Mar 18, 2015

Wed Review (Sigmund Freud - Moses and Monotheism)

Highly speculative re-imagining of the Moses myth as well as a general account of primitive religions and the transition to a monotheistic platform. I'm not sure why Freud is concerned about Moses's race. I would think most modern scholars reject the very existence of Moses.

Egypt, for a short period of time, had the Pharaoh Akhenaten who proclaimed that their existed one God. This may have been an attempt to draw a similarity between God and his own rule. That there is one god means that there should be one dominant ruler of society; Freud puts this more elegantly saying, "God was the reflection of a Pharaoh autocratically governing a great world Empire.". After his death Egypt reverted to their previous many-gods stuff. So, anyways, perhaps it is the case that Moses stole that idea.

Freud dives into the explanation of religious phenomena as a model of neurotic symptoms of the individual. (he also does some weird transition from the causes of these symptoms in the individual to groups of people; going so far as to suggest that people have generational memory. Thus we identify with 'God' because our primitive selves identified with the Father of a tribe.)

Much of Freud's psycho-analytic techniques used are lost on me. I enjoy the idea of the neurotic stages though: "early trauma - defense - latency - outbreak of the neurosis - partial return of the repressed material." I just don't see it working as simply as he posits it to work on a whole race of people.

There is an interesting history concerning the publication of this book. Freud wrote the first two small parts and published them in Germany. These consist of the speculation that Moses is Egyptian and the significance that may hold. Due to the rise of the Nazis, Freud feared to release the third, more significant and risque, part of the book. He left to England and eventually published it, still in fear that he would lose valuable friends over the ordeal. Now, based on the fact that Freud died in the same year as Freud died, I doubt he felt much negative impact from the publication. He states in 1938, while still in Vienna, "[the book] may lie hid until the light of day, or until someone else who reaches the same opinions and conclusions can be told: 'In darker days there lived a man who thought as you did.'"

I think Freud thinks too highly of his psychological process for determining history. Just because something makes 'psychological sense' does not mean that it occurred. Freud treats psycho-analysis like we would now treat physics, or any of the more testable and reliable sciences. I think this book works better as an interesting literary speculation and interpretation of unreliable historical texts and inferences drawn from archeology and biology.


  1. Interesting post. I used to read a lot about Freud (and Lacan and so many others) when I was in college, however I never came across this particular title.

    1. Yeah, it was something I noticed at a local used book store. I was reading commentaries on the bible and ran down to pick it up. Its a pretty fun read.