Müller, F. Max

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MÜLLER, F. MAX (18231900), German-born philologist and Vedic scholar, professor at Oxford University and celebrated public lecturer in the comparative study of language, mythology, and religion, editor of the Rig-Veda Samhitâ (6 vols.), and editor of The Sacred Books of the East (50 vols.).

Friedrich Max Müller was born December 6, 1823, in Dessau, in the small German Duchy of Anhalt-Dessau. His father, Wilhelm Müller (17941827), had been a distinguished young Romantic poet known to many as the "Byron of Germany" for his Griechen Lieder, written in support of Greek nationalism. Before Wilhelm's untimely death, Franz Schubert had composed a pair of song cyclesWinterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin that immortalized two of Wilhelm's best sets of poems. Max Müller's mother, Adelheide Müller (c.17991883), had been the eldest daughter of Ludwig von Basedow, a chief minister of Anhalt-Dessau. Max Müller was educated in nearby Leipzig, at the Nicolai-Schule where Leibniz also had been a student, and then at the University of Leipzig, where his father's memory opened doors for Müller into the city's artistic circles. Müller at first considered a career as a poet and musician before settling upon the life of a scholar. Although he studied philosophy with Christian Weisse and M. W. Drobisch, Müller proved to be an especially gifted student of languages, mastering Greek and Latin as well as Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit, the latter of which he had taken under Hermann Brockhaus.

After completing a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1843, Müller continued his studies in Sanskrit and comparative philology at Berlin under Franz Bopp, who had been famous for examining the linguistic links among the so-called Aryan family of languages, and Friedrich Schelling, under whose influence Müller himself began to see striking parallels between the history of language and the history of religion. In early 1845, Müller traveled to Paris to study Sanskrit under Eugène Burnouf. Although Müller's brief stay in Berlin saw the publication of his first book, a German translation of ancient Indian fables known as the Hitopadesa (1844; Eng. trans., 1866), it was in Paris where Müller received the research direction he needed. At Burnouf's urging, and with the diplomatic support of Baron Christian von Bunsen, Müller was commissioned by the East India Company and Oxford University Press to edit a critical edition of the Rg Veda, a project that would take him twenty-four years to complete and would culminate in the six-volume Rig-Veda Samhitâ, with Sānaya's commentary (18491873). In 1846, Müller traveled to London, where a complete set of the Vedas was archived. Bunsen also helped Müller secure his first teaching and research positions at Oxford. Except for brief excursions to the Continent, Müller worked and resided at Oxford for the remainder of his life.

In 1856, Müller achieved broad public recognition when he published his book-length essay "Comparative Mythology." In this essay, Müller applied current linguistic analysis to the study of mythology in order "to account in a more intelligible manner for the creation of myths" (1909, p. 17). According to Müller, the sun in its various phenomenal modes was the chief source of ancient mythology. In myths Müller saw not simply the personification of the sun, the dawn, the twilight, and so on, but a metaphysical correspondence that human thought and human language drew between the perception of nature and the analogies that the ancient Indo-Europeans had used when communicating what they perceived. The names that people gave to these phenomena, the nomina (sing. nomen ), were later mistaken for divine beings, or numina (sing. numen ), and myths began to develop around these names to account for their existence. Thus, for Müller, mythology represented an earlier "mythopoeic" period or strata in the evolution of human thought and, as such, was viewed by him as a vestige of the past that still impressed itself on the thought and language of the present. Though Müller appears to have borrowed this and other ideas from Burnouf, including his assertion that mythology is a "disease" or weakness of language, the solar thesis that Müller had advanced as a young scholar came in time to overshadow much of his later, more original, thought. Beginning in the 1870s, critics, such as Andrew Lang, savagely attacked Müller's views on mythology. Indeed, it was Lang's relentless barrage against Müller that seemed to have had the most deleterious effect on the respect and influence that Müller's views on mythology had earlier enjoyed.

