Moses and Monotheism. By Sigmund Freud. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00.
"MOSES and Monotheism" is the title of the latest book by Sigmund Freud—and the "Moses" is in
much larger type than "monotheism" for a reason. Amateuring in the domain of psychoanalysis, I would say that the largeness of the type in which Moses is set on the title page is Professor Freud's of course unconscious attempt to hide the truth that the major theme of the volume is not Moses but monotheism. The book reveals Freud to be greater even than I, a per fervid admirer, had believed him to be. But all his greatness cannot immunize him against valid criticism of the untenable hypotheses he advances in a realm wherein he is tyro rather than master.
The science of higher criticism, though vastly complicated, is almost as much in its beginnings as psychoanalysis. And while Breasted is an eminent Egyptologist, his acceptance of the Sellin theory with respect to the strange fate of Moses is based upon a reading of a verse in Hosea, which is dubious if not fantastic. Freud himself anticipates the reproach, "no adequate grounds are to be found in the material," and "too great an uncertainty," but he holds such reproach unjustified. Freud speaks of Sellin's "discovery of decisive importance," "unmistakable traces of a tradition to the effect that the founder of their religion, Moses, met a violent end in a rebellion of his stubborn and refractory people"—a tradition, according to Sellin, "not restricted to Hosea but recurring in the writings of most of the later prophets," indeed "the basis of all the later expectations of the Messiah."
"Moses and Monotheism" is a grand attempt, more analy-tico to explain the origins of religion and especially of Judaism. The treatment of Moses is really incidental to the larger trends of the book. Freud does not seek, as some superficial reviewers have intimated, to rob the Jews of Moses and to transfer him with his Judaic aura to the Egyptian Pantheon. Freud does believe that Moses was an Egyptian who took over monotheism from the Prophet King of his day in Egypt, Ikhnaton, and bore it, together with the rite of circumcision, to the people that dwelt in Goshen. These slew him, and he was not to be revived until centuries later, when the prophets, to their honor, renewed his teaching and made him live again in their tradition as the mighty protagonist of monotheism. Later in the volume Freud speaks of himself as an analyst rather than an ethnologist. Most debatable is his ethnological contribution, namely the Egyptian origin and discipleship of Moses, whose heaviness of speech in the use of Hebrew Freud most ingeniously attributes to his non-Hebraic descent. The case is almost quaintly put, closing with the words "and a possible motive presents itself, answering all our questions"—to which I can only add in all humility: "Not all my questions."
One of the most striking things in the volume for the reviewer was its climactic and challengeable thesis that Judaism is a Father religion, and Christianity a Son religion. The argumentation that leads up to this point, to recite which would be to reproduce the book, is the heart of the whole matter. The Egyptian attribution of Moses is little more than incidental. Whether the Freudian thesis is to stand depends upon whether the entire psychoanalytical hypothesis is to be accepted as valid as the Darwinian theory of evolution, which was even more bitterly debated for several generations.
A supporting illustration of Freud's theory is "the more astonishing conception of a God suddenly 'choosing' a people, making it 'His' people, and Himself its own God. Sometimes we hear of a people adopting another God, but never of a God choosing a new people. Perhaps we approach an understanding of this unique happening when we reflect on the connection between Moses and the Jewish people. Moses had stooped to the Jews, had made them his people. They were his 'chosen people.'" Delightful is the casuahiess of "Sellin's presumption": "It cannot be called fanciful: it is probable enough."
In a neat as well as ingenious way Freud offers compensation and comfort to wounded Jewish pride by suggesting that "the old thunderous Jahve was displaced by the forgotten Mosaic God." None can doubt that it was only the idea of this other God that enabled the people of Israel to surmount all their hardships and to survive until our time. . . . "It is honor enough for the Jewish people that it has kept alive such a tradition, and produced men who lent it their voice, even if the stimulus had first come from outside, from a great Stranger."
Perhaps the finest statement of Freud on Moses and monotheistic religion is to be found in that glowing paragraph in which the author reverts of course to Moses of Egypt, supplemented by an eloquent tribute to the prophets and their part in effecting such progress in spirituality as "consists in deciding against the direct sense perception in favor of the so-called higher intellectual processes—that is to say, in favor of memories, reflection and deduction."
For Freud there can be no explanation "of the development away from an exclusive national God toward that of a universal ruler of the world. Whence, then, did this tiny and impotent nation derive the audacity to pass themselves off as the favorite child of the sovereign God?" Unanswerable question, thinks Freud, or else "the expression of their particular religious genius." "We are able to say whence the idea came to Moses . . . from the Egyptians." In a word, according to Freud, genius is incomprehensible and unaccountable. Hence, Moses was not a Jew, but an Egyptian disciple of Ikhnaton. If one did not hesitate to tread upon the domain of psychoanalysis, one would be tempted to say that the book is final and indisputable proof of the validity of Adler's inferiority complex theory—most especially, alas, the hallmark of the Jew: Moses the Jew could have predicated the ideal of ethical monotheism only if he were an Egyptian.
After this, Freud describes at great length and with transcendent power the "latency period" and "repression" out of which arises the full-blown phenomenon of Mosaic monotheism. Freud has written a memorable volume on monotheism, with Moses, I repeat, as the minor, not major, theme. As a psychoanalytical treatise on the origin and development of religion, it is of the first importance, and it will live. Whether Freud is justified in holding Moses and his religion to be Egyptian rather than Hebraic, time and its multiplying archaeological discoveries will tell. In any event, it is the first time that the founder of psychoanalysis has dealt with a theme bound up with his people's history and faith. The attribution of Moses to Egypt is not adequately grounded. May it not be, as the reviewer has already suggested, that the subjective Jew for once gained the mastery over the objective analyst? Even where there is most doubt and deepest incertitude, a radiant mind still lights up the grandiose genesis of faith, though he sees only its exodus.
"Moses and Monotheism," in a word, reveals the high purpose and the noble gifts which are associated with Freud's immortal name, but it must ultimately be considered in the light of the author's famed genius moving in a sphere wholly unrelated thereto.