Chapter 22b

The Iconoclast

by Montesquieu Icon

In the Glorious Revolution, Cromwell’s army resembled the Arabians, while the Irish and Scottish forces were like the Greeks.

A gross superstition which debases the mind as effectually as true religion exalts it, had reduced all virtue and devout confidence in the deity, to a stupid veneration for images.

Generals would raise a siege or surrender a city for the gallant acquisition of a relic.

Christianity degenerated in the East under the Greek empire into as many corruptions as were intermixed with it in our time by the Russians until Peter the Great remodelled Russia.

The Greeks were infected with idolatry, but the Italians and Germans were not. Yet when the Greek historians take notice of the contempt expressed by the Italians for images and relies, one would be apt to compare them with the modern zealots against Calvin.

Nicetas informs us that the Germans, in their march to the Holy Land, were received by the Armenians as friends, because they did not offer any adoration to images. Now, if the Italians and Germans did not sufficiently reverence images, in the apprehension of the Greeks, what an enormous veneration must then be paid to them by this people?

The east was on the point of being made the scence of such a revolution as happened about two centuries ago in the west, when, upon the revival of learning, the abuses and corruptions in religion became evident to all, and as every person was inquisitive after a proper remedy, so there were some so bold and untractable as to rend the church by divisions, instead of restoring it to its original purity by a due reformation.

Leo Isaurus, Constantine Copronymus, and Leo his son were implacable against images. The worship of images was re-established Empress Irene, but was abolished by Leo the Arminian, Michael the Stammerer, and Theophilus.

They could not moderate that worship unless they destroyed it effectually. They tried to exterminate the Monks instead of regulating them.

The monks were accused of idolatry by those who favoured the new opinions.

The monks retorted and accused them of magic practices. They then called on the people to see the churches, which removed images, as doing daily sacrifices to Dæmons.

The controversy on images was connected with very delicate circumstances which became enflamed, affecting even moderate worhippers.

The dispute included the tender article of power, and the monks having seized it, in consequence of their spiritual usurpations, they could neither enlarge nor maintain it, but by making daily additions to the acts of external adoration, wherein they were so considerably interested.

This is why all oppositions to the establishment of images were considered as so many hostilities against themselves. When they had succeeded in their pretensions, their power was no longer limitable.

This period was remarkable for such a conjuncture as happened some centuries afterwards in the warm disagreement between Barlaam and the Monks of that time, which brought the empire to the verge of destruction.

The dispute was whether the light which encircled Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor was created or not. The Monks were indifferent as to either part of the question in debate. But as Barlaam made a direct attack upon that fraternity, they found it consistent with their interest to assert that light to be uncreated.

Those emperors were called Iconoclasts. They:

  • declared war against the Monks
  • revived some particular principles of government
  • offered a plausible pretence for employing the public revenue, for the public advantage, and for disengaging the state from every inconvenience that encumbered it.

The Greek priests had plunged the laity into profound ignorance.

We can compare those priests with those Scythians mentioned by Herodotus who caused the eyes of their slaves to be plucked out, that their attention might not be diverted, when they were churning milk for their masters.

When the empress Theodora had re-established the use of images, the Monks immediately began to:

  • corrupt the public devotion
  • oppress the secular clergy.
  • thrust themselves into every beneficial see
  • gradually exclude all ecclesiastics from episcopal promotion.

This made them unsupportable.

If we draw a parallel between them and the Latin clergy, and compare the conduct of our popes with that of the patriarchs of Constantinople, we shall see in our pontiffs and clergy, a set of men altogether as judicious as the others were irrational.

We are presented with a surprizing contradiction in human nature, when we consider that the ministers of religion among the ancient Romans, when they were not made incapable of public employments and civil society, were but little solicitous about either.

After the establishment of christianity, the ecclesiastics who were most secluded from temporal affairs, engaged in them with the greatest moderation.