In 1858 Müller was elected fellow of All Souls College, which, along with his stipend as deputy Taylorian professor of modern European languages, provided a sufficient income for him to marry and raise a family. In 1859, he published his most scholarly work to that point, A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature. Although in 1860 Müller had lost a bitter election bid to fill Oxford's Boden Chair in Sanskrit, in 1861 and again in 1863 he presented a series of celebrated lectures on the study of language that were published in two volumes as Lectures on the Science of Language. By now Müller had be come a leading voice in his field and, in recognition of his achievements, Oxford University created for him a chair in comparative philology, which he occupied from 1868 until his retirement in 1875.

In his lifetime Max Müller achieved renown not only for his work in comparative philology and mythology, but also as a champion for the comparative study of religion as a "science" apart from theology. But, despite his best efforts, Müller's work would never gain the lasting success for which he had hoped. After his death in 1900, a Times of London obituary mourned his loss, acclaiming him "one of the most brilliant and prolific writers of our time; one whose voice has charmed several generations of Englishmen; who was a great scholar possessing a power of breathing human interest into dry bones, a curiously sympathetic intelligence and a rare mixture of the talents of the poet and the savant" (quoted in Voigt, p. 81). But others were much less effusive, such as Louis Henry Jordan, who called Müller's work in comparative religion "incomplete and strangely defective." Jordan believed that Müller had "attempted to be an investigator in far too many departments" and thus "was able to devote only such fragmentary leisure as he could manage to command. It was for this reason that he never really found time to apply himself, with resolute and persistent purpose, to the promotion of Comparative Religion" (pp. 153154).

Although Müller could not resist the temptation to open every door that invited his curiosity, he had in fact outlined for himself a specific research program that focused on questions concerning the origins and development of religion, mythology, and philosophy (or rather, cognitive thought) through a "scientific," that is, comparative and historical, examination of language. It was near the end of his life, in his Contributions to the Science of Mythology (1897), that Müller laid out for his readers the logic behind the four sciences to which he had devoted much of his fifty-year career at Oxford. Following the method of analyzing and clarifying concepts that he adopted from the German philosophers Johann Herbart and Friedrich Schelling, Müller's aim was to trace the Indo-European (or Aryan) languages back to their common word roots, layer by layer, in order to uncover and comprehend "the whole sphere of activity of the human mind from the earliest period within the reach of our knowledge to the present day" (p. v). As he explained further:

There is nothing more ancient in the world than language. The history of man begins, not with rude flints, rock temples or pyramids, but with language. The second stage is represented by myths as the first attempts at translating the phenomena of nature into thought. The third stage is that of religion or the recognition of moral powers, and in the end of One Moral Power behind and above all nature. The fourth and last is philosophy, or a critique of the powers of reason in their legitimate working on the data of experience. (p. v)

Müller believed that in the ancient Vedic scriptures, especially in its mythology, he had found the roots of human thought and the earliest form of religion. As he had proclaimed in his Autobiography (1901):

All knowledge, whether individual or possessed by mankind at large, must have begun with what the senses can perceive, before it could rise to signify something unperceived by the senses. Only after the blue aether had been perceived and named, was it possible to conceive and speak of the sky as active, as an agent, as a god. The step from the visible to the invisible, from the perceived to the conceived, from nature to nature's gods, and from nature's god to a more sublime unseen and spiritual power. All this seemed to pass before our very eyes in the Veda, and then to be reflected in Homer and Pindar (pp. 149, 150).

