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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

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 the remaining fifty-two years of his career.

Oxford had awakened from her eighteenth-century torpor; serious tests for a degree had been instituted in 1800, and real interest in modern scholarship had arisen among the group called the “Noetics,” centering in Oriel College. Yet before Müller’s arrival the religious controversies provoked by Newman and his friends had seemed to Mark Pattison to “suspend all science, humane letters, and the first strivings of intellectual freedom.” Müller was captivated by the beauty of the place, and by the charm and intelligence of many of its inmates. Yet he sighed for the learned professors of his own country, and he was puzzled to find religious discussion turning not upon the great questions touching the nature of revelation, the divinity of Christ, and the early history of the Church, but upon the validity of Anglican orders and the niceties of Anglican ritual. Müller wrote home that the place was a high school rather than a university; the abler undergraduates learned certain texts thoroughly, but of the European classical and historical scholarship of the day they were given little notion.

The Oxford of that time was not an easy society to penetrate, especially for a foreigner. Müller’s ability and energy by themselves can scarcely account for his success; even the musical gifts which won him so many invitations counted for comparatively little in a society in which, in his words, “it would have been an insult to invite a Don to play.” Müller owed much to the boyish charm and enthusiasm which surprised people who expected all learned Germans to maintain endless polysyllabic conversation through large mustaches soggy with beer, and to what someone called “his power, which the English as a nation lack, of entering with ease and sincerity into relations, however sudden and unexpected, with strangers or foreigners.”

He was made a member of Christ Church, which gave him social status but no standing in the university. However, the Taylorian Institution had lately been founded and provided with a professor to teach modern languages, and when this professor went off his head, Müller was the nearest person available to act as substitute. In 1854 he succeeded to this chair, and four years later the Fellows of All Souls, anxious after the reforms of the First University Commission to rescue their college from its reputation of being a sleepy drinking club, chose him to be one of them.

But Müller’s career was not unvaryingly successful. In 1860 the Boden Chair of Sanskrit was vacant, and he seemed to be the strongest candidate. But Colonel Boden had meant his professor to train missionaries to convert the Hindus to Christianity, and a Tory rival, Monier Williams, claimed with some truth that he was fitter for this task. The electors were the full body of graduates, many of whom were clergymen, and Müller was disappointed. But in reformed Oxford his friends were not powerless, and in 1868 his chair at the Taylorian was made into a new university professorship of comparative philology.

In 1853 Müller had fallen deeply in love with an English girl of good family, Georgina Grenfell. Her family liked him, but opposed the match. Mr. Chaudhuri quotes a letter from an aunt who kept house for the young lady’s father which might have been written by Jane Austen’s Mrs. Norris with the aid of Forster’s Mr. Beebe; she sang Müller’s praises, but found his means inadequate. But Müller was not forbidden to see Georgina, and she became so attached to him that in the year after his election at All Souls she overcame her family’s resistance by using the Victorian girl’s last weapon in such cases, the threat of “going into a decline.”

The marriage was blissfully successful. Müller remained devoted to his wife and family of three daughters and a son; the early deaths of two of the daughters saddened his declining years. Mr. Chaudhuri’s partiality for the Victorians, whom he wishes to defend against such as Lytton Strachey, makes him a shade indulgent toward the Grenfell family, even toward the aunt who opposed her niece’s marriage. She had also opposed the marriage of her younger sister with Charles Kingsley, whose latest biographer, Susan Chitty, less kind than Mr. Chaudhuri, notes that she was “domineering, hysterical and too stupid to be convinced by argument.”

Müller’s notion of Christian romantic love is illuminated by his best-selling novel Deutsche Liebe (1857), which was twice translated and went through fourteen editions—its author was pleased that it “found friends even among the hard-headed readers of the United States.” J.A. Froude in a review compared this work with Wilhelm Meister, adding that the comparison showed how much the half-century between the books had elevated and purified the tone of society. Had he lived to review Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907), he might not have found that the fifty years which separated that from Müller’s book had done much to purify society; yet the absurdities of the Edwardian best seller are more agreeable and more pardonable than those of its mawkish mid-Victorian predecessor.

In 1873 the last of the six large volumes of Müller’s Rig-Veda appeared; he wrote also a history of Sanskrit literature, a Sanskrit grammar, and many minor writings. He had now plunged boldly into comparative linguistics and mythology, besides taking on the editorship of the series of the Sacred Books of the East, in forty-nine volumes. He became a national celebrity, honored at court, and a successful public lecturer; during the Franco-Prussian War he defended Germany and during the Boer War England. He collected many honors, in which he took an innocent delight. When offered a knighthood he declined, having received higher honors from foreign governments; the same year his rival, Monier Williams, accepted one, and became Sir Monier Monier-Williams. Later Queen Victoria solved the problem by making Müller the only non-political member of her Privy Council; he now dropped his umlaut and attached the name Max to his surname by means of a hyphen, provoking the Regius Professor of Modern History to remark that his daughter did not call herself “Miss Ned-Freeman.”

