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Friedrich Max Müller

Professor of Comparative Philology, Oxford
1823 to 1900

Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), Sanskrit scholar and philologist, was a pioneer in the fields of Vedic studies, comparative philosophy, comparative mythology and comparative religion. Müller was born on 6 December 1823 in Dessau, Germany, to the popular lyric poet Willhelm Müller and his wife Adelheid, the eldest daughter of Präsident von Basedow, the prime minister of the Anhalt-Dessau duchy. Müller inherited an intense love of music from his mother and his godfather, composer C. M. von Weber. In 1827, when Müller was only three years old, his father died unexpectedly, and his childhood was shadowed by his mother’s resultant grief. He began his formal education in Dessau at the age of six, and in 1839, at age 16, he was sent to the Nicolai school in Leipzig, where he studied classical literature. Upon completion, Müller won a scholarship allowing him to attend the University of Leipzig.

In 1841, Müller entered the University of Leipzig, concentrating on the study of Latin and Greek and reading Philosophy – in particular the thought of G. F. W. Hegel. He was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1843, at the age of 19, for his dissertation, ‘On the Third Book of Spinoza’s Ethics, De Affectibus.’ Müller travelled to Berlin in 1844 to study with Friedrich Schelling, whose lectures proved to be very influential to his intellectual development. Whilst in Berlin, he was also given access to the Chambers collection of Sanskrit manuscripts. At Schelling’s request, Müller translated some of the most important passages of the Upanishads, which he understood to be the greatest outcome of Vedic literature. He emphasised the necessity of studying the ancient hymns of the Veda in order to be able to appreciate the historical growth of the Indian mind during the Vedic age. Müller was convinced that all mythological and religious theories would remain without a solid foundation until the whole of the Rig Veda had been published.

Müller arrived in Paris in 1845 where he studied with the famous French Sanskrit scholar Eugene Burnouff, with whom he remained friends for many years. Burnouff encouraged Müller to undertake the preparation and publication of a full edition of the Rig Veda; this project proved to be his most significant and lasting contribution to scholarship. To further his work on the Rig VedaMüller came to London in June 1846 to work with manuscripts in the library of the East India Company, which eventually underwrote much of the expense of printing Müller’s Rig Veda. While Müller initially came to England to spend three weeks in Oxford, he stayed in England, making it his home for the remainder of his life. He became a close friend of William Howard Russell, the famous Times correspondent, and Baron von Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador in London. Müller was visiting Paris in early 1848 when the revolution began, but he and his valuable manuscripts were able to return unscathed to England. In 1849 Oxford University Press published Müller’s first volume of the Rig Veda, the sixth and final volume of which was not published until 1874. In 1851 he was appointed Professor of Modern European Languages at Oxford and was made full professor in 1854. He became a naturalized British citizen in 1855, and he married Georgina Adelaide on 3 August 1859; their marriage produced four children.

In 1860, Müller was considered for Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford. The chair has been left vacant due to the death of the previous professor, and Müller was by far the most eligible candidate. However, at this time in Oxford, candidates for professorships were elected by all those holding MA degrees from the University (mostly clergymen), and much more attention was paid to a candidate’s political and religious view than to his academic qualifications. Müller’s Christianity, which was of a liberal Lutheran variety, was brought under considerable scrutiny, and the supporters of Müller’s evangelical competitor even waged a defamation campaign against him in the press. Their efforts were successful, for the post went to the less qualified candidate.

After Müller’s bitter disappointment at being passed over for the professorship, the focus of his career shifted slightly. He continued to work on his monumental Rig Veda, but most of his time was devoted to the preparation of books and lectures on comparative philosophy and mythology written with the public in mind. He delivered a series of very popular lectures at the Royal Institution, London, on the science of language in 1861 and 1863, which were quickly published and reprinted fifteen times between 1861 and 1899. His contributions to such public discourse brought a level of recognition that considerably made up for his aforementioned disappointment, and he was generally thought to be a leading figure of public life in Victorian England.

In 1868 the University of Oxford created a new Chair of Comparative Philology, and Müller became its first occupant. This new post was accompanied by a decrease of lecturing responsibilities and an increase in salary, both of which were welcome changes. After twenty-five years of service at Oxford, he formed a small society of the best Oriental scholars from Europe and India, and they began to publish a series of translations of the Sacred Books of the East. Müller devoted the last thirty years of his life to writing and lecturing on comparative religion. In 1873 he published Introduction to the Science of Religion, and he delivered lectures on the subject at the Royal Institution (1870) and Westminster Abbey (1873). In 1878 Müller inaugurated the annual Hibbert lectures on the science of religion at Westminster Abbey, and he was invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow. He temporarily relocated to Glasgow with his wife and daughter in 1888 and began his first course of lectures on the subject of ‘natural religion’. An audience of 1,400 attended his first lecture, including a large number of Glasgow professors, representatives of Glasgow churches and other members of the public. Müller gave an unsurpassed four courses, totalling 62 lectures, between 1888-92.

Müller’s other important project during those years was founding and editing of a series of English translations of Indian, Arabic, Chinese and Iranian religious texts. Müller translated selections from the hymns of the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, and the Dhammapada, a Buddhist text and also contributed to The Sacred Books of the East published by Oxford University Press. By 1900, at the time of Müller’s death, forty-eight translated volumes had been published in the series, with only one volume remaining to be published.

Müller’s health began deteriorating in 1898, but he continued his writing, publishing The Six Systems of Hindu Philosophy in 1899, only a year before his death. During this period he also produced several essays and material for his autobiography. He died at his home in Oxford on 28 October 1900, and on 1 November 1900, All Saints’ Day, he was buried in Holywell Cemetery in Oxford.

Müller’s scholarly works, published as an 18-volume Collected Works, include A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature So Far As It Illustrates the Primitive Religion of the Brahmans(1859), Lectures on the Science of Language (1864, 2 vols.), Chips from a German Workshop (1867-75, 4 vols.), Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873), India, What can it Teach Us? (1883), Biographical Essays (1884), The Science of Thought (1887), Six Systems of Hindu Philosophy (1899), and his four volumes of Gifford Lectures (Collected Works, vols. 1-4): Natural Religion (1889), Physical Religion (1891), Anthropological Religion(1892), and Theosophy, or Psychological Religion (1893). Also of note are his two volumes of biographical reflections, entitled Auld Lang Syne (1898), My Autobiography: A Fragment(1901) and The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller (1902, 2 vols.), which was edited by his wife.

  • Sara Abraham, University of Glasgow
  • Brannon Hancock, University of Glasgow