Moses and Monotheism

by Sigmund Freud
[Knopf, $3.00]
THE topic, the name of the author, and the fact that he is a celebrated exile will arouse great interest in this book among large groups of readers. The content of the book, its inner logic and method of exposition, will remain more or less obscure to those who are not sympathetically familiar with psychoanalysis. Reduced to its rudest simplicity, the thesis is this: Moses was a noble Egyptian who followed the monotheistic trends which, after a brief efflorescence, deteriorated upon the death of Amenhotep IV. The Jews probably killed Moses and carry still the burden of unconscious guilt for this crime. The hatred leveled against the Jews is the expression of the barbaric hatred of monotheism.
It would be futile, of course, to relate Freud’s intricate and almost relentlessly calm arguments in favor of his thesis. At the age of eighty-three, Freud has lost none of his lucidity of style and directness of thinking. Using the traditional psychoanalytic technique, he analyzes the unconscious motivations underlying the legend of Moses’s birth, his leadership, and his obscure death, and reconstructs a picture of what probably happened in reality. The argument and the reconstruction may not prevail for long. It is impossible to prove or disprove something that is legendary and so deeply bound with religious emotions.
The value of Freud’s Moses is not in the possible historical accuracy. Its importance lies in the fact that it is a demonstration of the extraordinary consistency of a liberal, scientific mind, truly unique in our history. An old man, an exile, criticized, even despised as a scientist and a doctor, deprived of his library, a part of which was sold for a pittance of about $500 by the masters of Vienna, Freud remains calm, courageous, humble. He points out the weakness of his own arguments, is frank and intrepid in his attack on the reactionary trends of the official representatives of orthodox Christian apologetics. Not to be found here are the supplications of Galileo or cautious circumlocutions in the manner of those who shielded Copernicus. Freud’s conviction is based on his empirical knowledge, and he states it with a detachment and humility which would have done credit even to modest Newton.
This truly scientific objectivity of Freud stands out in his Moses more than in any other of his previous writings, despite the severe personal and social shocks to which he was subjected while writing it. He started the book in preNazi Vienna and finished it in London, but the trend of his investigation was not affected by this exodus. At one time he hesitated to publish it in Vienna (before the advent of the Nazis), but this doubt was temporary and not dictated by personal anxiety. He merely wished to protect his science and his followers from the intolerant attacks of prejudiced orthodoxy.