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Spiritual reading in Milton's Eikonoklastes

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2005   by David Ainsworth

The English people needed to be particularly discerning readers during the turbulent years following the regicide. Royalists and revolutionaries cried out in print for support, and the choice between them could be construed as a choice between God's supporters and Satan's. Eikon Basilike, which represented the late King Charles as a good and religious man who attempted to preserve his subjects against political chaos, succeeded in part by offering a simpler, nostalgic alternative to the recent turmoil. In taking up the gauntlet to do battle with the king's book in October 1649, Milton pits his own acute power of reading in Eikonoklastes against the emotional appeal of a text that offers a comforting restoration of stability at the cost of liberty. Through his reading and refutation of Eikon Basilike, Milton works to prove his argument in Areopagitica, that "bad books ... to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate." (1) More importantly, by putting his own reading on public display, he instructs others in the process of discerning error masked by seductive rhetoric.

Several recent studies of Eikonoklastes examine the inadequacies in Milton's text, operating under the assumption that it was a failure because Eikon Basilike enjoyed propagandistic success, while Eikonoklastes largely did not. (2) This assumption deserves closer examination, since it depends upon a narrow view of Milton's objectives for his work. While Parliament unquestionably hoped that Milton would be able to counteract the popular appeal of Eikon Basilike, Milton's scorn for the masses becomes so acute in Eikonoklastes that it is clear he has a different aim for his text. In Eikonoklastes, Milton pursues purposes beyond the merely propagandistic, and his work is particularly successful as a demonstration of critical and discerning reading, an educative polemic crafted to provide a select audience with the tools to resist Charles's propaganda. Sharon Achinstein has already examined the revolutionary political dimensions of Milton's model of reading but, in so doing, underemphasizes the role of spiritual and sacred reading. (3) I broadly define spiritual reading as a process of critical reading that prioritizes spiritual concerns and sacred truths over worldly philosophy and politics; in Milton's case, the Holy Spirit within each believer serves as ultimate arbiter and authority. (4) Eikonoklastes depends upon spiritual reading, because through spiritual reading Milton acts to correct Eikon Basilike's misuse of spirituality as political propaganda. Charles's prayers in Eikon Basilike represent an application of spiritual faith for political ends, and they threaten to blur the distinctions between godly and worldly by presenting the worldly figure of King Charles as a second Christ. (5) Milton performs a critical reading of Eikon Basilike as a counter to that text's promotion of an uncritical sort of reading, which endangers not only the Commonwealth but also the souls of its citizens.

Confronted with the enormous success of the king's book, which went through thirty-five English printings in 1649, Milton might have recalled his famous words to Parliament in Areopagitica: "that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary" (2:515). (6) Whether written by Charles or by some representative of his, Eikon Basilike threatened to "transfuse ... corruption into the people" by reinterpreting and reframing the revolt against the king (YP 2:519). Milton had eloquently argued in Areopagitica for allowing the publication of a work such as Eikon Basilike; in Eikonoklastes, he puts the theory of Areopagitica to work and engages in his own textual "triall." Given Milton's comment in Eikonoklastes that kings "are but weak at Arguments," (7) the widespread appeal of Eikon Basilike suggests a failure on the part of English readers exceeding whatever inadequacies might be found in the book itself. The "streaming fountain" of Truth threatened to "sick'n into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition" (2:543), as Milton had warned in Areopagitica, due not to censorship but to an uncritical readership willing to accept at face value the statements, interpretations, and prayers of the king's book. (8)

Milton chooses to engage with Eikon Basilike as a test of faith. His kind of discerning reader can penetrate deceptive and incompetent rhetoric and expose the underlying secular and religious assumptions, which draw upon "conformity and tradition" as their substance. These readers can perceive that piety and holiness develop from inward motions, not the external forms and formulae offered by kingship or by Eikon Basilike; through spiritual reading, the king's text reveals his duplicity to those who know how to interpret it. (9) The "perpetuall progression" of the fountain of Truth depends upon the constant efforts of discerning readers (YP 2:543), who seek to purify muddy waters through the exercise of their own reason.

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