A Giant in Those Days

The Denver Quarterly 11.1 (Spring 1976): 102-111

When Max Müller died at Oxford in the year 1900, the entire civilized world took note of the event. Far more so than was to be the case with Freud or Einstein later on. Representatives of the Queen of England and the Emperor of Germany attended his funeral; memorial services were held in many churches in England, including Westminster Abbey; editorials and obituary notices appeared in the press throughout the world; the French Journal des Débats observed that “The death of Max Müller not only creates a sadly felt gap in historical and philological studies, but also extinguishes the beacon of light to which over the whole world thinking men turned their eyes.” Today, for the educated world aside from a few specialists, his is little more than a name in a library catalogue; and the rest have never heard of him.

Both the rise and the fall of his vast reputation are historical facts on which it is worth while to reflect. In the year 1808, fifteen years before Müller was born, an event had occurred which marked the beginning of many very different phenomena. This was the publication by Friedrich Schlegel, sometimes referred to as the Founder of the Romantic Movement, of his Treatise Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder, as a result of the studies he had been pursuing in the Sanskrit language. Previously it had been vaguely suspected in some quarters that many languages spoken in India and the East, on the one hand, and most of the languages of Europe, on the other, might have a common ancestor. The intensive study of Sanskrit, made possible by the advent of Britain in India changed suspicion into experience, and the consequences that flowed from that change were many and lasting.

One of them was a persistent fantasy that, because there had once been an ‘Aryan’ language, there must also have been an Aryan race. The philologists themselves, of whom Müller was one, had expressly warned against any such non-sequitur, and it was to avert the risk of its gaining credence that they soon substituted for the term ‘Aryan’ that of ‘Indo-European’. But later on this, as we know, did not prevent an Aryan myth, skilfully manipulated, from precipitating the whole of Germany into a social, political and military abyss. Another was the rise of a new and sometimes exaggerated respect for ‘Orientalism’ in general, an interpenetration at many different levels of typically Eastern and typically Western thought. Some, and perhaps W.B. Yeats was one of them, would accept that very interpenetration for as good a definition as can be found of Romanticism itself, when contemplated in depth. Meanwhile, in the academic world this new detailed study of the historical relation between two imposing groups of the languages of the world furthered, if indeed it did not inaugurate, a new kind of approach to both language and thought: the developmental one. It brought about the birth of Comparative Philology and, through that later on, of Comparative Religion, as recognized academic disciplines.

To acquaint oneself with the life and thought of Max Müller is to convert this complex story into something like personal experience. It is to watch academic enthusiasm for Oriental languages, and particularly Sanskrit, widening first into a thirst for better knowledge of the Sacred Books of the East, thence into a disciplined approach to the history of language in general, and thence again into a new philosophy of language, which is inseparable from speculation and argument concerning its origin. It is to keep pace with the transition from original Romanticism to nineteenth-century and Victorian Romanticism. And at the same time it is to accompany this German, but naturalized English, scholar from his humble origin in the tiny German duchy of Anhalt-Dessau through the Universities of Leipzig and Berlin, where he sat under the philologist Franz Bopp and the philosopher Schelling, to his blossoming in Oxford, where a new chair of Comparative Philology was expressly created for him, and in London, where we hear him lecturing on “The Science of Language” at the Royal Institution to audiences which include such distinguished figures as F.D. Maurice, Michael Faraday, and John Stuart Mill. This double journey is made doubly attractive by the circumstance that Müller was a singularly lovable man; and we can be grateful that in a recent biography1 his human personality and its vicissitudes are displayed as publically and as sympathetically as his public record. We may also, without offense, feel a little surprised. If Max Müller was a ‘Scholar extraordinary’, Mr. Chaudhuri, a Bengali Hindu, who never learned English from Englishmen nor even met them socially until he was fifty-five, and did not see England until the age of fifty-seven, must surely be saluted no less firmly as a ‘Biographer extraordinary’. How does it come about that the author of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian can write more intimately and delicately of the minutiae of social life in Europe in the last two centuries than most contemporary Europeans? Yet so it is, and even if Max Müller had no interest for us at all as a public figure, Chaudhuri’s picture of his early life in the humanely feudal little Ruritania into which his family was integrated would still be delightfully worth the reading. Even more surprising are the depths to which this ‘outsider’ has made himself at home in the finer ethical and emotional vibrations of middle-class Victorian psychology – especially evident in the long chapter entitled ‘Beata Georgina’, containing the history of Müller’s protracted and difficult love affair that ended at last in a happy marriage. At times indeed it is almost as if one were reading George Eliot.

