Virtue Reality: Axiology and Imagination in the English Renaissance
Rodrigues, Donald T.
What does “virtue” have to do with “the virtual,” in any senses of these terms we now recognize? While the virtual seems a contemporary term and preoccupation, this dissertation argues that through the prism of virtue, virtual spaces and theories of selfhood and community began to proliferate in England during the era of the Tudor dynasties. An investigation into the poetic, political, and theological concerns of the period shows that early modern thinkers began to engage emerging doctrines of virtue alongside discourses on imagination that challenged prevailing dogmas of civic life, thereby forcing an analytic lens upon gaps between actual and ideal worlds. These thinkers draw attention to the changing nature of potentiality: that which I have deemed possible but which has not yet been given formal expression in the real. To this end, I pursue the logic according to which writers writing about virtue in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries stage alternative or “counterfactual” visions of history, time, and material embodiment, as occurs in works that present or presume a heterocosmic order. I likewise draw attention to those “second worlds” given dimension through the effective force of axiological intent: worlds dependent, that is, on the constitutionalizing effect of virtue. In addressing these matters, this dissertation assesses the longstanding thesis that the collapse of Aristotelian virtue ethics under Renaissance humanism propelled modernity into “simulacra of morality,” as Alisdair MacIntyre has influentially argued. Using traditional and computational methods, I show that this apparent declension coincides strikingly with the ascendency of a revised conception of virtue. The history of the virtual’s eventual “splitting” from virtue, I claim, requires us to look specifically at the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when virtue’s adjectival form retained a fleeting yet powerful analogical resonance to its master-term. This dissertation thereby intervenes in the contemporary literature on digital virtuality, which overwhelmingly neglects consideration of the virtual’s axiological dimensions.