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Longinus and Quintilian: Greco-Roman Perspectives on the Nature of Criticism

  • Prof. Stephen Halliwell
7 December 2017
Forum Antiquum
University Library
Witte Singel 26-27
2311 BG Leiden
Vossius zaal


What constitutes ‘literary criticism’ in antiquity is necessarily debatable, since the term does not correspond to a stable disciplinary category but something more like an intersection of certain forms of discourse in philosophy, rhetoric, poetics, and grammatical theory. But this observation does not justify driving a wedge between antiquity and modernity, since what ‘we’ mean by literary criticism is itself problematically embedded in a history of intellectual controversy and conflicting schools of thought (as well as practice).

Discussion of ancient literary criticism therefore requires a sort of dialectical sensitivity to both ancient and modern presuppositions. The present paper will apply this principle to a set of issues which might be called ‘the problem of value’ – i.e., the contested standards and criteria employed by critics in their evaluative judgements on authors and texts. I shall offer some comparative observations on Longinus (i.e. the unknown author of On the sublime) and Quintilian at a level which focusses on the etymological force of criticism as ‘judgement’ (κρίσις, iudicium). Contending that the problem of value is of fundamental importance for the history of criticism, I shall analyse certain tensions in the value-schemes of the two authors. Longinus’s treatise, despite an ostensible aspiration to be ‘useful’ to those engaged in public life, stands at a marked distance from the workings of the Roman imperial world in which it was produced.

Its culturally nostalgic sensibility rises above the pragmatic pressures of political and social life; its values are trans-historical and orientated towards the cultivation of ‘greatness of mind’. Quintilian’s rhetorical handbook, by contrast, consistently addresses the education and training of orators for (above all) the Roman legal system, emphatically making utility its primary concern. But Quintilian also purports to coordinate this purpose with broader standards of Greco-Roman rhetorico-poetic criticism: the result, I shall suggest, is a difficulty in harmonising the various values to which he appeals, and in particular an inability to do justice to the non-instrumental values of poetry.

About the speaker

Halliwell’s published research ranges widely across both Greek literature (from Homer to late antiquity) and Greek philosophy (from Plato to Neoplatonism), as well as dealing with the interface between literature and philosophy. He has tried – especially in his books on mimesis, laughter, and Greek poetics – to harness large questions of cultural understanding to the close reading of individual texts. He firmly believes that good research in Classics requires a combination of high linguistic standards with wide intellectual horizons. His current project is a new edition (with introduction, text, and commentary) of ‘Longinus’ On the Sublime.