Here I think a principal part of his secret is an outstanding objectivity, which he must have had to develop by sheer personal energy under exceptionally discouraging circumstances. Perhaps for that very reason he can be cool, without being ironical and therefore superficial. He is not one of those who assume that the only way for a literary man to be at once objective and ‘contemporary’ is to lie soaking in a warm bath of present-day shibboleths and apply a spongeful from time to time to the matter in hand. ‘Racism’ for instance is a thing of which he had much first-hand, and bitterly resentful, experience during his boyhood and youth under the British Raj. Yet, when he had quoted a letter of Müller’s concerning the Indian students who had begun coming to Oxford, expressing disappointment at the absence of personal relations with their English fellow-students, he can comment: “The Indians themselves made it worse by setting down this natural canalization of social intercourse [italics added] to racial and political pride and treating it as conscious apartheid.” Or again, when his sympathetic account of Müller’s early struggles in Oxford as a poor young man without influential connections reaches the appropriate moment for the rubber-stamped allusions to Victorian class-consciousness and elitism, we get instead – but here it is worth quoting him at length:

The truth of the matter is that in our age, in spite of all its talk about equality of opportunity and the iniquity of class-distinctions, successful and established men are infinitely more exclusive, self-conscious, stand-offish and snobbish than men in their position were in any aristocratic age. Our age has erected such psychological barriers between men of different positions that the outcome has been the creation of a rancorous hatred by the have-nots for what they call the ‘Establishment’, which is mistakenly taken for a revolutionary movement. Our times have recovered the primitive’s hostility for the ‘unlike’. Today an exceptional man is swamped by sheer numbers. The aristocratic age recognized classes, but never made them over-rigid. Its élite needed new blood continuously, and so just as it maintained its economic prosperity by marrying into wealthy bourgeois families, it welcomed talent to maintain its mental level.

These are only two examples. They are not the only matters on which this egregious twentieth-century writer has the effrontery to think for himself.

It is time to turn to the other aspect of the double journey through Max Müller’s lifetime. The cultural relation between Europe and India as it developed during the nineteenth century out of the study of Sanskrit pursued by a few Western scholars, is a fascinating little piece of history, and not the least interesting feature of it is the sharp contrast between the attitude of the typical German and the typical British, or their idea of India, and the fruitful interaction nevertheless between the two. Friedrich Schlegel’s treatise already referred to owed its origin to the accident that the English Orientalist Alexander Hamilton (1762-1824) was interned for a year or two in Paris while Schlegel was studying there, and was induced to give him lessons in Sanskrit. Yet the contrast between what knowledge about India signified for the Germans and what it signified for the English could hardly have been greater. By the Germans it was, as Chaudhuri perceptively notes, “absorbed as an element of German selfhood”; whereas the British learning never wholly lost its utilitarian element in being an aid and instrument in governing India. Writers like James Mill and Macaulay simply declined to believe in an immemorial Hindu culture of Brahmanic wisdom. While over in Germany lesser men than Schlegel were creating “the myth of Indian spirituality”, those of the British who actually had to live in India “found its present-day inhabitants so crude and ignorant and even degenerate that they could hardly believe that they had been civilized at any time.”

