Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997
When I first read Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian in June of 1997, it was a life-changing experience. Moses the Egyptian belongs to the rarest genre of academic books: the bold and exciting ones. Although he is a careful, rigorous, highly specialized scholar, Assmann ranges over the full breadth of Western thought and even reaches toward the eternal, all in order to illuminate the great wound in Western history: the emergence of Biblical monotheism.
Now Professor Emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, Assmann is one of the leading Egyptologists of the last half century. Late in his career, beginning with Moses the Egyptian, Assmann began publishing a series of books exploring the common roots and little-known connections of two traditions that run from Ancient Egypt to the present day: Biblical monotheism and Egyptian pantheism or “cosmotheism.”
(Assmann’s other relevant volumes in English are The Price of Monotheism [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010], Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008], Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion [Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2014], and the forthcoming From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change [Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2014]. I hope to review all of these in due time.)
Modern Egyptologists tend to dismiss accounts of Ancient Egypt from late antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, since they were not based on an understanding of the Ancient Egyptian language, which was lost in late antiquity and recovered only after Jean-François Champollion published his decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in 1822. According to this neglected tradition, the “esoteric” wisdom of the Ancient Egyptians is that behind all gods and creatures, there is one hidden god who manifests himself as the whole world of plurality — gods, mortals, and all other beings — occupying the world as the soul occupies the body. God is thus immanent in nature and both “one and all” (hen kai pan). Assmann calls this form of pantheism “cosmotheism.” (Not to be confused with the cosmotheism of William Pierce, although there are some doctrinal overlaps.)
Cosmotheist ideas appear in the Corpus Hermeticum from late antiquity, which returned to Europe from Byzantium in the 15th century (along with the writings of Plato) and helped spark the Renaissance. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cosmotheism became associated with the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza as well as deism and Freemasonry.
Hermeticism played an important role in liberating the European mind from Christianity, since it presented itself as an Egyptian wisdom tradition dating before the time of Moses, thus a providing a frame of reference older than the Bible. It was important for the Hermetic tradition to be older than the Bible, since it was impossible simply to reject Christianity, but it was hoped that by subsuming it within a larger tradition, it would be possible to wean it away from religious intolerance and persecution. This was, of course, tried by ancient polytheists as well, but without success.
Although the texts of the Corpus Hermeticum are written in Greek and Latin and date from the second and third centuries CE, Assmann argues that the core ideas of the Corpus Hermeticum and related lore about ancient Egyptian wisdom are indeed consistent with genuine Egyptian sources that are far older than the time of Moses, meaning that there was an unbroken tradition that transmitted genuine Egyptian wisdom teachings to the Ancient Greeks and Romans and through them to the modern world.
(For more on Hermeticism, see Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993], Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964], and Florian Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007].)
Assmann also connects the Biblical monotheism founded by Moses to the mid-14th century BCE Egyptian heretic pharaoh Akhnaton through little-known Egyptian and Greco-Roman traditions which give the Egyptian view of the exodus story. These traditions are quite interesting, but they do not establish a direct link between Moses and Akhnaton.
Oddly enough, though, Assmann mentions in passing but does not exploit the long-known and quite significant parallels between Akhnaton’s Hymns to the Sun and Psalm 104. Since Akhnaton’s hymns are at least 500 years older than Psalm 104, since Akhnaton’s memory was pretty much obliterated in Egypt shortly after his death, and since there is no evidence of a third common source of both texts, the reasonable conclusion is that there was a direct tradition between Akhnaton and the Bible. (Since only two religious texts by Akhnaton have survived, it is always possible that other Biblical texts also incorporate lost works of the heretic pharaoh. Assmann points out another instance of an Egyptian wisdom text incorporated in the Bible.)
There are, moreover, more than just textual parallels between Akhnaton’s monotheism and the Biblical version. There are also doctrinal similarities. Both monotheisms are premised on the negation of Egyptian polytheism. Furthermore, both monotheisms declare themselves the only true religion and condemn other religions as simply false. Finally, both monotheisms are not content merely to declare other religions false. They also seek to destroy them by closing temples, defacing images, destroying writings, and persecuting believers.
