Out of Your Mind — Reading Freud's Moses and Monotheism


I recently happened on an old book I’d encountered before: Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. The first time around, I didn’t know what to make of it; now, after some reflection, I think Freud was a poor historian, and likely a poor therapist (at least as psychoanalysis’ “version 1.0”), but I think he had moments of intrigue—Moses and Monotheism, I’d now say, was one of them.

The book itself was anything but boring. Published in 1939, Moses and Monotheism proposed an outrageous thesis: the historical Moses was in fact not Hebrew, but Egyptian; a contemporary of the radical-monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten, Moses gave to a small band of followers not Yahweh but the Egyptian singular god Aten; leading only his closest followers in rebellion, Moses affected an exodus of sorts from Egypt, only to later be killed by his own disciples, the ancestors of the Jews; those same disciples, overcome by guilt, then nearly deified Moses in memory, repressing the memory of his murder, and proposed a theology of his eventual messianic return.

In 2019, this proposal is odd but, for most, innocuous; in Europe in 1939, it was inflammatory. There are a number of reasons for why Freud may have written Moses and Monotheism: worried the anti-Semitism of his day would doom psychoanalysis (Freud himself a Jew, though also an atheist), perhaps he sought to concretely cut ties with the Jewish community in an attempt to signal to the rest of Europe that psychoanalysis was not “Jewish” but scientific while simultaneous exemplifying its methods (and thus its failings in creating a new “history” of de facto recovered “memories”). Freud attempted this briefly through Carl Jung, a Swiss-Christian student, before Jung and Freud parted ways—a separation Freud took much harder than Jung. At the very least, though I’m certain he would have liked to, it isn’t hard to imagine what would have happened had Freud done the same with Jesus and Christianity—as I’m sure he would have, had he not already been at war with an ostensibly Christian-brand of anti-Semitism.

Father Knows Best

Moses and Monotheism received strong though mixed reactions. Eighty years later, the diagnosis is not good: Freud’s least effective therapeutic methods were used as even less effective historical tools, resulting in little that could be considered historical. Still—the text isn’t worthless. If nothing else, Moses and Monotheism is a kind of modern myth for psychoanalysis; what was perhaps too abstract in Totem and Taboo (1913) would now be played out on a more familiar stage, with characters readers (ourselves included) knew by name: the primal myth of the murdered Father figure.

The Totem and Taboo rendition goes something like this: long ago, before history, there was a little tribe, consisting of a father, his numerous sons, and their sisters and mothers. The father stood as the ruling figure, going so far as to monopolize the women of the tribe in plural marriages, leaving no companions for his sons. Displeased, the sons rose up in rebellion and killed the father, going so far as to consume him. In his absence, however, the tribe having lost their iron-fisted ruler, their society fell into disarray, their previous structures dissolved. Perhaps out of guilt for their act, or simple need, the sons revived their father socially and psychologically: rather than a flesh and blood father, they would have at least an abstract one—law, order, society, culture, whatever you like. These structures would exist to give cohesion and stability back to the tribe, the same as the father had done, serving as a kind of echo of the murdered and cannibalized father—the father who doesn’t realize he’s dead, as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (one of Freud’s “sons”) described it.

I can’t say for sure whether Freud considered this story to be literal or historical, though I believe he likely did. In any event, I believe he considered Moses and Monotheism to be a historical account, while not being primarily about history, but psychology. Rather than formulate a historiographical exposition of long past events, Freud wanted to speak to contemporary twentieth-century Europe; rather than consider the old father, he wished instead to reveal the father who doesn’t know he’s dead. In that way, even if only tangentially, I do believe Freud had something relevant to say—something from which we ourselves, 80 years later, may stand to benefit.

Totem and Taboo speaks of a broad pattern, while Moses and Monotheism applies it particularly to religion; the point to take away from this oscillation is that this Freudian father figure is not an abstract reality, remote to our own condition, but is already in our blood, affecting everything. This includes religion, but one could easily extend it to ideology in general: political parties, social movements, educational institutions, law and justice, government, national history—even psychoanalysis. Anything that may constitute an identity or serve to stabilize the organic chaos of life is subject to this proverbial father figure, built upon a so-called memory which can only be “recovered” in quotations; a creative re-reading of the past, in an attempt to recover a primal reality which never existed in the first place for the simple fact that it was always already profaned by human hands.

