"Rise to thought" : Augustinian ethics in Donne, Shakespeare, and Milton

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Harris, Mitchell Munroe, 1977-

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This dissertation considers the development of an ethics stemming from the Augustinian revival of early modern England, and the subsequent effect of this ethics on the literary culture of the period. The Preface claims that religious and textual communities operate according to a “cultural mobility” that eludes conventional neo-historicist approaches to literary culture, and Paul Ricoeur’s aphorism, “the symbol gives rise to thought,” serves as a model for thinking through this mobility. Augustinian ethics is a cultural phenomenon in the period, because people are thinking about Augustine, giving new life to his works through their own expressions of thought. After exploring the ways in which the Augustinian revival was brought about during the early modern period in the Introduction, one such expression of thought, John Donne’s relationship with early modern print culture, is examined in Chapter One. Following the theoretical outline of Augustine’s Christianization of Ciceronian rhetoric in his De Doctrina Christiana, it is suggested that though Donne’s aversion to the print publication of his poetry may have begun as a result of his “gentlemanly disdain” of the press, it ultimately found its sustenance in the form of an Augustinian ethic. Chapter Two examines the possibility of a metaphorical acquisition of Augustinian hermeneutics in the metadrama of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This hermeneutics ultimately calls into question the epistemological framework of Theseus’s skeptical aesthetics, suggesting that a more inclusive aesthetics based on charity can elevate the stage to its proper dignity. The last chapter turns from the communal implications of Augustinian ethics to its subjective implications by examining Augustine’s inner light theology and the role it plays in John Milton’s late poetry. Instead of falling in line with criticism that sees the simultaneous publication of Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes as a dialectical meditation on the virtues of pacifism and the evils of religious violence, this reading suggests that the late poetry asserts the ethical rights of those who attend to the inner light, whether they be peaceful or violent.