The Curious Case of Max Müller

Scholar Extraordinary: The Life of Professor the Rt. Hon. Friedrich Max Müller, P.C.

by Nirad C. Chaudhuri
Oxford University Press, 393 pp., $15.00

Max Muller
Max Muller; drawing by David Levine

Few eminent Victorians have been so much forgotten as Max Müller; and few academic reputations that were once as high as his have fallen so low. Even in Oxford, where he spent most of his working life, from 1848 to 1900, he is seldom mentioned except as the man who called Wilhelm II “the nicest emperor I know” and whose wife, after they had given luncheon to an Oriental potentate, received by post the Imperial Order of Chastity, Third Class. Yet in his day Müller was a figure of national and even international importance. Relying on his achievements as a Sanskrit scholar, but aided by his rare gifts for presenting his work effectively and by a personal charm not always found in learned men, he won a great reputation as a comparative linguist and as an investigator of the early history of religion.

During the nineteenth century the recently acquired knowledge of the connection between Sanskrit and the modern European languages deeply influenced thought and even politics, and in the age of Darwin the origins of religion were a burning topic. The part of Müller’s reputation that depended on his scholarly work on these matters has now vanished. What makes him important, as this admirable biography well brings out, is the effect both in India and in England of his championship of Hindu literature and civilization.

Max Müller was the son of the poet and scholar Wilhelm Müller, who wrote Die Schöne Müllerin and the verses set to music by Schubert in Die Winterreise. He had a comfortable position as librarian to the ruler of the small German principality of Anhalt-Dessau, but died at thirty-three, leaving his widow and four-year-old son Max with very little money. Nevertheless they lived happily in the pleasant little town; Müller got the early training that later made him the best amateur pianist in Oxford; and at school and later at the university in Leipzig he got a first-class education. He took up Sanskrit, won his doctorate at twenty, and managed to continue his studies in Berlin and Paris. In Berlin the great comparative linguist Franz Bopp turned out to be a poor teacher, but the philosopher Schelling was most helpful; this was a pity, for Müller needed good linguistic grounding more than he needed metaphysics. In Paris he got valuable training in Sanskrit from Eugène Burnouf, and formed the ambitious plan of editing the Rig-Veda, whose formidably long and difficult text has for the Hindus a talismanic value.

Important manuscripts of this work were in the East India Company’s library in London, so Müller made his way to England. With the help of Baron von Bunsen, then Prussian Minister in London, he persuaded the directors to join with the French and Prussian governments in sponsoring his project. Since the work was to be printed in Oxford, he took lodgings there; and there he lived for…

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