Want to write better than you do? Consider trying these four ancient tricks:
Focus on the sublime. The Greek writer, Longinus (first century CE), is among the first persons to address what would become a recurrent theme in the history of writing, rhetoric, and literary criticism: the sublime (elevated emotion; ecstasy; epiphany; discomfort in the presence of something beautiful or powerful, even to terror). Longinus’s reflections on the sublime can be found in his book, On Sublimity (first century C.E.); it is there that he invites would-be writers to enter into “the way of imitation and emulation of great writers of the past” (142). The Greek poet Homer, for Longinus, is the gold-standard for imitation; he is the writer that both the historian Herodotus and the philosopher Plato read closely, looking for hints in his Iliad and Odyssey as to how writing might produce in readers “wonder and astonishment” as opposed to language that is “merely persuasive and pleasant” (137). In writing, Longinus advises attention to rhythm and figurative language (such as metaphor) to bring readers to sublime emotions.
Be competitive. The way that Herodotus and Plato read Homer was, in Longinus’s view, agonistic (competitive). If you’re a writer, you read a poet like Homer not just with the desire of learning from him, but of also outdoing him: “Plato could not have put such a brilliant finish on his philosophical doctrines or so often risen to poetical subjects and poetical language, if he had not tried, wholeheartedly, to compete for the prize against Homer.” The idea that writing was best accomplished in competition was shared by the ancient Greeks, whose most famous playwrights (Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) wrote their plays for competitions put on each spring to the god Dionysus. In Freudian terms, we might also say that competition in writing is Oedipal (a child attempting to vanquish a parent to obtain power or mates). Thus Longinus, thinking in Freudian terms long before Freud, writes that “a young aspirant challenging an admired master” is the goal, and with regard to Plato’s imitation of Homer, “[t]o break a lance in this way [by way of competition] may well have been a brash and contentious thing to do, but the competition proved anything but valueless. As Hesiod says, ‘this strife is good for men’” (142).
Imagine great writers as your audience. In reaching for elevated thoughts on a subject, Longinus recommends having the great writers lurking in your consciousness:
[I]t is good to imagine how Homer would have said the same thing, . . . great figures [in the history of writing], presented to us as objects of emulation and, as it were, shining before our gaze, will somehow elevate our minds to the greatness of which we form a mental image. They will be even more effective if we ask ourselves ‘How would Homer or Demosthenes have reacted to what I am saying, if he had been here? What would his feelings have been?’ It makes it a great occasion if you imagine such a jury or audience . . . and pretend that you are answering for what you write . . . (143)
As if you are wafting in incense, surround yourself with books, but don’t plagiarise. It should be emphasized that by imitation of great writers, Longinus is not advocating plagiarism. Rather, he likens the close reading of exemplary and model writers to that of the Pythia–the famed priestess of Apollo–who, when prophesying, stands in the midst of divine vapors that exhale from a “cleft in the ground.” This provides a hint as to how steeped in books Longinus thinks the serious aspirant to sublime writing should be, though Longinus is also explicit: “In all this process there is no plagiarism. It resembles rather the reproduction of good character in statues and works of art” (142).
- The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition, 2010). An excerpt from Longinus’s On Sublimity is on pages 136-154 of this text.