One afternoon in 1912, Sigmund Freud was enthralled by a statue. It captured his imagination for hours, and returning home from his trip to Rome, he poured himself over pictures and descriptions of that sculpture, analyzing its details and drawing sketches, until, after visiting it still other times, he wrote an essay interpreting it.
The statue was Michelangelo’s Moses, the marble masterpiece which Michelangelo regarded as his most life-like sculpture. Moses sits majestically, with intensity beaming from his face and flexing his muscles. The flow of Moses’ mantle and beard contrast to the robustness of his body, as Moses holds the tablets of the Ten Commandments, looking outraged to the idolatry of his people, who adore a golden calf just below Mount Sinai. The marble statue is so intriguing and realistic that there is even a story that Michelangelo struck Moses’ right knee and shouted, “now speak!”, as he saw it finished. There is actually a scar on the knee, thought to be a mark of Michelangelo’s hammer.
What is it that struck Freud so deeply about this statue? It could have been the skill of the artist, and his mastery of human anatomy and the human soul. It could have been the sculpture’s setting: the central piece of a grandiose tomb pre-ordered by Pope Julius II while he was still alive, anxious to align himself after a great spiritual leader. It could have been the character of Moses himself – the father of the Hebrew people, a looming giant in the arenas of history, law, and religion – or it could have been a combination of all these aspects.
Whatever diverse interests captured Freud attention, I imagine Michelangelo’s Moses got Freud thinking at least a bit about his own legacy. (Freud wrestled with Moses’ legacy throughout his life, and his very last book, written well into his eighties, is called Moses and Monotheism.) One of the greatest artists of history portrayed one of the great leaders of history to – Freud hoped – a great interpreter of the human psyche. Moses left behind a liberated people which, from a loose grouping of slave clans, became an unified nation, with an entrancing vision of the one true God, a legal system and self-identity that would last for millennia. Michelangelo, on the other hand, left behind exquisite pieces of artistry, to inspire, instruct and influence future generations. What would Freud leave behind? He was already a leading proponent of psychoanalysis, and was forging a new school of thought, but the question must have cross Freud’s mind: what would his final legacy be? Would it last like’s Moses’ people or Michelangelo’s art?
I guess no matter which talents move our hands, no matter which dreams transport our imaginations, the trio Moses-Michelangelo-Freud leaves us an eloquent joint legacy: ideas have consequences. What we believe matters. Moses is only remembered, and was only depicted by Michelangelo, and influential upon so many and upon Freud, because he holds stone tablets in his right hand, and looks with indignation to his left: because Moses believed in an omnipotent God, invisible but truer than a calf of gold. Moses’ convictions were fundamental for his vocation and the cornerstone of his legacy, as it is for everyone else. The durability of our legacy is sculpted with the concreteness of our beliefs.