ‘collecting point for multiple strands of reflection about the sublime’ (7) and a figure whose work rested on ‘a reaffirmation of the familiar’ (14).

The book is organised in six very large chapters (four of them 100 pages or more), each subdivided into numerous subsections that build up the argument in layers. Chapter 1 outlines the book’s core theses (including some stimulating aperçus on how Porter sees his enlarged, compound tradition of the sublime continuing through the Christian Middle Ages and into early modernity), but it also sets the pugnaciously polemical tone: Porter is prepared, for example, to describe the work of leading scholars of Longinus as in certain respects collectively ‘disastrous’ (7) and involving arguments ‘each of [which] based on a fallacy’ (15). Porter’s reading requires us to take Longinian sublimity as embedded in a rhetorical understanding of ‘style’ (though he does not adequately distinguish between broader and narrower senses of that term) yet at the same time linked by multiple threads to a larger body of thought about the cosmos, divinity, natural enquiry, and views on the ‘expansion of the self’ (27). To identify those threads, Porter insists, we must not be shackled by mere vocabulary: hupsos and its associates play a necessary part in the enquiry, but their absence must never be allowed to impede detection of ideas of sublimity of one sort or other, which may be couched in terms of immensity, sudden changes, gaps, collisions, or much else besides. After all, it seems, sublimity is ‘no one thing’ (54, cf. 598).

Chapter 2 develops Porter’s reading of Longinus in great detail, with a wealth of close observation though not without some brow-beating assertiveness and repetition (persistent traits). Among the salient claims are that Longinus is fully committed to an ‘art’ of the sublime (as opposed to making it a matter of pure ‘genius’, as readings that Porter traces back to Boileau and calls ‘romantic’ typically do); that Longinian ‘nature’ is filtered through technique in a ‘duplicitous’ (76), even ‘Machiavellian’ (90), collaboration; that the sublime is always ‘in quotation marks’ (101), i.e. a self-conscious element in the (partially disguised) construction of a cultural ideology; that, contrary to Longinus’s own assertion, sublimity is not beyond persuasion but a wholly rhetorical process; and that much of Longinus’s treatise depends on ‘the logic of the gap’ (171), by which Porter less than perspicuously denotes a play of extreme contrasts both physical and conceptual.

The remaining four chapters are mostly concerned with intimations and manifestations of the sublime before Longinus – its long ‘prehistory’ if one looks back from a Longinian point of view. Chapters 3 and 4 present blocks of material in approximately reverse chronology. Chapter 3 focusses on Hellenistic rhetorical and literary criticism. After some inevitably inconclusive thoughts on Caecilius of Caleacte (Longinus’s only explicitly named critical predecessor on the sublime), Porter concentrates on Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who has almost all the same vocabulary of hupsos and related terms as Longinus, and Demetrius (whoever he was), On Style (Περὶ ἑρμηνείας), who lacks the term hupsos itself but two of whose stylistic types, the ‘grand’ and the ‘forceful’, intersect with the Longinian sublime. As regards both Dionysius and Demetrius, Porter does not really discover anything unnoticed by earlier historians of criticism; rather, he attaches greater weight to perceived points of similarity. With Chapter 4 we continue backwards across a large arc of writers: Theophrastus, for his conception of grand style; Aristotle, who attributed grandeur to epic more than to tragedy; fourth-century orators (in their own work and as seen by later critics), who testify to putatively sublime motifs of rhetorical intensity, enthusiasm, and the like; Gorgias, with his theory of the power of logos; Aristophanes and Old Comedy, for an oblique awareness and vocabulary of poetic loftiness; tragedy, for an elevation both stylistic and ‘existential’ (including its obsession with the human-divine gap); Pindar, a key figure for his sense of poetic/heroic aspiration to quasi-divine greatness; and Homer, fons et origo of the sublime, for his conception of Olympian divinity and his evocation of an entire world magnified in scale and import.

Porter’s last two chapters elaborate his paradigms of contrasting, though subtly intertwined, traditions of the ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’ sublime. Chapter 5, the book’s longest, is built chiefly around certain attitudes to nature and natural enquiry (phusiologia); it maintains that the material sublime arises from a feeling of the ‘radical otherness’ of matter (391). The Presocratics, especially the pluralists Empedocles and Anaxagoras, are given a starring role as thinkers who find an exhilarating (and, therefore, ‘sublime’) abundance and plenitude in nature. From there we move forward, via Aristophanes (whose Clouds supposedly reflects a popular conception of the material sublime); to the speculative naturalism of Lucretius and epicureanism (Porter makes good use here of PHerc. 831); pseudo-Aristotle, De mundo; Manilius, Astronomica; the anonymous Aetna poem; and Cleomedes, Meteora. It is impossible to do justice here to the impressive range of Porter’s insights into his collection of texts. Equally, the big and nagging question remains: what is gained by subsuming them all under the heading of the sublime? And the same holds for Chapter 6, where Porter complains that modern views have privileged the ‘immaterial sublime’, with its yearning for transcendence, but nonetheless admits that the features he associates with that label form a vital aspect of much ancient thought and writing. Here we return to Homer, whose gods inhabit a ‘gap’ (that favourite term of Porter’s again) in understanding of the world and are to be considered sublime for their ‘pure excess’ (542), and also to the Presocratics, who are now invoked for adding to the awesome inexplicability of the divine. That leaves the inescapable figure of Plato (as well as his Neoplatonist devotees) – one of Longinus’s own heroes, though more as writer than philosopher, and for Porter himself an archetype of the sublime for, above all, his visionary metaphysics, in which sublimity and beauty are taken to be inextricable.

