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Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud, Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

Sigmund Freud: Walk Like an Egyptian


Randall Mawer


Moses and Monotheism (trans. Katherine Jones) (1939)


“It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.” And we will keep telling it, however much time goes by.

Prophecy warns a king that his newborn son will grow up to kill and supplant him; the king orders pre-emptive murder, but the hit-men take mercy on the baby, who is adopted by neighboring rulers or peasants or wolves. Son grows up ignorant of his origins but driven by strange instincts toward heroic adventures, including (but not confined to) fulfillment of the patricidal prophecy and the salvation of his true tribe, nation, or race. Thus, with variations: Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Romulus, Cyrus … and Jesus.


And Moses? Well, yes and no, says the first and best of psychoanalysts in Moses and Monotheism, an eminently readable and provocative foray into religious history.


If the paradigmatic hero myth is the necessary subtext of Moses’ story, why, wonders Freud, was its hero born a commoner (indeed, a member of a despised minority) and reared as royalty in the Egyptian court? Well, the good doctor speculates, he wasn’t! Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian, a well-born acolyte of Pharoah Amenhotep IV (later Ikhnaton), who established (quite briefly) the strictly monotheistic worship of an all-powerful, un-image-able creator-God, eliminated magical rituals (including idol worship and blood sacrifice), denied any and all lives-after-death, and declared “Maat”--truth, order, and justice—ie., ethics—the only virtue worthy the name.


The Egyptian mainstream (no, not the Nile) would have none of this. Death-worshiping, wildly polytheistic and materialistic, the old order quickly ousted Amenhotep, leaving young Moses adrift not in the bulrushes but in a slave ghetto--he may have been a sort of overseer--among impoverished aliens, a Jewish tribe in need of a liberator. Always quick to act, Moses seized the staff and declared this ragtag crowd his--and God’s--chosen people, and the rest is … well … if not history then certainly rousing epic. The hero’s erstwhile patron would not have approved of the supernatural plagues and snakes and frogs and parted waters, but a messiah has to go with what he’s got, and go (see Exodus) Moses did, meantime putting into practice Amenhotep’s various creeds.


What you won’t see in The Ten Commandments are the next two crucial episodes. First, the fleeing Jews, fed up with hardships and divine injunctions and, perhaps, their leader’s Egyptian airs and broken Hebrew, murdered Moses. Then, a few generations later, they merged—submerged more like—his memory in the identity of a second Moses, a Midianite priest who brought down from Sinai laws written by a local volcano deity interested more in blind obedience than in self-controlled Maat. (The locals roundabout were also Jews; their greater numbers handily absorbed the wanderers.)


But tradition, particularly oral tradition, dies hard. And here Freud’s specialized experience rises up to explain how repressed memories of the violence done to Moses and to his faith and practice spawned a gigantic group neurosis which could find relief only in remembering and acknowledging what they were trying to forget, beliefs and customs of entirely Egyptian origin, thus: one God and one only, source of all things, with mankind the crown of His creation; heaven and hell? childish delusions; circumcision? a useful public-health measure; magic? get real!


What was left? Only all that is best in Judaism (and, to a lesser degree, in subsequent Christianity and Islam): Maat, ethics, set at risk by fussy legalisms but always there, ready to be revived over and over by the great Hebrew kings and prophets yet unborn. Confirmed atheist but ever the proud Jew, Freud would here add his name to that honor roll.


The author of Moses and Monotheism was a true polymath. Still, lacking more documents, more archeology, (especially) more linguistics, the theories here presented will not wash as scientific “history.” No almost-unaided thesis could or can. As philosophy, though, as a glimpse into the best that has been known and thought, Freud’s words ring with a truth that may be higher than any merely historical “fact.”


So, there he sat, aging and ill, first in Vienna, then in London, hearing the thunder, not so distant in place or time, raised by another man-who-would-be-God. Against this storm and its rising tide, Freud offered truth, order, and justice--slim reeds to be sure, but still straight and strong after three and a third thousands of years. The fundamental things apply.



Heart Versus Mind


Casey Dorman


E.J. Dionne: Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2012)


Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) 


Are conservative (Republican)  Americans hard-hearted, selfish, flag-wavers who have misread both history and the message of our country’s founding fathers?  Or are they morally balanced citizens who, in their valuing of sanctity, loyalty, and authority are more like the majority of the world’s population than the narrowly focused liberals who simply want to use the power of government to ensure that no one in society is deprived of their due?


E.J. Dionne, liberal columnist and author of Our Divided Political Heart agrees with the first characterization of conservatives while Jonathan Haidt, social/cognitive psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, agrees with the second.