One of Assmann’s most interesting concepts is “counter-religion.” He argues that both Akhnaton’s monotheism and the Bible’s emerged as counter-religions to Egyptian polytheism. Indeed, all new religions, or reform movements within religions, define themselves in opposition to what came before them. However, in the case of Jewish monotheism, counter-religion took on the form of what Assmann calls “normative inversion,” meaning that the Jews arrived at their concept of the sacred simply by inverting and profaning what the Egyptians regarded as sacred. For instance, since the Egyptians held the bull and the ram to be sacred animals, Jewish law prescribes that they be sacrificed.
Although Assmann does not draw this conclusion, his argument supports the idea that the “slave revolt in morals” that Nietzsche saw at the root of Christian morality goes all the way back to the creation of Judaism at Mount Sinai. Judaism, in short, is no more a religion than Anton LaVey’s Satanism is. Both are just counter-religions, i.e., hateful inversions — “Satanic” parodies — of other religions or counter-religions.
The Babylonian Talmud (Sabbat 89a) claims that Sinai received its name because it is the place from which hate (sin’ah) descended upon the world. This is a rather precise description of the original motive of Judaism and its historical consequences to the present day. (Naturally the Talmud inverts this truth with the old Semitic canard that the hate comes from the goyim who are jealous of the chosen.) (See The Price of Monotheism, p. 21.)
Another of Assmann’s key concepts is the “Mosaic distinction,” which draws a line between true and false religions, and which applies to both Akhnaton and Moses. Both claimed that their religions were the one true religion and that all other religions are therefore false. But they did not just dismiss other religions as false. They demanded that they be hated, persecuted, and destroyed as rivals, parodies, or perversions of the one true faith. Thus with the Mosaic distinction, the claim of exclusive truth gives rise to religious intolerance and violence. (The distinction is named for Moses rather than Akhnaton because the latter was forgotten for more than 3,000 years, whereas Moses was recognized as the founder of a monotheist tradition that is alive and up to no good even today.)
Ancient polytheists, by contrast, were not threatened by the existence of other religions. When faced with gods, myths, and rituals different from their own, they did not conclude that, since truth is one, all other religions are false. Instead, they inferred the existence of a common divine reality that manifested itself in a plurality of different guises. Thus they concluded that on the essential question of honoring the reality of the divine, all religions are the same and must, therefore, be treated with respect. And since the differences between divine names, images, myths, and rites do not interfere with the essential function of religion, they are not impediments to the truth but rather the ways in which the divine manifests itself to different peoples. Thus religious diversity is not merely something to be suffered and tolerated but to be embraced and enjoyed.
Ancient polytheism did not just promote religious tolerance. It also helped promote peace between nations in an age of constant warfare and bloodshed. The idea of a universal divine order served as a foundation for international law and peace between nations. Men of the same nation could bind themselves in agreements by swearing oaths to their common gods. Men of different nations could sign contacts and treaties by recognizing that their different gods named the same divine order that was binding on all of them. According to Assmann, this idea of the mutual “translatability” of different pantheons is attested by Mesopotamian tables of correspondences from the third millennium BCE.
In other texts, I will deal with Assmann’s development of these themes in Moses the Egyptian from antiquity through the 17th and 18th centuries down to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Here I wish to discuss Assmann’s importance for Traditionalism and the New Right.
Pagan cosmotheism — the idea that behind the plurality of different religions is a single divine order which manifests itself in diverse ways — is the root of the Traditionalist idea of the “Transcendent Unity of Religions.” To state it boldly, what Traditionalists call the one Tradition just is pagan cosmotheism, which receives its earliest known articulation in Ancient Egypt. Alongside this tradition of “perennial philosophy” is the perennial mystical tradition, the common core of which is the individual’s experience of his identity with the hidden one. “All” are identical with the “one,” but only the few directly experience this identity.
It is important, however, for Traditionalists to recognize that the transcendent unity of religions is rejected by Biblical monotheism, which defines itself as the negation of polytheism, not its fulfillment in the notion of a common divine order. Polytheists regard all religions as true, whereas monotheists regard only their religion as true and all other religions as false. Polytheists are happy to grant that Biblical monotheism is true too. They are eager to identify the Biblical God with their own sovereign gods. But to do this, polytheists must deny the truth of one of the Biblical God’s essential features: his claim to be the one true God.