In its intellectual scope and energy, this book is a tour de force. But it is inordinately long and remorseless in the pursuit of its case (many of the 1300 plus footnotes continue the argument in detail), making extremely heavy demands on anyone who tackles it wholesale. Specialists in Longinus and ancient criticism need to do just that, but many other readers will benefit from turning directly to Porter’s views on particular authors or ideas. A considered verdict on the success of the project must, in my judgement, be qualified. Porter’s reading of Longinus himself, though illuminating in many places, is less original than he would have us believe; it is shored up by selective and sometimes misleading criticism of others. It is a complete travesty, for instance, to suggest that Donald Russell, doyen of modern Longinus scholars (and someone with a nonpareil knowledge of ancient rhetoric), is symptomatic of an approach that leaves Longinus ‘shorn of every connection to the ancient rhetorical tradition’ (50): Russell’s work is fully alert to such connections.2 Few scholars, in fact, have denied that Peri hupsous remains embedded in a rhetorical tradition of analysis, but it has been generally acknowledged that Longinus’s distinctiveness (his ‘uniqueness’, as Porter himself eventually concedes: 390) involves a combination of literary-rhetorical categories with a philosophico-religious conception of the mind’s relation to nature and the cosmos. Porter’s own rhetorical frame of reference is so uncompromising that it struggles with Longinus’s programmatic statement that sublimity lies, in some sense, beyond ‘persuasion’. Furthermore, he takes the Longinian sublime to be the ‘illusionistic’ (69) product of artifice without ever explaining how this could make sense for Longinus’s prime category of ‘greatness of thought’.

Reactions to Porter’s overall case for a greatly amplified ‘tradition of the sublime’ in antiquity, from Homer to Neoplatonism, will depend to a considerable extent on how far one is willing to allow him the conceptual latitude he needs for his expansionist perspective. A recurrent problem is that in order to sustain his argument on such a scale Porter finds himself oscillating unstably between two positions: one, as quoted earlier, that the sublime ‘is no one thing’ but a diffuse, multifarious assortment of cultural phenomena and impulses; the other, that it has some sort of recognisable kernel. The latter view emerges in a series of propositions, scattered throughout the book, that offer startlingly reductive formulae, of which the following are only a selection: the sublime is ‘nothing other than the very ecstasy of language, thought, and experience’ (56), ‘ nothing but the ecstasy of representation itself’ (140), ‘just another name for grandeur’ (in Dionysius and Longinus) (219), ‘merely a name’ for canonical classical status (226), ‘nothing other than...the ecstasy...of sensation itself’ (393), ‘at bottom a feeling, and experience, of life itself (393) – with my italics in every case except the last. But can all these propositions be meaningfully true? Can they usefully distinguish sublimity from other aesthetic, critical or philosophical values? It is hard to be confidently affirmative, especially given Porter’s own difficulty in maintaining consistency: the claim about grandeur, for one, is alarmingly contradicted elsewhere (‘grandeur by itself does not suffice as an index of the sublime’, 283), while the equation of sublimity with canonical status founders, among other things, on Dionysius’s view that Lysias is canonical but not ‘sublime’ (226-7) or on the same combination in Longinus’s estimation of (e.g.) Hyperides. One cannot help suspecting that it is the unavoidable price of Porter’s conceptual expansionism that the sublime becomes too big and amorphous for its own good. To add one more case to that selection of strangely reductive formulae, ‘Sublimity is really nothing more than a sign of the some ever-elusive object’ (536).

With just occasional bizarreries (the infinite divisibility of matter in Anaxagoras ‘performs what economists today call consumer market segmentation’, 423!) and mostly minor blips in its scholarship (though 317 with n. 106 is flawed by a confusion between the verbs τύπτειν and τυποῦν), Porter has written another remarkable book, albeit one that challenges preconceptions and raises nagging doubts in about equal measure. It deserves close attention from students of several areas of Graeco-Roman thought, and will garner admiration for its critical acumen and depth of historical learning.


1.   See my review in CPh 107 (2012) 362-6.
2.   Much later in the book, and mysteriously in a footnote on Demetrius, a statement of Russell’s that Longinus ‘represents a tradition’ (i.e. the central thesis of Porter’s book!) is bizarrely described as some kind of ‘hedging’ (264 n. 225).

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