Over three decades earlier, in the preface to his multi-volume collection of essays, Chips from a German Workshop (1867), Müller had already arrived at the interconnection among language, mythology, religion, and thought and the need for scholars to examine these connections historically and comparatively. As he wrote: "There is to my mind no subject more absorbing than tracing the origin and first growth of human thoughtnot theoretically, but historically" (p. ix). At times he likened his linguistic work to that of an archaeologist and at other times to a geologist, digging down through the rock and shale to find the bottom layer of human conscious perception upon which the whole history of the evolution of human thought, mythology, and religion had been founded. "Language," he continued, "still bears the impress of the earliest thoughts of man buried under new thoughts, yet here and there still recoverable in their sharp original outline. [B]y continuing our researches backward from the most modern to the most ancient strata, the very elements and roots of human speech have been reached, and with them the elements and roots of human thought" (p. ix). As with the roots of language, so with the roots of religion: "The elements and roots of religion were there as far back as we can trace the history of man; and the history of religion, like the history of language, shows us throughout a succession of new combinations of the same radical [or root] elements" (p. x). For Müller, that foundation was the first conscious perception of the Infinite, this "One Moral Power behind and above all nature" mentioned earlier. Müller was convinced that it was from this perception of the Infinite that the root elements of all religions emerged, which included "a sense of human weakness and dependence, a belief in a Divine government of the world, a distinction between good and evil, and a hope of a better life" (p. x).

During his long career, Müller was engaged in nearly every intellectual debate that stirred up controversy, the most important of which was the debate over Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). In his Lectures on the Science of Language, Müller argued forcefully that the distinction between human- and animal-kind was the possession of language by the former. So strong was Müller's position that when his younger Oxonian colleague Edward Tylor defended Darwin's position, Müller took it as a breach of their otherwise friendly rivalry. Then, when Darwin's book The Descent of Man appeared in 1871, Müller responded in 1873 with his Lectures on Mr. Darwin's Philosophy of Language, aimed largely to counter Darwin's supporters. Müller reiterated his views more systematically in The Science of Thought (1887), and once more in his Three Lectures on the Science of Language (1889). It should be noted that in all these works, Müller's main concern had been over the threat that Darwin's ideas posed, not to religion, but to natural science. Müller, for his part, had already accepted the idea of an evolutionary development of religion, rejecting special revelation or any religious faculty or instinct in humankind as the source of religion or religious ideas. As Müller saw it, unless apes could speak and hence reason, Darwin was flatly wrong. For, as Müller declared, "language forms an impassable barrier between man and beast" (1899, p. 5; see 1887, pp. 152178).

Finally, in addition to his public stand against Darwinism, Müller also began to present to the English public his ideas on the comparative study of religion. Although Müller had been recognized chiefly for his work in comparative philology and mythology, it was his lectures in the "science" of religion that would prove to be his most provocative, earning him praise in some circles, but denunciation in others as being little more than an atheist in academic disguise. For instance, one clergyman condemned Müller's 1888 Gifford Lectures as "nothing less than a crusade against Divine revelation, against Jesus Christ, and against Christianity."

Müller's first lecture series on religion, which he titled "Lectures on the Science of Religion," were given in 1870 and published in 1872 with a later dedication to Ralph Waldo Emerson. His second series of lectures, published in 1878 as Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion, as Illustrated by the Religions of India, was presented at Westminster Abbey as the inaugural Hibbert Lectures. During this same period, Müller began work as editor of the monumental series The Sacred Books of the East, the highly acclaimed fifty-volume collection of sacred scriptures. For this collection, Müller offered several of his own translations, notably of the Upanisads (2 vols., 18791884) and of the Dhammapada (1881), both of which remain in print.

During the last decade of his life, Müller returned once more to his views on the natural, or evolutionary, development of religion in four sets of Gifford Lectures, presented in Glasgow between 1888 and 1892. He published these lectures under the titles Natural Religion (1889), Physical Religion (1891), Anthropological Religion (1892), and Theosophy or Psychological Religion (1893). As Müller explained anew, religion began with humanity's first perception of the Infinite in and beyond nature and natural phenomena. The Infinite has always existed but remained unnoticed until human consciousness rose above that of a brute animal. This awareness came, not by a divine revelation, but through human reflection upon the Infinite in nature, in humanity, and in the self. In essence, this is what Müller meant by natural, not nature, religion.