But when the Monks, in the decline of the empire, became the sole clergy, they were forbidden to intermeddle with the transactions of state. They embraced all opportunities for getting into the government, and always filled every place with confusion.

These Monks administered all affairs of the empire, any peace or war, any truce or negociation, or any private treaty of marriage. They crowded into the cabinets of princes, and made up most of the national assemblies.

The calamities which resulted from this irreligious officiousness are inconceivable. These ecclesiastic statesmen infused an indolent insignificance into the minds of princes, and communicated a taint of imprudence to their best actions.

Whilst Basilius employed his naval forces in erecting a church to the honour of St. Michael, he abandoned Sicily to the depredations of the Saracens, and suffered them to take Syracuse; but lest he should be singular in that proceeding, Leo, his successor, consigned his fleet to the same employment, and permitted the Barbarians to possess themselves of Tauromenia and the island of Lemnos.

Andronicus Palæologus entirely neglected his maritime power, because he had been assured God was so well satisfied with his zeal for the church’s peace, that his enemies would never presume to invade his dominions by sea. He was even apprehensive that the Deity would call him to a strict account for the time he devoted to the necessary affairs of state, and deducted from spiritual attentions.

The Greeks being very loquacious, great disputants, and naturally inclined to sophistry. They were perpetually incumbering religion with controversial points.

The Monks were in great reputation in a court which was always weak in proportion to its corruption, that court, and those Monks mutually communicated infection to each other; in consequence of which, the emperors devoted all their thoughts, sometimes to calm, and frequently to inflame theological disputes, which were always observed to be most frivolous when they were debated with the greatest warmth.

The reign of Michael Palæologus was so infested with controversies in religion. It grew sensible of the melancholy devastations committed by the Turks in Asia, said with a sigh, that the rash zeal of some persons, who by exclaiming against his conduct, had exasperated his subjects against him, made it necessary for him to employ all his cares to accomplish his own preservation, and compelled him to be a tame spectator of the ruin of several provinces. “I contented myself, said he, with providing for the security of those distant parts, by the ministration of governors, who being either corrupted by the enemy, or apprehensive of punishment, never acquainted me with the unhappy situation of the people with whose welfare they were intrusted.”

The Patriarchs of Constantinople had assumed an unlimited power and as the emperors and their grandees generally retired to the churches, when the people were spirited up to insurrections, the patriarchs had consequently an opportunity of delivering them up to the popular fury, and never failed to exercise this power as they were directed by any particular fancy, by which means they always became the arbiters of public affairs, though in a very indirect manner.

When the elder Andronicus caused the Patriarch to be admonished not to intermeddle with the transactions of state, but to confine his attention to spiritual affairs, “such a request, replied that imperious priest, is as if the body should say to the soul, I do not claim any community with you, and have no occasion for your assistance in the exercise of my functions.”

Such monstrous pretensions became insupportable to princes, and the patriarchs were frequently divested of their sees. But such a proceeding, in a superstitious nation, who detested all the ecclesiastical functions of the Patriarch whom they considered as an intruder, produced continual schisms, each particular Patriarch, the old, the new, and the last elected, being supported by his own set of partizans.

Such conditions as these were much more pernicious than any disagreements on points of doctrine, because they resembled an hydra to whom every defeat was a renovation.

The rage of disputation became so natural to the Greeks, that Cantacuzenus when he took Constantinople, found the emperor John and his empress engaged in a council which had been summoned against some adversaries of the Monks;

When Mohammed II besieged that city, the emperor could not suppress the theological animosities, and the council of Florence ‡ engaged the general attention much more than the Turkish army.

As every person, in common disputes, is sensible he may be deceived, a tenacious and untractable spirit seldom prevails to any extreme but in those controversies where religion is the subject; for there, as every person from the nature of the point in debate becomes persuaded that his own opinion is true, he grows exasperated against those, who, instead of concurring with his sentiments, endeavour to make him a convert to their own.