According to Dionne, the division that is splitting our country and paralyzing our government is one that is based upon alternative readings of American history and a disagreement between those who believe that the core of American values lies in individualism versus those who believe that it lies in what he calls communitarianism. He faults conservative Republicans and particularly the Tea Party for valuing only individualism and demonizing communitarianism. The left, he argues, has a more balanced viewpoint, recognizing the role of both traditions in the development of the character of our country.


Dionne makes an impassioned and well-reasoned argument, based upon his own analysis of the current political scene and his own reading of history. He buttresses his arguments with quotations and citations from the works of learned historians.


Dionne’s analysis is fascinating, particularly because he emphasizes that history, as written by historians, is not a set of static “facts” but a reflection of the cultural and personal biases of the historians who write it. One can find a history to fit almost any point of view, depending upon the era and the historian from which one decides to draw. As an example, Dionne cites the characterization, by early twentieth century historians, of the Radical Republicans of the post-civil war Reconstruction era as Carpetbaggers and Scalawags who bamboozled the former slaves into land ownership and voting privileges, as an example of biased and racist history. His analysis is eye-opening to someone of my age, who read such characterizations in his school history books as a child. Modern textbooks point out that such historical characterizations are now regarded as part of a then bigoted white effort to undermine the value of Negro suffrage and Black American accomplishments such as holding political office during Reconstruction.


Dionne argues that the conservatives, especially those of the Tea Party persuasion,  have offered a biased reading of American history, particularly the ideas attributed to the Founding Fathers in their writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This false history, along with sanctification of the Founding Fathers so that what is deemed good for America in the present can only be what the Founders had in mind in the past, has distorted the debate about the direction our country should be taking.


The author of The Righteous Mind would say that both Dionne and the Tea Party have put together arguments to support positions that are based more on gut level attitudes than reasoned decisions. For Dionne, caring for the dispossessed and insuring that resources are distributed equally throughout society are intuitively moral positions. He sees government’s role as assisting as best it can in making sure that these things take place. For the Tea Party, making sure everyone contributes his or her fair share before reaping any of the rewards of our society, protecting individuals’ rights to be free of government interference, affirming loyalty to the nation and protecting the sanctity of life and marriage are all intuitively moral positions. Justification of such positions using historical precedents is an afterthought and a debating technique, no matter which side uses it.


Haidt  builds his assertions on research conducted by both himself and other psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists. He has two points: first, we make decisions largely on the basis of intuition, not logic and we use our reasoning skills to justify those decisions, not to arrive at them. Second, the moral framework from which most well-educated Western Europeans and  particularly educated upper middle class liberal Americans make their judgments is WEIRD, compared to that of the rest of the world. WEIRD is an acronym that stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.  


According to Haidt, People who are WEIRD, “see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.” Westerners see people as individuals, rather than as components of a context of relationships. Easterners (and perhaps poor and/or poorly educated Westerners) see the world holistically as an overall context with an emphasis upon the relationships among the parts.


Haidt has fastened upon what social anthropologists call an individualistic point of view versus a collectivistic point of view. The emphasis upon individualism is associated with moral principles that emphasize autonomy and the rights of individuals. The concentration on autonomy as the basis for morality in Western culture, according to Haidt, leads to a narrow focus on just three moral dimensions: liberty, harm and fairness. People should be free to do whatever they want so long long as it does not harm anyone else and if everyone has the same opportunity to do the same thing.


But Haidt says that the narrow focus on autonomy as the basis for morality among WEIRD people leaves out other major themes of morality. He proposes six moral dimensions, only the first three of  which are dominant among WEIRD cultures.


The first of these moral dimensions is Care/Harm: that which prompts us to provide assistance to others in need and to insist that our personal liberty stops at the point that it harms others. This is a prominent dimension in the minds of liberals. It encompasses what Dionne calls the “communitarian” side of our national traditions.


The Fairness/Cheating dimension is that dimension which prompts us to reciprocate when others cooperate with us and to become angry when others try to take advantage of us. An interesting finding is that liberals tend to see fairness in terms of each person getting as much as everyone else while conservatives see this dimension in terms of getting back in proportion to what you put in. Liberals are more sensitive to who gets “left out” of access to resources while conservatives are more sensitive to who is getting a “free ride” by taking out without putting in. As Dionne points out, these are the sentiments of the Occupy Wallstreet agitators and the Tea Party, respectively.


