In a famous passage, the Son of God in Paradise Regained dismisses classical philosophers for their ignorance of “how man fell” and for their confidence in human sufficiency to attain virtue. “In themselves,” the Son says dismissively, they “seek virtue.” By putting this argument in the mouth of a spokesperson whose authority could hardly be surpassed, Milton aligns himself firmly with Augustine and other Christian theologians who questioned classical magnanimity and emphasized humility. But at other places in both his poetry and prose, Milton comes close to suggesting human ethical sufficiency and to echoing Aristotle on magnanimity. Milton’s thinking on the virtues and their acquisition is eclectic. This essay traces the effect on Milton’s thinking of the gravitational pull of the literary in two senses: Milton’s conception of himself as inspired author and his attraction to an understanding of virtue that can be captured in narrative form.

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