With his very German beginnings and his very British ending (he was even made a Privy Councillor before he died) it seems almost as though Müller was chosen by destiny for the purpose of bringing the two streams together and converting the crude divergence into a productive polarity. He was able to avoid “both extremes, the callow German enthusiasm and the hard-boiled English contempt. He adopted and retained in his attitude to India the strongest and the most sympathetic features of the interest in that country of both Englishmen and Germans.” Sympathetic, and actively so, with the plight and aspirations of contemporary Hindus he certainly was; but it was as scholar and philosopher that he left the deepest imprint on his generation. In both these capacities it was his impulse to reach back as far as possible into the past. Thus he was dissatisfied with existing Sanskrit studies, because they were limited to the relatively late literature of ‘classical’ Sanskrit. It was as if, he complained, Greek scholarship were to begin with Theocritus and Plotinus instead of Homer and Herodotus. Yet it was inevitable because no authentic text of the Vedas was available and Vedic Sanskrit was still unknown. Therefore he himself undertook the monumental task of editing the Rig-Veda, together with an important Sanskrit Commentary, in six volumes, of which the first took him five years to complete but was enough to establish his global reputation as an Oriental Scholar.

He had come to Oxford, because one of the MSS was there and because the Oxford University Press were the printers. The interaction was at work again. Just as Schlegel’s teacher Alexander Hamilton had been employed in the British East India Co. while he was learning Sanskrit, so now the expensive production, with its obviously limited sales appeal, was financed by that Company. Müller himself, with the back broken as it were of his principal scholarly work (although there was still plenty to do on it), with a minor Professorship at Oxford, and a few years later with an English wife, began the long series of lectures and books on language and the history and philosophy of language, with which his name continued to be associated for many years after his death.

Two interweaving strands ran through them, as a glance at the titles of his Collected Works will suggest: on the one hand Chips from a German Workshop, Biographies of Words etc. and on the other The Science of Language, Introduction to Science of Religion, Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language. Müller was not only a fine scholar but also what the French call a vulgarisateur of the first quality. Thus, on the one hand he practically inaugurated a certain widespread fascination with casually selected etymologies, which was to be reflected after his death in an increasing number of popular works on the subject such as Trench’s The Study of Words. On the other hand his hunger for origins led him to tackle the problem of the pre-history, and even the origin, of speech. His reputation, as long as it lasted, rested on both these strands, but it was surely the latter which called forth those more profound and moving tributes from the Western world on the occasion of his death, and made many feel, as we have seen, that “a beacon of light” had been extinguished.

Why was it so? Looking back with the hindsight which three quarters of a century permit, I think anyone searching for a single word to signal the cause of both the rise and the fall of his reputation would have to settle for Darwin. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, twelve years after Müller settled in Oxford, and the rest of his life roughly coincided with the period during which natural selection was ceasing to be a theory and becoming a matter of course. Müller was one of the few thinkers, perhaps the only widely-known and respected one, who detected its weakness and refused to be deafened by its growing popularity. He accepted its efficacy in accounting for the evolution of the external forms of nature, but flatly denied that further and slipshod application of it to the evolution of consciousness, which had led Darwin into his puerile speculations on the origin of language – speculations in which even some of the philologists were beginning to follow him.

All this was, at the time, of much more than academic interest. Evolution, of one sort or the other, was in the air. The Darwinian revelation ran counter to Scriptural revelation for one thing, but that was not the only reason why people were made uneasy by it in spite of its growing respectability. The twin assumptions that in the history of the world, consciousness ‘arose’ somehow ‘out of’ unconscious matter, and then human consciousness ‘out of’ animal instinct contain in them something that is deeply repugnant to our felt humanity. And it is the faculty of speech imprimis that distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom. Müller saw that the two assumptions are interconnected and held neither of them to be justified. But it was the second on which he concentrated all his attention. “Where I differ from Darwin,” he wrote to the Duke of Argyll in 1872,

is when he does not see that nothing can become actual but what was potential; that mere environment explains nothing, because what surrounds and determines is as much given us as what is surrounded and determined; that both presuppose each other and are meant for each other. Now I take my stand against Darwin on language, because language is the necessary condition of every other mental activity, religion not excluded, and I am able to prove that this indispensable condition of all mental growth is entirely absent in animals. This is my palpable argument. …