Consider Moses and Monotheism: rather than a native rescuing his people, Moses is an Egyptian, an intruder and foreigner to the Hebrew people; rather than a wholly original prophet inspired by a wholly-other God, he is a disciple of another, bringing another’s god; rather than a simple hero with a tragic death, he is a sudden victim of his own followers, senselessly murdered; and rather than held in esteem, he is remembered in a spirit of guilt which must never be spoken but which can never die. Though Moses and Monotheism is poor history, one can see how its spirit, and that of Totem and Taboo, still possesses our institutions: whether in our attempts to pitch ourselves as wholly original, to deny our own capacity for evil while insisting upon the unadulterated evil of others, and our refusal to confess even to ourselves our constant efforts to not face the realities behind these defense mechanisms. Our “originality” is just the mutation of another’s ideas, which are in turn mutations on the preceding ideas of yet others; our zero-sum games of Good versus Evil are a shroud to give us purpose in fighting the other and identity in being their Good enemy, preventing us from seeing evil in ourselves and goodness in the other; and all our attempts to “safeguard” whatever our favorite orthodoxy may be (whether religious, political, legal, historical, cultural, scientific, etc.) is ultimately an attempt not to preserve a pristine past but to sustain a levee against a present chaos we believe we cannot bear to really face.

Another of Freud’s ideas was that of the reality principle: the degree to which one can put aside their own desires or preferences in favor of reality. This Freudian father figure is an attempt to keep ourselves as far from reality as possible, and it suffuses everything we are and all that we do—especially when we think we have overcome it, or have even managed to keep our necks out of its noose altogether. But, as Lacan put it, the father figure, of necessity, is the absolute authority figure—who must fail.

Early childhood development entails a child’s heavy reliance upon their parents, the child going so far as to attribute to their parents all the attributes the adult world may attribute to God: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, all-present—at least in the child’s little world. As every adult knows, there comes a time when the child, passing into adolescence and on to adulthood, loses this image of the omni-parent: they learn that their parents can’t solve every problem and prevent every injury, that they don’t know everything, that even they can become frustrated or even angry with their children, and that they are hardly aware of everything their children may do. Perhaps even many parents must lose this illusion of themselves. In any case, rather than by murder, the child loses their proverbial father figure to the reality of the matter—one way or another, the Freudian father figure fails.

There are a number of ways for the developing child to respond to this, of course. For example, they can do as the sons in Totem and Taboo do, or even as the Jews of Moses and Monotheism, and seek to create a new “father” by projecting the old illusionary image of the “perfect parent” they had before onto another reality. Freud believed this to be the origin of the Abrahamic concept of God, especially God as Father; while religious realities may be more complex than Freud’s atheism could allow, he was not without a point. So devilishly subtle is the human desire for a perfect parental figure, something akin to the Freudian father, that we seldom if ever realize we ourselves are fabricating them; and, worse yet, should we perceive any agent or party as a threat to that which we believe guarantees us order, we may attack, going so far as to commit atrocities in the “Father’s” name. These are familiar stories: religiously-motivated violence, political uprisings, and a myriad other more quotidian, less murderous instances.

The most troubling part, perhaps, is that we may never realize what we’re doing. Near the concentration camp in Auschwitz, there was a holiday camp for the SS; there are still photos of the soldiers, smiling as if nothing were amiss in the world, while within view human ashes would billow from the ovens of the nearby furnaces of the death camp. Perhaps equally as sobering as the evil of Nazism is that many Nazis seemed to not even recognize their own evil. Were the soldiers to ever become squeamish, however, authority figures like Heinrich Himmler would assure them that their murders were not senseless violence but instead the means to a glorious end—the father must die for the Father to rise.

Gods, One or Many

For Lacan, the failure of the proverbial father figure, the divine parent of the developing child, was the opportunity for adulthood—to take charge of one’s own life, accepting the limitations of the human condition. I’m unsure of what Freud may have thought on the matter, but I do believe his father figure may also be connected to another of his ideas, one also mentioned in Moses and Monotheism: what Freud saw as a kind of moral superiority of monotheism over polytheism. Though not at all immediately obvious what Freud meant by this, and certainly able to lend itself to needlessly offensive suggestions, I believe there may be a potentially redemptive interpretation for Freud’s valuation of monotheism as morally superior to polytheism.

Freud, himself an atheist, would obviously have little to no religious motivation for such a view; were he to even be accused of pandering to a European Christendom, the idea may still largely be unnecessary, as overt concerns over monotheism were not daily realities for believers in the Trinity. Whatever Freud is attempting to say, it is not metaphysical or even necessarily ethical, but ultimately psychological—he is attempting to say something fundamental about the human condition.

Reconsider his reality principle. In order to accept reality to any degree, one must willingly set aside their own personal preferences and desires in favor of unalterable circumstances—truths, if you will. Such a movement is one from multiplicity to singularity; there are countless possible desires and preferences, none of them harmonious, but only one reality. In this framework, “polytheism” may represent the fundamentally fragmented world of the child who refuses the reality principle; conversely, “monotheism” would then name the unified reality waiting behind one’s own personal preferences, or what we might call one’s “ego.”

