Logicians may reason about abstractions. But the great mass of men must have images. The strong tendency of the multitude, in all ages and nations, to idolatry can be explained on no other principle. The first inhabitants of Greece, there is reason to believe, worshiped one invisible deity. But the necessity of having something more definite to adore produced, in a few centuries, the innumerable crowd of gods and goddesses. In like manner, the ancient Persians thought it impious to exhibit the creator under a human form. Yet, even these transferred to the sun the worship which, in speculation, they considered due only to the supreme mind.
The history of the Jews is the record of a continued struggle between pure theism, supported by the most terrible sanctions, and the strangely fascinating desire of having some visible and tangible object of adoration.
Perhaps none of the secondary causes which Gibbon has assigned for the rapidity with which Christianity spread over the world, while Judaism scarcely ever acquired a proselyte, operated more powerfully than this feeling. God, the uncreated, the incomprehensible, the invisible, attracted few worshipers. A philosopher might admire so noble a conception, but the crowd turned away in disgust from words which presented no image to their minds. It was before deity embodied a human form – walking among men, partaking of their infirmities, leaning on their bosoms, weeping over their graves, slumbering in the manger, bleeding on the cross – that the prejudices of the synagogues and the doubts of the Academy and the pride of the Portico and the fasces of the Lictor and the swords of thirty legions were humbled in the dust.
Soon after Christianity had achieved its triumph, the principle which had assisted it began to corrupt it. It became a new paganism. Patron saints assumed the offices of household gods. St. George took the place of Mars. St. Elmo consoled the mariner for the loss of Castor and Pollux. The Virgin Mother and Cecilia succeeded to Venus and the Muses. The fascination of sex and loveliness was again joined to that of celestial dignity, and the homage of chivalry was blended with that of religion.
Reformers have often made a stand against these feelings, but never with more than apparent and partial success. The men who demolished the images in cathedrals have not always been able to demolish those which were enshrined in their minds. It would not be difficult to show that, in politics, the same rule holds good. Doctrines, we are afraid, must generally be embodied before they can excite strong public feeling. The multitude is more easily interested for the most unmeaning badge or the most insignificant name than for the most important principle. – Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), from his essay, “Milton” (1825)