Front Page Titles (by Subject) 28.: On the Iconoclastic Controversy - Judgments on History and Historians
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28.: On the Iconoclastic Controversy - Jacob Burckhardt, Judgments on History and Historians 
Judgments on History and Historians, ed. Alberto R. Coll (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
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On the Iconoclastic Controversy
(I) The main instigators are generals, particularly generals who have become emperors, who come from heretic and Judaizing regions and proceed from a “fanaticism” which certainly had less raison d’être in the Byzantine Empire than the “fanaticism” of image-worship hitherto. It is a fanaticism of triviality similar to Mohammed’s. In addition, Islam acquainted them with a state structure which, through the identity of rulership and religion, seemed a degree stronger than the Byzantine state where these still were different things. They were military men and had very big ideas about the compulsory force by which all adversaries could be destroyed; any non-military resistance or opposition made them furious and ready to do anything. Thus they waged an internal war at a time when the Empire would have needed the utmost harmony.
The external form of this struggle is one part of the church against the other, i.e., the patriarchs, bishops, metropolitans, etc., appointed by each against the others. The methods are partly those of Orthodoxy, namely, synods, church decrees, and so on, but also a bottomless brutality, in and by which one got to know the Empire as it looked when it was no longer restrained by any religious considerations.
Now one had to let destruction rage until generals, like those of Empress Irene, appeared, men who had realized what influence could be gained by siding with a horribly ill-treated majority of the people. And now partisanship flared up openly among victorious regiments and the iconoclastic bodyguard was overcome.
The second phase of the iconoclastic controversy, in the ninth century, was determined by the facts that in sections of the army the tradition still lived on and that Michael the Stammerer, a heretic general and a Judaizer to boot, ascended the throne and founded a dynasty. Leo the Armenian started in again, at first with religious indifference (cf. Leo, Mittelalter, p. 246); then Michael the Stammerer, just as indifferent in the beginning. The overall result was that the church was somewhat degraded, among other things in a main organ, the patriarchate. But image-worship and monasticism won a complete victory.
Islamistic optimists could draw up a counter-reckoning something like this: It was the greatest good fortune that the Byzantines were so disunited, through a church persecution, under such militarily efficient emperors! Otherwise they might have overpowered us.
In his History of the Byzantines and the Ottoman Empire (pp. 99 ff.), Hertzberg reveals that many present-day Greeks have taken a great fancy to Leo the Isaurian and give him enormous credit. Then he admits that we do not know how comprehensive Leo’s church measures were meant to be, which among them were intended as permanent and which only “as fighting aids.” Then comes the usual professorial opinion of the danger of brutish superstition, against which, he says, only an inspired religious reformer or gradual, patient counteraction could prevail. But Leo, according to Hertzberg, had had the alluring model of predecessors like Theodosius the Great who had done away with Arians and pagans alike. Whether Leo had also hoped to win Jews and Arabs is a moot point, he continues. On Leo’s side were most generals, cultured laymen in Asia Minor (not in European Greece!), officials and higher classes, and part of the clergy (but what a part!). Against him were the masses and especially the women. Hertzberg admits the hopeless position of those opposing image-worship; one is more surprised at their great perseverance than at their final failure, he states. The controversy went much deeper than the disputes over the Trinity had once gone.
Or is it possible that under Leo the Isaurian the arrogant, appalling state began to regard itself as lovable? And perhaps to become jealous of anything that its subjects loved outside of it—the only thing they still had left?
(II) Among the few things which had hitherto made life bearable for the sorely afflicted Byzantines and in which the state so far did not interfere was image-worship. When the most image-loving pagan people had become Christian, a certain degree of the worship of the new religion was inevitably turned upon the images themselves; as it was, there were individual ἀϰϵιρΟπΟίητα [images not made by human hands]. But it is nowhere demonstrable that magic or any other wicked superstitious practice was carried on with the images. In addition to the individually venerated images there was the colossal icon-world of the churches in fresco and mosaic. And when Islam abhorred all idolatry, people probably only became all the more fond of it; at least the Christians under Mohammedan rule were most zealously devoted to it at the time of the iconoclastic controversy.
Closely allied with the icon-world was monasticism, if only because the images very substantially emanated from the monasteries. At the same time, imagery was the visible expression of asceticism—poor, hard-working, widely spread in cities, mountains, islands. Images and monks, it should be noted, enjoyed an old dignity not contested by any emperor since Valens. Too, monkhood, through its asceticism and its origin, was an island of freedom outside the compulsory state, and also a main source of the episcopate. This could be inconvenient, e.g., when groups of monks helped to render the decision at synods, riots, etc., but this seems to have happened but rarely in the seventh century.
This image-cult and monasticism, like everything ecclesiastical, was the last thing people had left in the compulsory state, and this state ought to have spared it, since it reimbursed itself from the people in every other way.
Also, the iconoclastic controversy was not started by an emperor who might have wanted to augment the state’s power once more by enslaving the church, its ceremonies, and the monkhood, but by a doctrinarian, Leo the Isaurian.
Presumably, there grew up inside him, indoctrinated and narrow as he was, a fanaticism of semi-education or enlightenment; the strength he derived from his military reputation. Possibly there had developed in him the lordly arrogance of the victorious state which begins to consider itself lovable and then, when some real cause for jealousy appears, as the only thing worth loving. This, basically, had been the position of the ancient polis which established worship for itself.
In this fashion one does not by any means become merely a dogmatic tyrant, but, above all, a dictatorial arbiter of taste. Such a man enrages the suffering people down to nerves and fibers which extend beyond religion.
In the course of the controversy, to be sure, there is formed an enlightened group (intellectuals, dissenters, profane people, politicians, etc.) which comes out in favor of icon-smashing. They are those who rejoice any and every time any religion suffers a deep affliction, and also military men and officials who regard as an impediment anything that does not want to be, nor can be, army or state.