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Everyday Ethics

Part III: Spenser, Superheroes, and Ethics: Allegory in the 21st Century

Most recently, I’ve been studying Reformation concepts of contentment in English Renaissance literature, the topic of my dissertation. Today, contentment is often thought of as a watered-down form of pleasure aligned with passivity and resignation. Deeply suspicious of the concept, literary critics tend to explain professions and portrayals of contentment as little more than evidence of widespread discontent. By this account, all writing about contentment becomes a form of escapism or wish-fulfillment for authors and audiences who are hopelessly anxious, dissatisfied, and despairing.

Read Part II: Superheroes and Ethics?

III.  Ethical Contentment in Spenser and the Renaissance

Most recently, I’ve been studying Reformation concepts of contentment in English Renaissance literature, the topic of my dissertation. Today, contentment is often thought of as a watered-down form of pleasure aligned with passivity and resignation. Deeply suspicious of the concept, literary critics tend to explain professions and portrayals of contentment as little more than evidence of widespread discontent. By this account, all writing about contentment becomes a form of escapism or wish-fulfillment for authors and audiences who are hopelessly anxious, dissatisfied, and despairing.

My research challenges the assumption that contentment was merely a smokescreen for social issues or an unattainable fantasy known to be utterly false. By looking at a wide range of texts, I expose an early modern discourse on contentment as an emotional and ethical principle with profound significance in the period. Contentment suggests “satisfaction,” but it is equally a condition that holds together and sustains the individual. Contentment becomes a way of protecting the contents of the self, fortifying the self from threats both within and without. But it’s not about isolation or withdrawal. Contentment is a means of survival, but it’s also a way of relating to others, of taking political action, of coming to terms with something bigger than or alien to yourself. And as the Reformation impacted the ways that the English thought about marriage, government, and their connection to God, it became important to articulate the place of contentment in all of this.

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Spenser’s Faerie Queene weighs in on this cultural conversation about contentment. The concept recurs throughout the poem, but the final cantos of Book VI bring contentment to the forefront. In these cantos, Spenser brings Sir Calidore (the Knight of Courtesy) to live among shepherds, and the epic romance takes on a distinctly pastoral complexion. Through the character of Calidore, Spenser examines and tests the contentment prized by many of his contemporaries. For Spenser, the value of this contentment resides in its ability to endure hardship and suffering. Rather than encouraging the individual to ignore injustices and pressing social problems, contentment enables a productive and principled response to them.

While the particularities of this Spenserian pastoral contentment may seem removed from us aesthetically, religiously, and politically, it nevertheless has profound implications for how we comport ourselves as ethical agents. Spenser responded to his historical moment in very precise ways, but his work can still speak to us today. More specifically, Spenser’s Faerie Queene forces us to think about the relationship between our psychological well-being and efficacious social action. Admitting the limitations of contentment in an imperfect world, Spenser can help us evaluate the usefulness of sixteenth-century contentment (and Renaissance ethical thought more broadly) in the twenty-first century. In this way, Spenser's heroes and their twenty-first century "super" counterparts can speak as much to the seemingly mundane experiences of everyday emotional existence as they can abstract issues of right and wrong.