When Mommsen came to Oxford he noticed Müller, and asked his colleagues in a loud voice, “Do you breed no humbugs in your country, that you must import them from mine?” Mommsen was a stern but not an unjust judge. Chaudhuri’s book does not claim to be an evaluation of Müller’s work as a scholar; yet one cannot help asking why Müller’s once great academic reputation declined even during his own lifetime and has now almost completely vanished.

Müller was poorly equipped to be a comparative linguist; Sanskrit was the only language in which he was proficient. His theory of the origin of language was visibly conditioned by the simple Lutheran faith which he had imbibed in Dessau, and by the Kantianism that supplied his basic philosophy. There was a mystic harmony, he argued, between sound and sense, to be perceived by means of a special human instinct. Each substance had its peculiar resonance, and each impression from without received its correct impression from within. Müller was later to modify this view considerably, yet he never ceased to claim that language was inseparable from though not identical with thought.

Even more remote from views now fashionable is Müller’s theory of the origin of religion. Man had always, he held, had an intuition of the divine, derived not from religious instinct but from sensory impressions. Observation of the sky and planets, above all the sun, had suggested to men the notion of the infinite, which they described by metaphors and symbols drawn from such observation. Later these metaphors ceased to be thought of as metaphors, so that the heavenly bodies themselves came to be personified and deified; this kind of religion Müller described as “a disease of language.” He explained all myths in terms of this theory, and the absurd etymologies by which he buttressed his explanations were greatly facilitated by his incompetence in comparative philology. Little-dale’s famous proof that Max Müller himself was a sun myth was to the point; the harm which Andrew Lang did as a book reviewer hostile to all original talent is partly atoned for by his demolition of poor Müller’s sun myth fantasies. Mr. Chaudhuri speaks reproachfully of academic controversies, but they sometimes serve to establish truth, and there is much to be said for such antagonists of Müller as the Yale professor William Dwight Whitney.

Müller’s reputation as a scholar must rest upon his work in Sanskrit, and in particular his editing of the Rig-Veda. Here I can offer no independent judgment; but though he was not the leading Vedic scholar of his day, his achievement is considered to be substantial. What is undoubtedly of great significance is the effect of this work upon the Hindus. The discovery of a racial link between themselves and their Aryan conquerors was calculated to soothe their pride. Müller gave wide publicity to this discovery; and the stress he laid upon the great achievements of their ancestors fostered the almost chauvinistic satisfaction in being Aryans which was embedded in their minds long before the Muslim scholar Alberuni observed it during the eleventh century. In India Müller had an enormous reputation; many distinguished Indians came to visit him, and he was respected even by orthodox Hindus who had little use for other Europeans.

In fact Müller had little sympathy with the concrete reality of post-Vedic Hinduism, except for the philosophy of Vedanta in its religious aspect. Too Lutheran to feel the fascination of the later polytheistic Hinduism, he reserved his admiration for what seemed to him the higher and purer monotheistic religion of the Vedas. At first he thought that Hindus ought to renounce their religion and become Christian, and the Hindus with whom he felt most sympathy were the monotheistic imitators of Christianity, who formed the Brahmo Samaj. He tried to persuade one branch of them to declare itself Christian but since he did not wish them to join any particular sect, he was attacked by high church Anglicans. Strangely, he never visited India; Mr. Chaudhuri gives practical reasons for this, but I wonder if it was not because he was afraid of being disillusioned. Perhaps he was wise not to go; people’s feelings about India are very apt to be conditioned by the experience of actually going there.

But Müller was a loyal and effective champion of India in England and in Europe. The very title of his book, India: What Can It Teach Us?, must have come as a shock to many Englishmen who were concerned with that country. The standard history of British India published by James Mill in 1817 is permeated by a cocksure confidence in the complete superiority of Western civilization; and Macaulay, who as a member of the Viceroy’s Council had power to determine the course of Indian higher education, based his views and policies on the same attitude. The Mutiny of 1857 did little to abate British contempt for India and Indians. Yet in his book Müller singled out India as the country most richly endowed with wealth, power, and beauty, as the place where the human mind had most deeply pondered on the great problems of life, and as the producer of a literature “most able to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human….” As early as the 1850s he put forward a scheme for establishing at Oxford a kind of graduate school to educate young Englishmen who might take part in a kind of cultural mission to India. Readers of Mr. Chaudhuri’s remarkable Autobiography of an Unknown Indian know that in the cultural situation of that time the effect might have been considerable.

However exaggerated Müller’s contemporary reputation was and whatever elements of vanity and absurdity his story may reveal, English people must remember with gratitude as well as with regret that he offered them a chance of understanding the Hindus and their culture, which their ancestors failed to grasp. No biography could have thrown more light on this real claim to importance than does Mr. Chaudhuri’s deeply intelligent and sympathetic study.

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