Though almost wholly ignored by most modern critics of Müller's work, these four series of lectures encapsulate Müller's most complete and developed views, which had originated a half-century earlier. And though Müller believed that in his Science of Religion he was moving beyond theology to history, in the end his views were perhaps too heavily imbued with the language of theologyEuropean as well as non-Europeanto enable him to work out a truly comparative science of religion.

See Also

Indo-European Religions, article on History of Study; Lang, Andrew.


Byrne, Peter. Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion: The Legacy of Deism. London and New York, 1989. A very helpful secondary source that, among other things, examines the philosophical and anthropological context of the academic study of religion in Europe; it features a splendid chapter on Müller and Tylor.

Chaudhuri, Nirad C. Scholar Extraordinary: The Life of Professor the Rt Hon. Friedrich Max Müller. New York, 1974. A sympathetic biography of Max Müller that quotes liberally from relevant primary sources, but without citations.

Jordan, Louis Henry. Comparative Religion: Its Genesis and Growth. Edinburgh, 1905; reprint, Atlanta, 1986. A contemporary overview and assessment of the main thinkers and schools of thought in the nascent field of comparative religion.

Kitagawa, Joseph M., and John S. Strong. "Friedrich Max Müller and the Comparative Study of Religion." In Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West, vol. 3, edited by Ninian Smart, John Clayton, Stephen Katz, and Patrick Sherry, pp. 179213. Cambridge, 1985. A detailed intellectual biography of Max Müller that outlines Müller's ideas and assesses his contribution to the academic study of religion.

Müller, F. Max. Chips from a German Workshop, vol. 1. London, 1867. A collection of Müller's essays on mythology and religion published during his early period.

Müller, F. Max. The Science of Thought. London, 1887. A useful summary of Müller's thought on the philosophy of language, with a critique of Darwin's theory of human descent.

Müller, F. Max. Contributions to the Science of Mythology. 2 vols. London, 1897. A massive two-volume reprise of Müller's linguistic theory on the origin of myth; lengthy and technical, but clearly written.

Müller, F. Max. Three Lectures on the Science of Language, etc., with a Supplement, My Predecessors. 3rd ed. Chicago, 1899. A series of public lectures attacking Darwin and his disciples from the perspective of Müller's philosophy of language.

Müller, F. Max. My Autobiography: A Fragment. New York, 1901. A personal reflection by Müller on the cultural and intellectual climate of the Victorian era and his own place within that period.

Müller, F. Max. The Life and Letters of the Right Honorable Friedrich Max Müller, edited by his wife. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1902. A valuable two-volume primary-source collection of Müller's personal and professional correspondence, as edited by his wife, Georgina.

Müller, F. Max. Comparative Mythology: An Essay. New York, 1909. Müller's most celebrated essay.

Neufeldt, Ronald W. F. Max Müller and the Rg-Veda. Columbia, Mo., 1980. A critical reassessment of the life and work of Max Müller from the perspective of the role and influence of the Rg Veda in Müller's thought.

Noiré, Ludwig. Max Müller and the Philosophy of Language. London, 1879. A contemporary and sympathetic assessment of Müller's philosophy of language that includes a chapter on the debate between Darwin and Müller as well as the author's own views on the origin of language.

Stone, Jon R., ed. The Essential Max Müller: On Language, Mythology, and Religion. New York, 2002. A collection of nineteen essays, articles, and addresses that span nearly forty years of Müller's scholarly career.

Trompf, G. W. Friedrich Max Müller: As a Theorist of Comparative Religion. Bombay, 1978. A sympathetic overview and assessment of Müller's life and works that lays stress on the Kantian influences in Müller's thought.

Voigt, Johannes H. Max Mueller: The Man and His Ideas. Calcutta, 1967. A sympathetic but balanced overview of Müller's life and works.

Jon R. Stone (2005)

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