A Festschrift in Honour of A.V.C. Schmidt
Terror, Horror and the Fear of God, or, Why There Is No Medieval Sublime
← 16 | 17 → MARY CARRUTHERS
A recent collection of essays has raised again the question of whether the Middle Ages (and indeed Latin rhetoric generally) had any notion of what the late eighteenth century knew as The Sublime, a cornerstone as well of High Modernist aesthetic sensibility.1 Defined in a third-century Greek treatise on style by one Longinus (and unknown in the Latin world before the sixteenth century), Greek Sublime (hypsos), exemplified particularly by Demosthenes, was contrasted in the treatise to Roman amplification (augmentatio, αὔξησις), exemplified by Cicero.2 The Sublime is a rhetorical style that is psychically inspirational; it raises the powers of language vertically, whereas amplification is always horizontal, spreading rather than lifting. In this comparison, one may well detect some revenge being taken by Longinus (whoever he was) for the dismissive remarks about Greek rhetoric that Cicero puts in the mouths of his speakers in the far better known De oratore. Whatever the initial motive, Περὶ Ὕψους (‘On the Sublime’) inspired Edmund Burke, in particular, to redefine the Sublime from a style to a kind of aesthetic and emotional experience, at its grandest bringing quasi-religious, even prophetic, encounters with Spirit through mediatory powers of Nature.3
In his comparison of Demosthenes with Cicero, Longinus claimed that Sublimity was not just a matter of large size and vertical scale. But the word he chose to characterize its expression, megethos, does in fact refer basically to stature, and then acquired nuances of social standing and worthiness, now often translated in English...
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