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Monotheism and Violence: Jan Assmann on the Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism.

Monotheism and Violence: Jan Assmann on the Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism.

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We "begin by providing a brief overview of the connection that is made by Assmann... between violence and... Western monotheism’s undermining of the mnemonic epicentre of Ancient Egypt. Once the primary themes of Assmann’s connection between monotheism and violence have been brought to the fore, we will move on to query that connection, emphasising its... presumptuous character."
We "begin by providing a brief overview of the connection that is made by Assmann... between violence and... Western monotheism’s undermining of the mnemonic epicentre of Ancient Egypt. Once the primary themes of Assmann’s connection between monotheism and violence have been brought to the fore, we will move on to query that connection, emphasising its... presumptuous character."

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
Name: Brendan ReaStudent Number: 04422007Year: Senior SophistorLecturer: Prof. M. Junker-KennyCourse: Theology and Ethics of MemoryTitle: Monotheism and Violence:Jan Assmann on the Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism.
1
 
In his book 
 Moses and Monotheism
, Sigmund Freud intended to come to terms with both his own Jewish heritage and religion in general, by reflecting upon Moses’fundamental distinction between Jews and gentiles. In the midst of an increasinglyembittered form of German anti-Semitism, the rather absurd question of how the Jewscame to attract such underlying hatred led Freud into a ‘psychohistorical’ survey of Judaism that reached as far back as the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, whose religiousrevolution in the fourteenth century BCE is often sited as a precursor to monotheism.In
 Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism
, Jan Assmannunderstands himself to be revisiting the same terrain that was excavated by Freud in
 Moses and Monotheism
, but now with emphasis on the more accurate question of howthe Germans came to murder the Jews. This question, left out by Freud, leadsAssmann into a ‘mnemohistorical’ survey which reflects his situation as a GermanEgyptologist writing fifty years after the full horrors of the Holocaust have becomeknown.
1
It will be the aim of this essay to begin by providing a brief overview of theconnection that is made by Assmann in the course his mnemohistorical survey, between violence and what he views as Western monotheism’s undermining of themnemonic epicentre of Ancient Egypt. Once the primary themes of Assmann’sconnection between monotheism and violence have been brought to the fore, we willmove on to query that connection, emphasising its unqualified, if not inappropriateand somewhat presumptuous character.1)Mnemohistory is identified by Assmann as a branch of history that is concerned notso much with the past, but rather with how the past is remembered. It attempts toanalyze the significance that is bestowed on past events as a result of their later interpretation and present mediation and as such, the goal of mnemohistory is not todecipher the historical accuracy but rather the contemporary agenda of memory.
2
Inshort, mnemohistory is ‘reception theory applied to history’,
3
and as reception theoryapplied to history it takes for granted that
1
Jan Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt In Western Monotheism
, (CambridgeMassachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1997), 5-7.
2
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 9-10.
3
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 9.
2
 
Seen as an individual and as a social capacity, memory is not simply the storage of  past ‘facts’ but the ongoing work of reconstructive imagination.
4
Assmann understands mnemohistory to be primarily concerned with investigating thehistory of culture as a form of memory that is endowed with a consciousness of the past and orientated towards the coherence of identity in the present.
5
 It is with thisconcept of cultural memory that Assmann approaches the memory of Egypt inWestern monotheism in his attempt to contribute to a historical analysis of anti-Semitism,
6
as well as violence, intolerance and conflict in general.
7
For the purposes of his analysis, Assmann concentrates on the Exodusnarrative which, according to him, represents a central mnemonic medium for theopposition of Israel and Egypt. The significance of this opposition he claims, isencapsulated in the first two commandments of the Decalogue; firstly ‘thou shalt haveno other gods before me’; and secondly ‘thou shalt not make unto thee any gravenimage’.
8
Taken together, the story of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt and theestablishment of the first two Commandments are symbolically expressive of whatAssmann identifies as the ‘Mosaic distinction’ or ‘the distinction between true andfalse in religion’.
9
In the book of Exodus, Assmann understands the Mosaicdistinction to constitute a ‘constellative mythwhich consists of Israel as theembodiment of truth, and Egypt as the symbol of ‘darkness and error’ against whichIsrael defines itself.
In accordance with this myth, everything that is associated with Egypt becomes remembered as the object of rejection and negative construction for Israel.Polytheism and the utilisation of divine images is negated as the new categories of ‘paganism’ and ‘idolatry’ are created so that monotheistic exclusivity can be enforcedover and against polytheistic inclusiveness. Whereas in the past a process of ‘translation’ allowed for the co-existence and co-representation of different cosmicdeities, often sharing a ‘functional equivalence’ so that religions could always have acommon ground,
the distinction that Moses draws between the one true invisible
4
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
14.
5
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 15-17.
6
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 6.
7
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 1.
8
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 4.
9
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 1.
10
Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 7.
11
For example, ‘The sun god of one religion is easily equated to the sun god of another religion, and soforth’, Assmann,
 Moses the Egyptian
, 3.
3

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