Milton’s Spenser
An alternative virtue for a fallen world
in Spenser’s ethics
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An overview of Spenser’s basic ethical assumptions is revealed through a reading of what remains the most pointed and vigorous claim for Spenser’s status as an innovator in moral theory: John Milton’s account of Spenser’s ethical poetics in Areopagitica. The image of Spenserian virtue advanced by Milton renders a broad-strokes outline both of Spenser’s moral thought and its particular divergences from key norms and assumptions of the classical and humanist virtue-ethics traditions, depicting Spenser as, above all, a theorist of the problem of virtue in a metaphysically fallen world. We see here an ethics centered in an agent that is necessarily imperfectible, thereby complicating virtue ethics’ foundational centering figure of the perfectible human character and instead making political action and association the normative point of reference for moral agency, life, and being. By construing the human not as a normative center, but as itself an object of speculation, and making social interaction and obligation the normative frame of reference for ethical action, Milton reveals how Spenser offers both a key departure from ancient ethical frameworks and, in turn, a crucial anticipation of modern moral philosophy.

Spenser’s ethics

Empire, mutability, and moral philosophy in early modernity

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