One may rightly raise the concern that what has passed for monotheism has often been far from this view; rather than a unifying vision, it has been another division, another excuse for “us against them”: “We have the true god, while you have only dead idols and so much wickedness.” And while this is not only true but a criticism worth considering, Freud himself may have not considered such a worldview to be “monotheism” but another form of “polytheism”—another fundamental fracture, underdeveloped individuals insisting upon their particular egotistical worlds over the one reality.

Ancient Egypt

Taking a cue from Freud, we may consider an attempt at something like a Freudian monotheism within ancient Egypt. For our source, we’ll use James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 3rd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

There’s an unfortunate confusion when discussing other cultures and their worldviews; more often than not we approach their terms through our definitions, assuming they used similar words and concepts as ours. This is a rocky methodology at best. For instance, in the West, the term “god,” even with a capital-G, typically denotes a metaphysically-remote being; either a “spirit,” and thus opposed to matter, or entirely beyond Being, or else the ground of Being altogether and thus not at all related to any of its contents. Egyptian thought, however, was far more concrete or, to use a philosophical term, immanent.

“Egyptian gods and goddesses are nothing more or less than the elements and forces of the universe. The gods did not just ‘control’ these phenomena, like the Greek god Zeus with his lightning bolts: they were the elements and forces of the world. We recognize this quality by saying that the Egyptian gods are ‘immanent’ in the phenomena of nature. The wind, for example, was the god … šw Shu; in one text, Shu describes himself as follows: ‘I am Shu …: my clothing is the air …, my skin is the pressure of the wind’ ([A. de Buck, The Egyptian Coffin Texts, 7 vols.] II, 29d–30d). When an Egyptian felt the wind on his face, he felt that Shu had brushed against him. …

“The Egyptians saw the wills and actions of their gods at work in the phenomena of everyday life: Re, in the daily return of light and warmth; Osiris and Isis, in the miracle of birth; Maat or Seth, in the harmony or discord of human relations; Ptah and Thoth, in the creation of buildings, art, and literature; and Horus, in the king whose rule made life itself possible.” (Allen, 54, 55.)

The Egyptian mythos was far more “down-to-earth” than more modern counterparts may lead one to believe. Nonetheless, the above still describes something readers may rightly pass off as the old polytheism of Egypt; even in a Freudian reading, there seems nothing so far to save Egyptian thought from even Freud’s own summation of “polytheism.” However, if Freudian “polytheism” is defined by a fundamental fracture in reality, the conflict of multiple opposing “worlds,” as it were; and if “monotheism” is thus reunion in the one reality one shares with all others, then Egypt may have had ages which were far from “polytheistic.”

“Although the Egyptians recognized most natural and social phenomena as separate divine forces, they also realized that many of these were interrelated and could also be understood as different aspects of a single divine force. That realization is expressed in the practice known as ‘syncretism,’ the combining of several gods into one. The sun, for example, can be seen not only as the physical source of heat and light (Re) but also as the governing force of nature (Horus), whose appearance at dawn from the Akhet … makes all life possible—a perception embodied in the combined god … rë-oerw-æãtj Re-Harakhti (Sun Horus of the Akhet …). The tendency to syncretism is visible in all periods of Egyptian history. It explains not only the combination of various Egyptian gods but also the ease with which the Egyptians accepted foreign deities, such as Baal and Astarte, into their pantheon, as different forms of their own familiar gods.” (55-56.)

Rather than an analogue to modern attempts at pluralism, or even a postmodern suspicion of meta-narratives, Egyptian syncretism was in fact a unified vision. Contrary to the Roman tendency to bring the gods of conquered peoples into their pantheon, a symbol of their welcome into the expanding empire, the Egyptians seemed to believe that they and foreign peoples were in fact seeking out the same singular reality. This, and perhaps hints of Freud’s own “monotheism,” may be seen in Allen’s concluding point:

“By the 18th Dynasty [c. 1550 to 1292 BCE], Egyptian theologians had even begun to recognize that all divine forces could be understood as aspects of a single great god, … jmn(w) Amun, ‘king of the gods.’ The name Amun means ‘hidden.’ Although his will and actions could be seen in the individual phenomena of nature, Amun himself was above all of them: ‘farther than the sky, deeper than the Duat [the transitory space between night and day], … too secret to uncover his awesomeness, … too powerful to know’ ([Zeischrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde] 42, 33–34). Of all the Egyptian gods, Amun alone existed apart from nature, yet his presence was perceptible in all the phenomena of daily life. The Egyptians expressed this dual character in the combined form … jmn(w)-rëw Amun-Re, a god who was ‘hidden’ yet manifest in the greatest of all natural forces.” (56.)