The third dimension is  Liberty/Oppression, a moral value that was identified late in Haidt’s research program. Haidt found that both liberals and conservatives are highly sensitive to violations of their freedom and supposed oppression, although the two groups identify different sources of these violations. Liberals are more likely to identify anyone who takes advantage of the powerless as abusing liberty. They identify with victims of despotic governments, with the poor, with women and children and with ethnic and religious minorities everywhere and generally see those who hold power, either through government, the military or wealth, as the oppressors. Conservatives are more likely to be concerned with usurpation of power by a growing federal government, by an over-regulating bureaucracy and by supranational groups such as the U.N., which, in their minds, threatens the sovereignty of our country.


What is most interesting is the remaining dimensions that are not usually valued by the WIERD culture. One of these is the Loyalty/Betrayal dimension, which is particularly high in  American conservatives, who often parade their loyalty to the country in bumper stickers, flags and praise. Loyalty/Betrayal is a tribal mindset and may be attached to one’s nation, school, sports team, race, religion, community or even language group (note the recent victory of the French-speaking party in Quebec, for instance or the efforts to ban bilingual education in the U.S.).


The Authority/Subversion dimension is one that many Americans, especially liberal Americans, do not associate with morality but is an essential part of the moral fabric of many cultures. The Chinese culture in its adoption of Confucian tenets is one obvious example of this, but many cultures emphasize respect for authority, in the form of respect for older persons, officials, royalty, males, teachers, etc. Most of us have encountered at least one situation in  which, not knowing the traditions of another culture or subculture, we inadvertently failed to show respect for one of its members who occupied a position of authority (the oldest brother or grandparent of a friend, for instance) and were taken aback by the horror engendered by our “insult” to that person.


The Sanctity/Degradation dimension is the mindset that provokes disgust in people when they encounter objects that are soiled, either literally or figuratively. Its opposite is reverence for and cleanliness directed toward objects we value. When I was a child and a member of the Boy Scouts, I was taught that the American flag could never touch the ground and that if it did, it must be destroyed. Different cultures attach their feelings of sanctity and disgust to different things. Riots have occurred in countries as far away as Aghanistan when an American pastor recommended burning copies of the Koran. The arguments in this country over abortion and gay marriage are often phrased by conservatives in terms of the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage .


Haidt took five of these dimensions of morality (all but libery/oppression), which he called Moral Foundations Theory, and measured how relevant to their lives self-identified liberals versus conservatives found each dimension. In several replications, using over 130,000 participants, the findings were similar: liberals valued care and fairness far more than they cared about the other three dimensions; conservatives valued all five dimensions more or less equally. Yes, liberals were somewhat higher on both care and fairness than conservatives, but not much. Liberals, on the other hand, were well below conservatives on loyalty, authority and sanctity as values to which they subscribed.


Haidt argues that all six of the moral dimensions he has identified are built into human beings in the form of evolutionarily tuned ways to think about the world. Current cultures may bring out some of these dimensions more than others, but all of them are lurking inside each of us, waiting to be released. The original situations that provoked such ways of thinking have mostly faded with our emergence from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but new situations now serve to bring out the same emotional reactions, which, in turn, form the basis for our decisions. Our rationales for these decisions of course don’t cite these built-in propensities as the reason we made them, but instead we manufacture reasons out of current events, even if we are only dimly aware of what it is about these events that actually provoked our decision.



Haidt is not political, although the last chapters of his book, which deal with religion and political programs are opinionated. His book is largely dispassionate, although no less readable than Dionne’s, but he is analyzing how people think, not their arguments. The revelations about how seldom humans make decisions based upon reason and how logic and reason are used much more in justifying  beliefs than in arriving at them reflect some of the major findings of modern cognitive psychology. His work on the foundations of morality, while speculative in terms of the evolutionary roots of moral thinking, represents the conclusions from years of empirical research. I found his findings eye-opening, particularly when I learned that people from cultures other than mine regarded their views on what is sacred or respectful as universal truths, rather than as the culturally determined mores that I saw them to be. I have to assume that, in a similar fashion, members of those cultures would view some of the moral values I assume to be universally true as simply representative of my unique cultural values.


Haidt’s idealistic analysis of conservative character in America fails to capture the Tea Party brand of conservatism, which, as Dionne has effectively argued, is narrowly focused upon liberty with a message of reducing government and taxes and allowing capitalism to have free rein. But Dionne is mistaken in identifying the lack of caring (or to use his word, communitarianism) with conservative ideology as a whole. He rightly tries to show that a careful analysis of historical conservative thinking in America reveals a strong communitarian strain. But what Dionne and other liberals fail to understand is that the liberal agenda often ignores moral dimensions that are important to those who are members of the population but don’t share the WEIRD mentality (i.e. are less educated, less wealthy and less liberal). These people are as eager to wave a flag, to believe in God and the sanctity of time-honored religious norms, to support our troops and to discourage society’s “free riders” as they are to care for the poor and powerless. Such people are not simply or even primarily selfish chauvinists who are motivated by self-interest and blind patriotism.


