Moshe Barasch. Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea. New York University Press (1992)
Sceptics and philosophers of the critical tradition, who so violently denounce idolatry and even the production of idols, seem hardly to have asked in detail why these images are made, and what it is that moves people to making and worshiping them. Philo [of Alexandria] seems occasionally to have departed from this inherited limitation; he did wonder, at least from time to time, what might be the reason for such production. In one of his most interesting essays, On Drunkenness, we read,Man, who is devoid of any consideration, who is blinded as to his mind, by which alone the living God is comprehensible, does, by means of that mind, never see anything anywhere, but sees all the bodies that are in the outward world by his own outward senses, which he looks upon as the causes of all things which exist.On which account, beginning to make gods for himself, he has filled the world with images and statues, and innumerable other representations, made out of all kinds of materials, fashioned by painters and statuaries, whom the lawgiver banished to a distance from his state.Philo uses passionate language to describe humanity's desire to see God. Of Moses he says that he "so insatiably desires to behold" God that "he will never cease from urging his desire," and though he "is aware that he desires a matter which is difficult of attainment, or rather which is wholly unattainable, he still strives on." But people who do not have the spiritual powers of Moses, we understand, attempt to substitute images of their own making for the true God they cannot attain. People, then, make idols not simply out of stupidity, but because of profound desire that will forever remain unfulfilled. In modern parlance one could say that images are the product of humanity's tragic limitation.