Those who may happen to read the history written by Pachymerus, will be effectually convinced of the unalterable inability of divines to accommodate their own disagreements, and will see an emperor who spent his days in assembling people of that class listening to their disputations and reproaching them for the inflexibility of their opinions= they will likewise behold another engaged with a hydra of controversies that were perpetually rising to new life, and will be sensible that the same pacific methods and persevering patience, the same inclination to finish their contentions; in a word, the same artless pliancy to their intrigues joined with the same deference to their aversions will never reconcile these implacable ecclesiastics while the world endures.

We shall present the reader with a remarkable instance of the disposition we have been describing. The Partisans of the patriach Arsenus * , were prevailed upon, by the solicitations of the emperor, to come into a treaty with those who were in the interest of the patriarch Joseph. This treaty specified that both parties should write down their several pretensions, and then throw the two papers which contained them into a pan of live coals, and if one of them should remain unconsumed, they were then to acquiesce with that determination from heaven; but if both should happen to be burnt, the parties were no longer to persist in their demands.

The fire destroyed the two papers, the factions were reconciled, and the peace continued for a day. The next morning they pretended that the renunciation of their claims ought to flow from an internal persuasion, and not from chance; and from that moment the contention was renewed with greater animosity than ever.

The disputes of divines should always be considered with great attention; but at the same time this ought to be concealed as much as possible; because, any visible solicitude to calm the contending parties never fails to credit their singularities, and consequently tempts them to believe their sentiments are of such importance as to comprehend the welfare of the state and the security of the sovereign.

It is as impracticable to decide the disagreements of clergymen by attending to their affected subtilties, as it would be to abolish duels by erecting a court, with a delegation to trace a point of honour through all its refinements.

Such was the imprudence of the Greek emperors, that when a religious controversy had been lulled asleep by time, they again awakened it in all its rage. Justinian, Heraclius, and Manual Comnenus proposed articles of faith to their ecclesiastics and laity who would certainly have been deceived in the truth, though it had flowed from the lips of those princes in all its purity.

They were always defective in forms, and generally in essentials, and grew desirous of displaying their penetration, which they might have manifested to more advantage in other affairs confided to their judgment; they engaged in vain disputes on the nature of God, who, as he withdraws himself from the proud curiosity of the learned, so he veils the Majesty of his existence, as effectually from the great men of the earth.

It is wrong to believe any human power can be absolute and insallible in these respects, for such there never was, nor ever will be imparted to any mortal.

The largest extent of temporal authority is confined to certain limitations, and when the Grand Seignior ordains a new taxation at Constantinople, the universal murmurs of his subjects make him sensible of those restrictions of his power which till then were concealed from his observation.

A Persian monarch might compel a son to murder his father, or oblige a parent to plunge his dagger into the heart of his child, but he can never force his subjects to drink wine.

There is a general principle in every nation which is the invariable basis of power, and when once this principle is too much loaded, it infallibly shrinks into smaller dimensions.

An unacquaintedness with the true nature and limits of ecclesiastical and secular power, was the most pernicious source of all the calamities that befel the Greeks, and involved both priests and people in perpetual errors.

This great distinction, which constitutes all the tranquillity of a nation, is founded not only on religion, but on reason and nature, which never confound things really distinct in themselves, and which can only subsist in consequence of that very distinction.

Though the priesthood among the ancient Romans did not form a separate body, yet the distinction we have been representing, was as well known to them as it can be to us. Clodius had consecrated the house of Cicero to the goddess of liberty, but when that great orator returned from his exile, he did not fail to demand it as his lawful property:

The Pontiffs believed that if it had been so consecrated without an express order obtained from the people, it might be restored to him without any violation of religion.

Cicero says:

They have declared that they only examined the validity of the consecration and not the law enacted by the people, and that they had decided the first article as pontiffs, and the second in the quality of senators.


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