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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Henry Albert Stimson (1842–1936)

By Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900)

PROFESSOR MAX MÜLLER has told an incident that occurred early in his Oxford life, which not only fixes his parentage but introduces us to the rare literary circle that opened to him in England, and which did so much for his future career.

He was invited to meet Thackeray at a little dinner. Müller had as yet mastered English but imperfectly, and was moreover somewhat awed by the great man. A fine fish, a John Dory, was brought on; when Thackeray turned his large spectacled eyes upon the stranger, and said, “Are you going to eat your own ancestor?” Everybody stared in silence; looking very grave and learned, Thackeray said, “Surely you are the son of the Dorian Müller—the Müller who wrote that awfully learned book on the Dorians: and was not John Dory the ancestor of all the Dorians?” In the laugh that followed, Müller replied that he was not the son of Ottfried Müller, who wrote on the Dorians, but of Wilhelm Müller the poet, who wrote ‘Die Homerische Vorschule’; and as to John Dory being his ancestor, that was impossible, as the original John Dory was il Janitore,—that is, St. Peter,—and he had no wife. After which quick repartee the young scholar was well launched.

He was then but twenty-five years of age. He was born at Dessau, December 6th, 1823. After studying in Leipzig and Berlin, taking his degree in 1843, and publishing his first Sanskrit work in 1844, he went to Paris to study with the great Orientalist, Burnouf. Recognizing his abilities, Burnouf helped him to decide upon a career, and directed him to England; whither he went in 1846 to collate manuscripts for an edition of the Rig-Veda, the Sacred Hymns of the Brahmins.

In London he introduced himself to the Prussian Minister, Baron Bunsen, who became his lifelong friend, and by whose good offices the East India Company was induced to bear the expense of the first edition of the ‘Rig-Veda.’ The troubled state of affairs on the Continent made it more easy for the student, whose life work was to be so largely among cumbersome and illegible manuscripts, to take advantage of the quiet seclusion of England. He went at once to Oxford, and that became his future home.

It is no strange thing for foreign scholars to visit London and the English universities, but it is not easy for them to become domesticated there. Erasmus tried it for a year; Taine, with all his admiration for things English, was never more than a visitor; and such Orientalists as Renan, Darmesteter, and Burnouf did not make the attempt. In “the don city,” where, as Bunsen warned him, “every English idiosyncrasy strengthens itself, and buries itself in coteries,” Müller settled with such success that ten years later, in 1858, Bunsen wrote to him: “Without ceasing to be a German, you have appropriated all that is excellent and superior in English life; and of that there is much.”

Oxford was very hospitable to him. He was invited to lecture before the University in 1850, made honorary M. A. of Christ Church in 1851, elected Taylorian professor in 1854, curator of the Bodleian Library in 1856, fellow of All Souls in 1858; and in 1868 was named in the act of convocation for the chair of comparative philology, the first professorship ever created by the University itself. He resigned this in 1875, but afterwards remained in Oxford, engaged by the University to edit a series of translations of the ‘Sacred Books of the East.’ He was a prolific author on a large variety of subjects, and a frequent and welcomed lecturer.

His life work was editing the text and furnishing translations of the Rig-Veda; and by this he would probably prefer to be remembered. But he is better known to the public, and has exerted a wide and powerful influence by his writings on ‘The Science of Language,’ ‘The Science of Religion,’ and collateral topics. His lectures on the Science of Language, delivered in 1861 and 1862 in the Royal Institution, London, attracted wide attention, passed through many editions when published, and are asserted to have made good for the first time the claims of philology to be ranked among the sciences. He carried out his theories in the realm of religion in the Gifford Lectures before the University of Glasgow in 1889, 1891, 1892, and 1893; and in the Hibbert Lectures, of which he was chosen to deliver the first series on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religions of India, in the chapter house of Westminster in 1878.

His theories of the origin and growth of language have been strenuously combated, and his accuracy as an observer and collater of facts sometimes discredited; notably by the accomplished American Orientalist, the late Professor W. D. Whitney of Yale University. He has been exposed to the danger of hasty and superficial generalizations: but his doctrine of myths as originating in the natural phenomena of the sky—the sun, the moon, the dawn—has awakened wide interest, and greatly stimulated intelligent investigation; while his effort to make a science of religion—with a law of growth, a steady absorption of new material, and a historical procedure—while still recognizing that religion is an aspiration, and in its essence what neither sense nor reason can supply, has done much to broaden Christian sympathies, and to open the way for those wider studies into the history of other religions, which are to-day laying surer foundations for religion itself. He modestly spoke of his labors in this department as “but a desire and a seed.”

