The Freud Museum


Religion as the 'return of the repressed'

Moses and Monotheism (1937)

"The religion of Moses did not produce its effects immediately but in a remarkably indirect manner. This does not mean to say simply that it did not work at once, that it took long periods of time, hundreds of years, to deploy its full effect, for that is self-evident when it is a question of the imprinting of a people's character. But the restriction related to a fact which we have derived from the history of the Jewish religion or, if you like, have introduced into it. We have said that after a certain time the Jewish people rejected the religion of Moses once more - whether they did so completely or retained some of its precepts we cannot guess. If we suppose that in the long period of the seizure of Canaan and the struggle with the peoples inhabiting it the Yahweh religion did not differ essentially from the worship of the other Baalim, we shall be on historical ground in spite of all the later tendentious efforts to throw a veil over this shaming state of thing.

The religion of Moses, however, had not disappeared without leaving a trace. A kind of memory of it had survived, obscured and distorted, supported, perhaps, among individual members of the priestly caste by ancient records. And it was this tradition of a great past which continued to work in the background, as it were, which gradually gained more and more power over men's minds, and which finally succeeded in transforming the god Yahweh into the god of Moses and in calling back to life the religion of Moses which had been established and then abandoned long centuries earlier....

There are a quantity of similar processes among those which the analytic investigation of mental life has taught us to know. Some of them are described as pathological, others are counted among the diversity of normal events. But that matters little, since the boundaries between the two are not sharply drawn, their mechanisms are to a large extent the same, and it is of far more importance whether the alterations in question take place in the ego itself or whether they confront it as alien to it - in which case they are known as symptoms.

From the mass of material I shall first bring forward some cases which relate to the development of character. Take, for instance, the girl who has reached a state of the most decided opposition to her mother. She has cultivated all those characteristics which she has seen that her mother lacked, and has avoided everything that reminded her of her mother. We may supplement this by saying that in her early years, like every female child, she adopted an identification with her mother and that she is now rebelling against this energetically. But when this girl marries and herself becomes a wife and mother, we need not be surprised to find that she begins to grow more and more like the mother to whom she was so antagonistic, till finally the identification with her which she surmounted is unmistakenly re-established. The same thing happens too with boys; and even the great Goethe, who in the period of his genius certainly looked down upon his unbending and pedantic father, in his old age developed traits which formed a part of his father's character ... In order not to miss the connection with our theme, we must keep in mind the fact that at the beginning of such a course of events there is always an identification with the father in early childhood. This is afterwards repudiated, and even overcompensated, but in the end establishes itself once more.

It has long since become common knowledge that the experiences of a person's first five years exercise a determining effect on his life, which nothing later can withstand ... It may, however, be less well known that the strongest compulsive influence arises from impressions which impinge upon a child at a time when we would have to regard his psychical apparatus as not yet completely receptive ... What children have experienced at the age of two and have not understood, need never be remembered by them except in dreams; they may only come to know of it through psychoanalytic treatment. But at some later time it will break into their life with obsessional impulses, it will govern their actions, it will decide their sympathies and antipathies and will quite often determine their choice of a love-object, for which it is so frequently impossible to find a rational basis ... All the phenomena of the formation of symptoms may justly be described as the 'return of the repressed'...."

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