Men seem to admire “that which is astounding” when they hear someone speak. Some would say our modern news cycles seek to either find or twist facts to make them astounding, but in On the Sublime, Longinus examines the power of persuasion along with language’s sublimity. Effective persuasion is often fueled by passion which Longinus first defines as intense emotion. But emotion is too simple. Any speaker can contrive emotion, but what about true gifted oratory? Out of his five elements of elevated language, Longinus argues there is an innate vehement and inspired passion that at times is of a divine spirit. It can appear in our writing and speech, but more particularly, throughout our lives.

At first, Longinus seems to define passion by what it is not. He does describe a contrived passion that is “inflated and unreal” where an orator might know he needs to employ it within his speech and force an unnatural vehemence. Yet, that falsity is felt by the audience, and it unfortunately has a contrary effect in speech or writing. Longinus clearly calls it an empty passion at that moment where “all who aim at elevation are so anxious to escape the reproach of being weak and dry that they are carried, as by some strange law of nature, into the opposite extreme.” It’s as if the speaker knows they are failing and merely hopes that an outburst will save their effort. We might call it yelling, and it is too true today. A false passion falls flat, for the audience can clearly sense its insincerity.

A true heartfelt passion according to Longinus is expressed within the natural scope of a speech or text. It will both enliven the imagery described and fit naturally to the mode of the content and the rhythm of the speaker—“There is no tone so lofty as that of genuine passion, in its right place.” Especially in oratory, the images described by the speaker can stir the passions and emotions. For example, spontaneous outbursts of passion are common, “for an exhibition of passion has a greater effect when it seems not to be studied… but to be inspired by the occasion.” It is even possible to so embody a character or historical figure you speak of so that you practically become that character. But passion can be more than just an inspired outburst.

Passion can also be a style of presentation, a persistent and developing element within the speaker and his discourse. Longinus cites Cicero as an ideal of an elevated speaker who “rolls on with all-devouring flames, having… an ample and abiding store of fire… in unceasing succession.” That “store of fire” is a continual inspired passion that builds and almost consumes throughout his speech. But Longinus’ favorite orator is passionate in a different manner. Demosthenes “in his vehemence—aye, and in his speed, power, and intensity—he can as it were consume by fire and carry away all before him.” Demosthenes’ building passion can be further punctuated by sudden bursts like a “thunderbolt” or “flash of lightning.” These differing styles share one commonality—that passion must be combined with power regardless of pace of delivery. Longinus terms it “living passions… with that power and vehemence of his which forbid reproach.” If it forbids reproach, it is genuine, something deep within the speaker that must be spoken.

In that sense, Longinus does limit the use of passion. He does recognize that it can be overdone and clarifies that “even in the revels of the imagination sobriety is required.” The author or speaker must be always conscious of its use and effect, for there is a measured balance to its use. It can be underdone or overdone. Consider Longinus’ description of the poet Sappho’s abilities. She is seen as a skilled and excellent writer who “selects and binds together the most striking and vehement circumstances of passion.” Hers is a conscious effort, and that awareness is a reminder to us to be aware of our use of words.

To skillfully wield passion within our own writing or speaking like Sappho or Cicero, Longinus relays a few recommendations. One of the simplest approaches is trying “imitation and emulation of previous great poets and writers.” He feels that the legacy of their success will “inflame our ardour… illumining our path… to the high standards of sublimity.” In this way, we can not only appreciate the ideal, but we can also synthesize the success of passion in its place and the other elements of elevated language. To that, we add our personal style or presentation and arrange our words so that they are persuasive and harmonious, “a wonderful instrument of lofty utterance and of passion.” Above all else, Longinus encourages us that a whole-hearted effort is most worthwhile both in speech and in life, for life without passion is fruitless—“among the banes of the natures which our age produces must be reckoned that half-heartedness in which the life of all of us with few exceptions is passed.”

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Editor’s Note: See Longinus’ On the Sublime, translated by H.L. Havell (London: Macmillan and Co., 1890). The featured image is “St. Paul Preaching at Athens” (1515) by Raphael (1483-1520), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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