1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Max Müller, Friedrich
MAX MÜLLER, FRIEDRICH (1823-1900), Anglo-German orientalist and comparative philologist, was born at Dessau on the 6th of December 1823, being the son of Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), the German poet, celebrated for his phil-Hellenic lyrics, who was ducal librarian at Dessau. The elder Müller had endeared himself to the most intellectual circles in Germany by his amiable character and his genuine poetic gift; his songs had been utilized by musical composers, notably Schubert; and it was his son's good fortune to meet in his youth with a succession of eminent friends, who, already interested in him for his father's sake, and charmed by the qualities which they discovered in the young man himself, powerfully aided him by advice and patronage. Mendelssohn, who was his godfather, dissuaded him from indulging his natural bent to the study of music; Professor Brockhaus of the University of Leipzig, where Max Müller matriculated in 1841, induced him to take up Sanskrit; Bopp, at the University of Berlin (1844), made the Sanskrit student a scientific comparative philologist; Schelling at the same university, inspired him with a love for metaphysical speculation, though failing to attract him to his own philosophy; Burnouf, at Paris in the following year, by teaching him Zend, started him on the track of inquiry into the science of comparative religion, and impelled him to edit the Rig Veda; and when, in 1846, Max Müller came to England upon this errand, Bunsen, in conjunction with Professor H. H. Wilson, prevailed upon the East India Company to undertake the expense of publication. Up to this time Max Müller had lived the life of a poor student, supporting himself partly by copying manuscripts, but Bunsen's introductions to Queen Victoria and the prince consort, and to Oxford University, laid the foundation for him of fame and fortune. In 1848 the printing of his Rig Veda at the University Press obliged him to settle in Oxford, a step which decided his future career. He arrived at a favourable conjuncture: the Tractarian strife, which had so long thrust learning into the background, was just over, and Oxford was becoming accessible to modern ideas. The young German excited curiosity and interest, and it was soon discovered that, although a genuine scholar, he was no mere bookworm. Part of his social success was due to his readiness to exert his musical talents at private parties. Max Müller was speedily subjugated by the genius loci. He was appointed deputy Taylorian professor of modern languages in 1850, and the German government failed to tempt him back to Strassburg. In the following year he was made M.A. and honorary fellow of Christ Church, and in 1858 he was elected a fellow of All Souls. In 1854 the Crimean War gave him the opportunity of utilizing his oriental learning in vocabularies and schemes of transliteration. In 1857 he successfully essayed another kind of literature in his beautiful story Deutsche Liebe, written both in German and English. He had by this time become an extensive contributor to English periodical literature, and had written several of the essays subsequently collected as Chips from a German Workshop. The most important of them was the fascinating essay on “Comparative Mythology” in the Oxford Essays for 1856. His valuable History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature, so far as it illustrates the primitive religion of the Brahmans (and hence the Vedic period only), was published in 1859.
Though Max Müller's reputation was that of a comparative philologist and orientalist, his professional duties at Oxford were long confined to lecturing on modern languages, or at least their medieval forms. In 1860 the death of Horace Hayman Wilson, professor of Sanskrit, seemed to open a more congenial sphere to him. His claims to the succession seemed incontestable, for his opponent, Monier Williams, though well qualified as a Sanskritist, lacked Max Muller's brilliant versatility, and although educated at Oxford, had held no University office. But Max Müller was a Liberal, and the friend of Liberals in university matters, in politics, and in theology, and this consideration united with his foreign birth to bring the country clergy in such hosts to the poll that the voice of resident Oxford was overborne, and Monier Williams was elected by a large majority. It was the one great disappointment of Max Müller's life, and made a lasting impression upon him. It was, nevertheless, serviceable to his influence and reputation by permitting him to enter upon a wider field of subjects than would have been possible otherwise. Directly, Sanskrit philology received little more from him, except in connexion with his later undertaking of The Sacred Books of the East; but indirectly he exalted it more than any predecessor by proclaiming its commanding position in the history of the human intellect by his Science of Language, two courses of lectures delivered at the Royal Institution in 1861 and 1863. Max Müller ought not to be described as “the introducer of comparative philology into England.” Prichard had proved the Aryan affinities of the Celtic languages by the methods of comparative philology so long before as 1831; Winning's Manual of Comparative Philology had been published in 1838; the discoveries of Bopp and Pott and Pictet had been recognized in brilliant articles in the Quarterly Review, and had guided the researches of Rawlinson. But Max Müller undoubtedly did far more to popularize the subject than had been done, or could have been done, by any predecessor. He was on less sure ground in another department of the study of language — the problem of its origin. He wrote upon it as a disciple of Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason he translated. His essays on mythology are among the most delightful of his writings, but their value is somewhat impaired by a too uncompromising adherence to the seductive generalization of the solar myth.