During convention month, it was possible to observe both political parties address their respective bases in an effort to drum up enthusiasm over the issues that are dear to the hearts of each. True to Haidt’s analysis, the Republicans focused upon sanctity (of life and marriage and with an emphasis upon religiosity), liberty (to succeed without being fettered by government regulations or taxes), fairness (to gain from the system what you put in), loyalty (in terms of a strong military defense and support for our allies) but they also focused upon caring and not leaving out the poor or minorities, at least in their rhetoric. The Democrats were more narrowly focused on caring (health care and a good education for everyone), fairness (equal pay for women, greater opportunities for the middle class and not just the wealthy), and liberty (freedom to marry whomever one wants). The Democrats accused the Republicans of being in the service of the rich at the expense of the rest of society (liberty/oppression and fairness/cheating dimensions) while the Republicans accused the Democrats of taking away freedom by putting more power and authority in the hands of the federal government (liberty/oppression) and failing to acknowledge the contributions of successful businessmen (fairness/cheating) and eroding the character of America by failing to make marriage and life sacred (sanctity/degradation).


Haidt’s analysis accurately captures the philosophical differences between mainstream liberals/Democrats and conservatives/ Republicans in America,  while Dionne’s analysis accurately captures the difference between progressive liberals  and Tea Party republicans, although from the perspective of Haidt’s research the basis of the latter two groups’ differences are founded upon moral intuitions, not the historical arguments that Dionne addresses.


We live in a multicultural world. If Haidt is correct, and his assertions in this regard are based upon research data, then the WEIRD moral framework, which characterizes most liberals, myself included, is not the dominant framework used by the majority of the world’s population nor even of a significant proportion of Americans. I recently read that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate won the presidential election in Egypt, has begun holding cultural gatherings all across its country, during which it reinforces the role of women as subservient to their husbands, as not suited for public office, and as less emotionally stable than men. Such teachings are apparently accepted by many Egyptians, including women, who have grown up with such role descriptions as part of their culture and religion. Similar attitudes have been part of Western, Christian cultures in the past and continue to be an accepted belief among some American Christian sects. WEIRD people such as myself see the West as having “moved past” such “outmoded beliefs” about women and their roles in society. In fact, we are appalled when  we read about cultures that embrace such ideas. But similar attitudes toward women can be found in a number of societies in India, Africa, and Asia, whose religions may range from Hinduism to  Islam to Buddhism.


From the point of view of the moral dimensions of liberty, caring and fairness, the characterization of women’s roles by much of the rest of the world is an instance of oppression. From the point of view of other cultures, such attitudes are examples of respect for authority (of the Koran’s or Bible’s  or Confucious’  teachings, and of the traditional order within their societies), sanctity (of sexual differences and respect for marriage). How do we, as WEIRD moralists accept these other viewpoints?


From my point of view, any characterization of women in a subservient or second-class role leaves a society open to implicitly sanctioning the abuse of women and girls. While I regard such a point of view as based upon history and fact, what I learned from Haidt’s book is that I am probably looking at this issue through a narrow moral lens and I am collecting my history and facts, not in an unbiased search for truth, but as a way to buttress my own intuitive conclusions. That doesn’t mean that I am wrong, but it should raise my awareness of the vulnerability of my opinions to my own cultural biases.


Haidt’s book isn’t written to change anyone’s mind, but rather to raise an issue about which most of us are blind. Our own moral framework is limited and what others feel righteous about may be very different from what we feel righteous about. This is true whether we are liberals or conservatives (although Haidt presents evidence that conservatives understand liberals’ points of view better than the reverse). To me that presents a dilemma which pits my urge to respect the beliefs of other cultures against my overriding judgments about the value of cultural practices in terms of liberty, caring and fairness. If persons such as I can at least maintain the view that other moral dimensions such as authority, loyalty and sanctity can be valuable, not just oppressive to societies, then his book is useful and will generate productive and searching discussions among those who read it.


Dionne’s book, unlike Haidt’s, is filled with polemic rather than facts gleaned from research. Nevertheless, a reading of Dionne’s book gives one a better perspective on the relative nature of history as written by historians and, in fact, whetted my own appetite enough to prompt me to re-read not only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also the Federalist Papers. But his arguments are blatantly partisan and are hardly likely to sway any conservatives, especially those who belong to the Tea Party. I suspect that his readers will be confined to those who already agree with him. At any rate, such readers will be both entertained and enlightened and probably thoroughly pleased by his analysis.

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