Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356

Moses and Monotheism (German: Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion) is a 1939 theoretical and philosophical book written by famed Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. As the title suggests, the book presents Freud’s contentious hypothesis on Monotheism, and establishes a contemplative theory about Moses’s identity. Because it discusses the meaning and origin of religion as well, Moses and Monotheism is also classified as a social psychology book, and even a comparative religious treatise.

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Many readers and analysts, especially Freud’s contemporaries, considered the book to be quite controversial, as it put the Bible’s word into question. In it, Freud boldly argues that Moses was not only raised into Egyptian aristocracy, but he was also born into Egyptian aristocracy. He was also one of the first theorists to mention the Akhenaten Aten worship in literature, which is actually considered the first monotheistic religion in the world; one which Moses, apparently, followed.

Freud also discusses the origin of the religion of Aten, and theorizes how it might be connected to the social, cultural and mythological development of Judaism and Christianity. Because of this controversial narrative, Moses and Monotheism was translated into English a few months after its first publication.

Freud believes that instead of leading all of the Israelites into freedom and the Promised Land, as the Bible suggests, Moses led only his close friends and followers. Later, they turned against him and murdered him, and joined a Midianite tribe that worshiped a God named Yahweh. After some time, they began to regret killing Moses, which is what, essentially, led the Jews to create Judaism. Many analysts consider this theory to be absurd and ridiculous, while some agree with Freud, saying that his analysis is very thorough and persuasive.

In the end, Freud argues that religion in general, and all religious thoughts and sentiments are, in fact, a symptom of neurosis, which is reflective of his atheist views. Thus, many religious readers have criticized the book, saying it represents religion in a negative connotation. Nonetheless, Moses and Monotheism received a lot of positive reviews as well, mainly because of its speculative and thought-provoking narrative.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 644

Moses and Monotheism is a psychoanalytic interpretation of the biblical story of Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt and a reconsideration of the subsequent history of the Jews and their religion in the light of this interpretation. The argument proceeds in a manner familiar from Sigmund Freud’s other writings. In an almost conversational tone, he leads the reader from one point to the next, anticipating and answering questions and objections, gently introducing psychoanalytic concepts to illuminate the story. From time to time he admits that every doubt that has occurred to the reader has occurred to him as well, but that the credibility of his interpretation depends less on the proof of its parts than on the coherence and plausibility of the whole.

The book consists of three essays of differing lengths and complexities. Essay 1, “Moses an Egyptian,” is a mere ten pages, while essay 2, “If Moses Was an Egyptian . . . ,” is thirty-seven pages long and broken into seven untitled sections preceded by an introduction which links it to the first essay. Essay 3, “Moses, His People, and Monotheist Religion,” is longer still and far more complicated in form. Its eighty-three pages are divided into two parts, the first of which begins with two prefatory notes, followed by five titled sections: “The Historical Premiss,” “The Latency Period and Tradition,” “The Analogy,” “Application,” and “Difficulties.” Part 2 of the third essay has its own preface, “Summary and Recapitulation,” followed by eight sections: “The People of Israel,” “The Great Man,” “The Advance in Intellectuality,” “Renunciation of Instinct,” “What Is True in Religion,” “The Return of the Repressed,” “Historical Truth,” and “The Historical Development.”

The structure of the work reflects the circumstances of its composition and publication. Freud drafted the work in Vienna in 1934 but did not publish it for fear that the strongly Catholic Austrian regime would suppress the psychoanalytic movement. In spite of himself, however, Freud could not abandon the work, which “tormented [him] like an unlaid ghost.” In 1936, he rewrote the first two essays to make them independent, and in 1937 they were published in separate issues of the journal Imago. In each essay, Freud disclaimed any idea of pursuing the subject further, owing to insufficient historical evidence and to his own lack of strength (he was eighty-one and had been battling cancer for fourteen years).

The following year, however, Freud returned to the work, revising the third essay to make it cohere with the rest. He reminds his readers in the first preface to essay 3 (dated “before March, 1938”) that he is living “in a Catholic country under the protection of that Church, uncertain how long that protection will hold out” and that he will not seek to publish the complete work until it is safe to do so. Freud wrote these words shortly before Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Austria (on March 12) and the outbreak of officially sanctioned violence against Jews. With no future left in Vienna either for psychoanalysis or for the Freud family, the Freuds, after effective intervention by highly placed friends and admirers, reached London on June 6, 1938. That very month, Freud wrote a second preface to essay 3 of Moses and Monotheism, celebrating the change in his circumstances that opened the way to publication. At the beginning of part 2 of the third essay there appears yet another prefatory note, also written in England, explaining the organization of the work.

Moses and Monotheism is not an easy work to classify. Taken as a whole, it is an essay in the psychology of religion, for Freud seldom strayed far from the consuming passion of his life: psychoanalysis and its theoretical or practical applications. Parts of the work belong to comparative mythology, however, and parts to the history of religion. Freud himself once called it a historical novel, perhaps to underscore the element of uncertainty that clings to his reconstructions, an uncertainty acknowledged throughout the work.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51

Bakan, David. “Moses in the Thought of Freud,” in Commentary. XXVI (October, 1958), pp. 322-331.

Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time, 1988.

Jones, Ernest. Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. Vol. 3, The Last Phase, 1957.

Robert, Marthe. From Oedipus to Moses: Freud’s Jewish Identity, 1976.

Van Herik, Judith. Freud on Femininity and Faith, 1982.

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