At the heart of Edmund Spenser’s moral allegory in The Faerie Queene is a problem that would become central to English intellectual life well into the modern era: understanding colonialism, and the coercive violence on which it depends, as a form of moral activity. Spenser’s ethics reads Spenser as a moral theorist whose ethics are significantly shaped by his experiences as a colonial administrator in Elizabethan Ireland. It illustrates how both his poetry and prose take up key shifts in early modern moral philosophy, while addressing the political project of colonial empire-building. This book is an essential study of Spenser as an ethicist grappling, on the one hand, with the decline and transformation of the classical and humanist virtue ethics tradition in the late sixteenth century, and on the other, with imagining new paradigms of heroic subjectivity for the early modern, imperial nation. It examines the ways Spenser draws on and reworks the Western ethical tradition during a period of tremendous cultural upheaval and political transformation, and illuminates that philosophical tradition’s evolution alongside early modern England’s wider political and economic transformation into a global nation-state built on the foundations of colonial expansion. Emphasizing the conceptual rigor, clarity, and coherence of Spenser’s moral vision, it depicts Spenser as a literary ethicist rigorously committed to discovering a politically and metaphysically viable account of moral life in an era that starkly reveals the ancient virtues’ conceptual and practical limitations.
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.
The complicated category of the imperfectible human navigating the mutable world is the pivotal object of speculation in Spenserian ethics, examining how Spenser sets out to discover the moral possibilities of his agents’ boundedness in temporality, worldly change, and transformation. Here we see accounts of the mutable body itself as site of procreant expansion, and thus as a microcosm and animating engine of empire building. Linking Spenser’s romance narrative structures to the formal patterns of colonialist expansion mapped out in Sir Thomas Smith’s 1572 pamphlet written in promotion of the Ulster plantation, Chapter 2 argues that Spenser renders a wholesale reorientation of received Aristotelian ways of thinking about meaning-making aims and of the orienting purpose of a human life away from self-perfecting character-making and towards the articulation of collective, and expansive, political agendas.
Spenser centers his moral project around the virtue ‘magnificence’, positing the expansive and transformative project of empire building as the privileged form of moral agency in a mutable world. Chapter 3 first traces a brief history of the ways in which Elizabethan vernacular and popular moral discourses align magnificence with specifically secular and political imperatives, while privileging the temporal and mutable body as the origin and end of magnificent activity. Such a shift constitutes a basic rift with received Aristotelian accounts of human excellence’s self-transcending orientation, a rift modeled in the narratives of Redcrosse and Arthur. Both of their quests are organized by a recognition that the ultimate scope and teleological orientation of virtue is fundamentally concerned with establishing a politically viable mode of embodied life in historical time, one whose ultimate goal and material instantiation is the imperial commonwealth.
Time, change, and flourishing in the Gardens of Adonis
Chapter 4’s analysis pivots towards the metaphysical questions such an account of virtue entails. It argues that Spenser’s central image of worldly flourishing, the Gardens of Adonis, describes the metaphysical crux of moral life as Spenser understands it – rendering the good within the material facts of time, death, and decay. The Garden’s iconic exemplar of virtue is Adonis, who represents the instrumentalization of the organic body’s substance by embodying death’s conversion into the infinite potentiality of a form-making life. The image of Adonis in the Garden describes how deathly and temporal bodies become procreant, generative, and expansive forms of life. I argue that such a body stands as the ethical core of this poem and its account of human flourishing. To extend the image beyond the poetic bounds of the Gardens of Adonis and into the critical agendas of the poem writ large, the scene’s images of mortality offer a crucial metaphor for understanding the ways we productively inhabit the mutable world by figuring the point where our poetic, moral, and political lives shape and sustain one another in the task of carving out niches of civilization against the incursions of time and loss.
While Spenser is firmly rooted in the virtue ethics premise that the telos of moral life is action oriented towards the production of flourishing, Chapter 5 offers an account of the often radically un-Aristotelian shape this vision of flourishing assumes in Spenser’s ethics. This chapter considers the disciplinary agendas of Spenser’s ethical imagination as a projection of the Garden of Adonis’s metaphysical concerns into the realm of political agency. Through readings of Neostoic thought in the ‘Mutability Cantos’, of Guyon’s destruction of the Bower of Bliss, and of the image of the colonial market town near the close of Spenser’s prose dialogue, A View of the Present State of Ireland, it examines the relationship of this central marker of Spenserian political virtue to broader questions of moral subjectivity, of virtuous action, and of the possibility of a flourishing life in the mutable world. Spenser’s program of ‘vertuous and gentle discipline’ describes how structures of normative behavior and personal comportment are ultimately concerned with marshalling the mutable body, its needs, and its desires towards generating a social order within a disordered, and potentially disordering, world.
Central to Spenser’s ethics is the question of the political and metaphysical insufficiency of the ancient virtues to the task of establishing colonial rule in Ireland. Chapter 6 focuses on Spenser’s engagements with the Florentine political theorist, Machiavelli, claiming that if Spenser’s Irish experience exposes the political limitations of an Aristotelian understanding of virtuous action, then the View’s Machiavelli-inflected account of Arthur, Lord Grey as an icon of virtue notably clarifies the scope, aims, and ambitions of what we might describe as a specifically Spenserian account of virtue. Spenser’s account of Grey’s violent tenure in Ireland, in which he upholds the massacre of Spanish troops at Smerwick as an exemplary action, defines virtue not as fulfillment of normative principles of excellence, but as the ability to respond in politically efficacious ways to various bad choices compelled by fortune and necessity.
Spenser’s ethics are organized among concerns that would become pivotal to the transforming discipline of moral philosophy in early modernity: making the status of humanity itself a central speculative problem of moral inquiry, and centering social obligations as both the normative guide to, and ultimate telos of, virtuous agency. Spenser is thus important to the history of moral philosophy because he also illuminates the ways these questions find a crucial aspect of their historical origin in early modern England’s political emergence as a colonial empire, helping to shape central representational and critical problems of British intellectual culture well into the modern era: the challenge of understanding colonialism, and the coercive violence on which it depends, as a moral activity. Reading Spenser as a moral theorist, and one whose moral theory is significantly shaped by his experiences in Elizabethan Ireland, thus illuminates at a crucial moment of historical inception that philosophical tradition’s pivotal turn as it evolved alongside early modern England’s wider political and economic transformation into a global nation-state built on the foundations of colonial expansion.