Max Müller's studies in mythology led him to another field of activity in which his influence was more durable and extensive, that of the comparative science of religions. Here, so far as Great Britain is concerned, he does deserve the fame of an originator, and his Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873: the same year in which he lectured on the subject, at Dean Stanley's invitation, in Westminster Abbey, this being the only occasion on which a layman had given an address there) marks an epoch. It was followed by other works of importance, especially the four volumes of Gifford lectures, delivered between 1888 and 1892; but the most tangible result of the impulse he had given was the publication under his editorship, from 1875 onwards, of The Sacred Books of the East, in fifty-one volumes, including indexes, all but three of which appeared under his superintendence during his lifetime. These comprise translations by the most competent scholars of all the really important non-Christian scriptures of Oriental nations, which can now be appreciated without a knowledge of the original languages. Max Müller also wrote on Indian philosophy in his latter years, and his exertions to stimulate search for Oriental manuscripts and inscriptions were rewarded with important discoveries of early Buddhist scriptures, in their Indian form, made in Japan. He was on particularly friendly terms with native Japanese scholars, and after his death his library was purchased by the university of Tôkyô.
In 1868 Max Müller had been indemnified for his disappointment over the Sanskrit professorship by the establishment of a chair of Comparative Philology to be filled by him. He retired, however, from the actual duties of the post in 1875, when entering upon the editorship of The Sacred Books of the East. The most remarkable external events of his latter years were his delivery of lectures at the restored university of Strassburg in 1872, when he devoted his honorarium to the endowment of a Sanskrit lectureship, and his presidency over the International Congress of Orientalists in 1892. But his days, if uneventful, were busy. He participated in every movement at Oxford of which he could approve, and was intimate with nearly all its men of light and leading; he was a curator of the Bodleian Library, and a delegate of the University Press. He was acquainted with most of the crowned heads of Europe, and was an especial favourite with the English royal family. His hospitality was ample, especially to visitors from India, where he was far better known than any other European Orientalist. His distinctions, conferred by foreign governments and learned societies, were innumerable, and, having been naturalized shortly after his arrival in England, he received the high honour of being made a privy councillor. In 1898 and 1899 he published autobiographical reminiscences under the title of Auld Lang Syne. He was writing a more detailed autobiography when overtaken by death on the 28th of October 1900. Max Müller married in 1859 Georgiana Adelaide Grenfell, sister of the wives of Charles Kingsley and J. A. Froude. One of his daughters, Mrs Conybeare, distinguished herself by a translation of Scherer's History of German Literature.
Though undoubtedly a great scholar, Max Müller did not so much represent scholarship pure and simple as her hybrid types — the scholar-author and the scholar-courtier. In the former capacity, though manifesting little of the originality of genius, he rendered vast service by popularizing high truths among high minds. In his public and social character he represented Oriental studies with a brilliancy, and conferred upon them a distinction, which they had not previously enjoyed in Great Britain. There were drawbacks in both respects: the author was too prone to build upon insecure foundations, and the man of the world incurred censure for failings which may perhaps be best indicated by the remark that he seemed too much of a diplomatist. But the sum of foibles seems insignificant in comparison with the life of intense labour dedicated to the service of culture and humanity.