Even if it could be proved that man was the lineal descendant of an ape, that would not upset my argument. The ape who could become the ancestor of man would be a totally different being from the ape that remained forever the ancestor of apes. The ape would be simply an embryonic man, and we have no ground to be very proud of our own embryonic phases.

In other words, if you are looking for the origin of species, you must study species and their history; but if you are looking for the origins of consciousness, you must study consciousness and its history. And if you do so, you will find that, thanks to the new materials placed at our disposal during the nineteenth century, “evolution has now been proved to exist in the historical growth of the human mind quite as clearly as in any of the realms of objective nature.”

It was this inner evolution in which Müller had always been interested. And the way to it lay through language. “The object and aim of philology, in its highest sense, is but one, to learn what man is, by learning what man has been.” This is why Chaudhuri rightly describes the special discipline of Müller as “the archaeology of ideas” and why his disciple Ludwig Noiré could call him “the Darwin of the mind”. His immaterialism, like Darwin’s materialism, was empirical rather than metaphysical. It was not his business to establish the preter-natural status of reason by pointing out, after Leibniz, that if you are going to insist on Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu, you must add – praetor ipsum intellectum. He took his stand on language, wherein thought and things meet and unite as specifically human experience. “No speech without reason, no reason without speech” was the maxim to which he nailed his colors; or, more precisely: “Explain to me how man becomes able to conceive ‘Two’, and you will have explained to me the origin of language.”

Müller was nevertheless an admirer of Darwin the man, to whom he sent the pamphlet in which his Royal Institution lectures entitled Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language were printed. But Darwin never, it seems, attempted to answer any of his objections. Instead, he admitted frankly, in his reply that:

He who is fully convinced, as I am, that man is descended from some lower animal, is almost forced to believe a priori that articulate language has been developed from inarticulate cries; and he is therefore hardly a fair judge of the arguments opposed to this belief.

Later on, when the two men met and talked, his final words to Müller, as he was leaving were: “You are a dangerous man.” But it is clear that any idea of abandoning his theory simply because a few objections to it are unanswerable had already become as absurd to Darwin as it was afterwards to become to everyone else. He had plenty of opportunity for reflection, for Müller continued to send him his writings on the subject. He preferred instead, replying to the last of these, to turn off the tap of responsibility with a jest:

With respect to our differences, though some of your remarks have been rather stinging, they have all been made so gracefully. I declare I am like the man in the story who boasted that he had been soundly horse-whipped by a Duke.

Müller was an enthusiastic adherent of Kant. Comparatively late in life he even translated the Critique of Pure Reason, remarking in the Preface that “The two friends, the Rig-Veda, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, may seem very different, and yet my life would have been incomplete without the one, as without the other.” They certainly are very different. Considering Müller’s Oriental bias, and his early contacts with Schelling and Hegel (he never, says Chaudhuri, lost his early enthusiasm for the Romantic Movement), one might have expected him to go rather further in his dealings with the origin and prehistoric stages of language than mere repudiation of Darwinism. One would have been at least not surprised to find him foreshadowing those conceptions of a pre-logical stage of language, which have come to the fore since his day, or of a mythic and archetypal consciousness, in which ratiocination was potential rather than actual. But although he was philosophically interested in, and lectured on, such historical figures as Philo, and expounded the notion of a Logos, he never developed a corresponding theory of the evolution of language. He proclaimed that “The word is the thought incarnate” but never quite conceived of that incarnation as process. For him, as for Kant, all thinking is and always had been, in effect, generalization; and language itself originated in the “the generalization of percepts”. He found reason present everywhere in language – and could horsewhip Darwin with it – but he did not also find imagination.