Biblical monotheists also reject unitative mysticism as blasphemy. The idea of creation ex nihilo means that creatures are not identical with God but merely depend upon God for their existence. The perennial mystical teaching is that one’s ownmost being is identical with being/god as such, whereas the idea of creation means that our ownmost being is precisely our nullity — i.e., our absolute dependence on a transcendent and wholly other God. Creation theology posits a metaphysical abyss between God and creation that cannot be bridged by any creaturely act.
Why, then, do polytheists — from late antiquity to present-day Traditionalists — try to convince Biblical monotheists that there is a higher religious order that can reconcile their conflicting accounts of the divine? The primary reason is their desire to combat monotheistic intolerance and persecution. This was necessary even in antiquity, when Biblical monotheists lived under polytheist regimes that tried to constrain their worst tendencies. It became even more urgent when Biblical monotheists could use the coercive power of the state to persecute nonbelievers and heretics.
Restraining monotheism’s persecuting zeal is a noble motive. But it does not alter the fact that it is intellectually incoherent to include Biblical monotheism within the one, primordial, perennial Tradition. That Tradition is integrally pagan, polytheist, and cosmotheist. Traditionalism can only embrace Biblical monotheism by denaturing it, i.e., by denying one of its essential traits, its claim to exclusive truth. Thus every Traditionalist is a heretic by Biblical standards. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Traditionalism are contradictions in terms. Assmann’s Biblical “counter-religions” belong alongside “counter-tradition” and “counter-initiation” as negations of Tradition.
When René Guénon lived in France, he was a Catholic. When he lived in Egypt, he was a Muslim. But he was a Traditionalist the whole time. Guénon was too intelligent to overlook the fact that Biblical monotheism cannot be reconciled with the Tradition. He was merely paying lip service to the dominant religion of the polity in which he lived in order to avoid intolerance and persecution.
Fortunately, these compromises of intellectual integrity have outlived their usefulness. In the Western world, at least, Traditionalists no longer need pretend, because the Enlightenment — guided in part by the Hermetic tradition, which influenced Freemasonry — has replaced Biblical intolerance with pagan tolerance.
It is time for Traditionalists to come to grips with the fact that they cannot be both Traditionalists and Biblical monotheists. The one Tradition is, always was, and always will be integrally pagan. It is time for Traditionalists to come to grips with the fact that where the Enlightenment has triumphed, they no longer need to pretend to be Biblical monotheists. It is time for Traditionalists to come to grips with the fact that the Enlightenment’s triumph is, in large part, their own triumph as well, meaning a triumph of Hermetic Freemasonry.
It is, moreover, high time for Traditionalists to stop consorting with the enemy under the umbrella of a misunderstood Traditionalism, i.e., associating with reactionary Christians and Muslims who wish to undo the Enlightenment and return to the totalitarian darkness of Biblical theocracy. The followers of Guénon who, through a double misunderstanding of esotericism, have converted to Islam while living in the West need to come to grips with the fact that they are serving as vectors of Biblical, totalitarian, counter-religious subversion in the very societies where the Tradition has had the greatest success in restoring the religious pluralism and tolerance that follows from the one Tradition. The same is true of Western Traditionalists who convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. In a double irony, such conversions are only possible because of the religious freedom that these Traditionalists profess to loathe, and that freedom is the one existing political triumph of the Tradition they profess to revere.
Moses the Egyptian has important implications for neo-pagans as well. First, Assmann demonstrates the persistence of a living pagan wisdom tradition from Ancient Egypt to the present day. Second, although cosmotheism is, of course, transcendently one with Asatru, its roots are deeper. It is pre-Indo-European, which to me means: closer to the first emergence of European man in the paleolithic era. Third, cosmotheism offers a very different and highly refined aesthetic and mythology: Egyptian, but also Greek and Roman. (The Greeks and Romans were Indo-European peoples, but their mythology and religion are primarily pre-Indo-European Mediterranean in origin.) Mediterranean cosmotheism is, in short, an alternative to Robert E. Howard paganism, a paganism without barbarism.
And all this is just a taste of the intellectually challenging, clarifying, and ultimately liberating implications of Assmann’s work.