The Canon: Moses and Monotheism. By Sigmund Freud

June 3, 2010

While Freud may have come to conclusions with which it is not always easy to concur, it is surely absurd to dismiss his work in its entirety. Many do, however, and despite approbation from figures as diverse as Lewis Namier, Harold Bloom and Jan Assmann, and the advent of interest in mentalites and "emotions" complementing occasional forays into "psychobiography", historians in particular tend to dismiss the possibility that psychology - let alone psychoanalysis - might have a role to play in their projects.

Yet the extent to which we are all historians, in that conscious and unconscious memory conditions our lives, raises major psychological questions that apply crucially to the study of the past. For all his faults (his "evidence" on Leonardo da Vinci's dreams and William Shakespeare's authorship), Freud persisted in posing those profound questions that today's scholars shy away from.

Freud claimed that he had read more archaeology than psychology and compared his exploration of the unconscious with the excavation of ancient civilisations. In exile in "beautiful, free, generous England" in the last year of his life, he completed Moses and Monotheism, which (at least implicitly) asks why humankind abandoned something so sensible as polytheism: the worship of both male and female gods, local ones as well as animals, in favour of a single, exclusive and non-depictable but male Supreme Being, capitulation to whom was essential to one's survival. (In the early stages of Judaism, the Egyptian obsession with an afterlife was rejected along with all but one God.)

The derivation of this right or wrong, either/or, guilt-inducing mindset, by an Egyptian Moses from the sun-worshipping Pharaoh Akhenaton, was the subject of this 1937-39 monograph. Continuity with Freud's earlier work, Totem and Taboo, was maintained by arguing that the patriarchal Moses was murdered by his followers who thereafter suffered from Oedipal guilt, guilt whose sublimation produces "civilization and its discontents".

Given that modern science was enabled by this true-false distinction, albeit mediated by Socratic dialoguing and Christianity, Islam and the Reformation's reassertion of fundamentals, and given that the world is still dominated by conflicts resulting from competing versions of this mutually intolerant mindset, Freud's questions remain crucial. And if his argumentation is sometimes so subjectively forced as to call into question the "canonical" status of his conclusions, even the latter are so thought-provoking that they continue to stimulate some of the most interesting scholarship of our time, most recently Assmann's The Price of Monotheism.

It is surely true, for example, that Christianity's emergence out of Judaism was to some extent a revival of Amon-worship as distinct from the Sun-worship favoured by the Moses-inspiring Akhenaton. More provocative at the time it was published was Freud's associated assertion that "from now on Jewish religion was, so to speak, a fossil". Most provocative today, perhaps, is his account of the fate of Islam: "The regaining of the one great primaeval Father produced in the Arabs an extraordinary advance in self-confidence which led them to great worldly successes, but which - it is true - exhausted itself in these ... perhaps because it lacked the profundity which in the Jewish religion resulted from the murder of its founder."

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