His observations on such topics as metaphor and myth are consequently disappointing. Indeed they are flat. He did not, it seems, detect any ‘given’ figurative quality in primitive speech; and he therefore assumed that the figurative element, which is present or fossilized in so many words, had originated in the first place as invented metaphor. Thus, he postulated a ‘metaphorical period’, during which the language of men, having originally been crudely literal, became also fanciful and figurative. This is not only an impossible notion in itself; it directly contradicts his own doctrine that “Language, mythology, religion, nay, even philosophy can now be proved to be the outcome of a natural growth, or development, rather than of intentional efforts, or of individual genius”. For what is the spring of metaphor if it is not someone’s intentional effort? While his corollary – that myth arose as “a disease of language,” because some of these metaphors were afterwards taken literally – is, if anything, even more trivial.

The explanation appears to be that Müller’s overall mental picture of primitive man was still derived, not from his own researches but from the current hypothesis of geology and biology. Notwithstanding his vigorous refutation of Darwinism therefore, he felt bound to take as the unexcavated starting-point of his ‘archaeology of ideas’ the seductive idea of primitive man as an unendowed animal, which had already been gaining currency before Darwin arrived to fix it. He could pillory the author of the Origin of Species for failing to see that “nothing can become actual but what was potential”, but he could not apply that principle to the idée fixe itself, on which the whole edifice was erected.

It was a blind spot, but one which he suffered from in very good company. It is a little different today, when any reasonably independent mind, provided it prefers waking to sleeping, can discover for itself that the theory of natural selection as the sufficient cause of evolution is in fact no theory at all but an a priori paradigm of interpretation. But in those days the idée fixe was fixe beyond audible cavil. You could hardly help thinking in terms of it even while you were effectively arguing against it. It was Darwin himself, not Müller, who proved to be the “dangerous man”.

It is a little different today, but not so very much so. Indeed if one needs an example of how difficult it is to remains objective to the spell-binding paradigm, one need look no further than the very book I have just been commending for its rare objectivity vis-à-vis unthinking current assumptions. For there is one exception. “The particularity of individual human beings,” observes the author, in a chapter on the formation of Müller’s mind and character:

is generally very much exaggerated, and in regarding every person as unique, as he in one sense certainly is, it is invariably forgotten that his particularity is only the psychological counterpart of what is known as continuous somatic variation in zoology, which makes every cat or dog equally particular.

Again, in describing Müller’s persistent grief over the death of his eldest daughter, after a reference to the “amazing illusion” of belief in life after death, he adds:

This consolation has been enough in most circumstances, for basically men live on by virtue of a biological impulse. But when one human being has loved another so much that he or she has ceased to be self-reliant, the death of the loved one mortally wounds that biological urge to live. And that wound is most grievous when a child dies, for here two biological forces clash, the one which makes us cling to our own life and the other which makes us love our children.

Set this wholly admirable author beside the general run of his contemporaries, and in nearly everything he touches you will find him Hamlet to their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Yet, on the few occasions when he seeks to dig beneath Müller the social and historical personage to Müller the human spirit, he ‘biologizes the data’ as smoothly as any TV philosopher or brisk sociologist jumping through the regulation paper hoops downstage.

Darwinism was an aching tooth in the jaws of Victorian thought, and here was something like a popular favourite offering the services of a skilled dental surgeon. But his offer was neither accepted nor rejected – because the tooth was ceasing to ache. It had broken off short and become lost to view in the surrounding tissue, while the caries spread through and infected the whole body of the Western world. One of the many fair things that succumbed swiftly to that infection was the well-deserved reputation of Professor the Rt. Hon. Friedrich Max Müller, P.C.

Owen Barfield



1 Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Scholar Extraordinary: The Life of Professor the Rt. Hon. Friedrich Max Müller, P.C. (Oxford University Press, 1974), $15.00. Return.
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