He was not disappointed in his aim to help build again the bridge between the East and the West, which stood firm in earliest times, but which, while never altogether destroyed for the great nations of antiquity, has been broken in the course of the historic centuries. It is much to have been a leader in the labors of the distinguished band of Orientalists, as a result of which we are enabled to-day to read the thoughts, comprehend the motives, hear the prayers, understand the life, and know the business, the worship, the laws, the poetry, of a world buried from three to eight thousand years.

Professor Max Müller’s command of a beautiful and virile English style had much to do with his success. The captious Saturday Review called him “really one of the best English writers of the day.”

A passage to illustrate both his manner and his views may be taken from his inaugural address as president of the Congress of Orientalists in 1892:—

  • “What people call ‘mere words’ are in truth the monuments of the finest intellectual battles, triumphal arches of the grandest victories, won by the intellect of man. When man had found names for body and soul, for father and mother, and not till then, did the first act of human history begin. Not till there were names for right and wrong, for God and man, could there be anything worthy of the name of human society. Every new word was a discovery; and these early discoveries, if but properly understood, are more important to us than the greatest conquests of the Kings of Egypt and Babylon. Not one of our greatest explorers has unearthed with his spade or pickaxe more splendid palaces and temples, whether in Egypt or in Babylon, than the etymologist. Every word is the palace of a human thought; and in scientific etymology we possess the charm with which to call these ancient thoughts back to life. Languages mean speakers of language; and families of speech presuppose real families, or classes, or powerful confederacies, which have struggled for their existence, and held their ground against all enemies.”
  • His marriage to Miss Grenfell, by which he became connected with the families of Charles Kingsley and of Froude, served only to widen and render more intimate the circle of literary and professional friends which had been so characteristic of Müller’s life from the first. In Leipzig, Hermann, Haupt, and Brockhaus; in Berlin, Alexander von Humboldt and Boeckh; in Paris, Burnouf; in England, Thackeray, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Clough, Jowett, Ruskin,—and indeed almost every one of prominence in scientific and literary affairs,—were his friends or were helpful to his fame. This argues exceptional gifts of heart and person, as well as of intellect. His strong and beautiful face was crowned with a wealth of snowy hair, and shone with eager intelligence and the sweetness of thorough kindliness. As an instance of this kindliness, it is related that two young ladies, strangers, from some unknown motive wrote him asking advice in the choice of a language to study, of which no one in England knew anything. His answer reveals his amiability and genuine helpfulness. He writes:—

  • “It is by no means easy to reply to your inquiry. To take up any work in good earnest is a most excellent thing; and I should be the last person to find fault with anybody for fixing on learning a language, even for the mere sake of learning something. Yet it is right that our work should have some useful object beyond the mere pleasure of working…. I take it that literature would form an object to you in the choice of a language.”
  • Then he suggests several languages, giving reasons for each, ending with a pleasant wish for their perseverance and success.

    He directed his studies largely in the line of religion, because religion was to him a cherished personal possession. In his lecture on Missions delivered in Westminster Abbey, December 3d, 1873, he says:—

  • “There is one kind of faith that revels in words, there is another that can hardly find utterance: the former is like riches that come to us by inheritance, the latter is like the daily bread which each of us has to win by the sweat of his brow. The former we cannot expect from new converts; we ought not to expect it or exact it, for fear it might lead to hypocrisy and superstition…. We want less of creeds but more of trust, less of ceremony but more of work, less of solemnity but more of genial honesty, less of doctrine but more of love. There is a faith as small as a grain of mustard seed; but that grain alone can remove mountains, and more than that, it can move hearts.”
  • Theories are forgotten, and sciences are outgrown; but to have been the inspiring leader of many in the onward march of knowledge, and to have achieved a serene and rounded character, go far to amply crown any life.

  • “Denn wer den Besten seiner Zeit genug
  • Gethan, der hat gelebt für alle Zeiten.”
  • “That which lived
  • True life, lives on.”
  • But to have added to this that which should accompany old age,—“honor, love, and troops of friends,” was this ambitious scholar’s happy portion. Professor Müller died at Oxford, England, October 28, 1900.