Though Allen is quick to add that “the ancient Egyptians never abandoned their belief in many gods” (classical polytheism), he compares this more naturalistic view of the world “to the later Christian concept of the Trinity: a belief that one god can have more than one person.” Rather than distinctive individual gods, wholly separable from one another, perhaps even in conflict with each other, ancient Egypt saw their world as a holistic totality, unified at its most fundamental level—Amun, all existence unified in a single being. In more Freudian terms, we may say that Egypt’s classical polytheism was also a Freudian monotheism; rather than a war of conflicting worlds, Amun represents the one reality, and devotion to Amun may be summed up as Freud’s reality principle.

“As bizarre as the Egyptian gods may seem to modern observers,” Allen continues, “the religion of ancient Egypt itself was not all that different from religions that are more familiar to us. Far from being an isolated phenomenon of human history, Egyptian religion actually stands at the beginning of modern intellectual inquiry and development” (56)—perhaps, we may add, even psychological development.

Freudian Monotheism, or Psychoanalysis

A more Freudian monotheism, the perspective which Freud may have considered characteristic of a well-developed psyche, thus calls one into a new experience of life.

From my own religious tradition, Mormonism: around 1829, Joseph Smith dictated this line of the Book of Mormon: “all things denote there is a God; … the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, … its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44). In more modern terms, all things are of a sacred nature, witnessing to their ultimate value. Freudian monotheism, thus, may be a proverbial murder of the father, and even his resurrection, but not as the authority figure holding back the reality from which we’ve been attempting to escape all along; instead, having sloughed off our first-person perspective and subjective preferences, we instead seek the reality principle: the singular reality we all share. To go beyond this subjectivity into whatever objectivity we can manage, however, we require an aide of sorts. I believe Freud may have considered psychoanalysis one possible tool at our disposal.

What I've found most compelling in psychology, psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis is this: contrary to our typical experience of feeling like a person wearing a mask, we are in fact a mask wearing a person.

Beneath the narrow sliver of our total selves with which we identify, there are myriad competing sub-personalities, of which we are unaware and which thus exert a uniquely determinative control over our thoughts and actions—thus they go by the modern terms, "unconscious," "autonomic," etc. As Karl Marx put it: We know not what we do, but we do it anyway; and as Slavoj Zizek emends it: Even when we know what we are doing, we do it anyway.

Philosophy has spent much energy debating between free will and determinism, but it seems modern mental health has brought them together in a strange wedding: determinism is our natural state of being, as we act out on the surface the conflicts of our warring sub-personalities below; however, turning inward in introspection and self-awareness, we learn ourselves, as it were. We map the subterranean depths of our souls, not creating a new self (which would only be another mask, anyway), but discovering the Self which was always already present.

I prefer Lacan's take on psychoanalysis: to excavate and understand yourself, so as to never speak or take a step too early or too late. That inner depth, however, exists beneath our rational and even verbal levels, raising the question of how it will ever announce or express itself to you on the surface. Herein lies the need for non- or pre-verbal experience: art, literature, spiritual experience, and the herculean effort thereafter of analyzing and making sense of these things. Rather than fanciful luxuries, these are modes of exploring ourselves, ones which we're often taught to neglect for more "pressing" matters; get to work, but worry nothing about the the one working. I hardly know myself, but the little I've managed to understand has helped me to find my way through numerous experiences with significantly less emotional turmoil, and to further process past traumas considerably.

Typically we experience our relationship with our environments as one of hostility, conquer or be conquered. We constantly press our preferences against our circumstances, against others, against all we encounter, rooting for the former to overcome the latter, without ever asking where those preferences come from in the first place.

To varying degrees we find ourselves at war with that which we cannot control, feeling as if we had "come into the world" and are thus in some profound way strangers here, or even intruders; and thus all others are intruders into our lives, as well. The reality is not that you came into the world, but, as Alan Watts preferred to put it, you grew out of the world like an apple from a tree or a wave from the sea. And so did everything and everyone else. You belong here, so do others, even the ones you dislike; we're all right at home, only we're pretending not to be, often projecting that feeling onto others as if their absence would put everything right.

We experience ourselves as a piece of driftwood caught on the waves of an uncaring sea, when in reality we are the waves of a sea that produced us and all our cares; the degree to which we feel at home in this, or not, has everything to do with our own internal struggle.


It's an old Taoist rule that Nature knows how to flow properly of its own accord; it's our worrying and hand-wringing that trips it up. When we step back, stop trying to make things a certain way, they move in their proper course; but that requires us to at some point ask ourselves why we wanted things to be that certain way in the first place. That introspection, self-exploration, and sustained self-awareness may yield for us the same benefit Lacan saw in psychoanalysis: we may at last no longer act or step too early or too late, but right in step with the rest of Life, of which we are a part and product, and with which we are inescapably entangled.


Image: Brown quartzite inlay head of Akhenaten or Nefertiti. Height 10 cm. Reign of Akhenaten. From Amarna, Egypt. Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL, London. With thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

Photo by Dr. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin; borrowed with gratitude from Wikipedia.