Friedrich Max Muller was a prominent 19th-century scholar whose voluminous writings popularized the study of Indo-European languages, comparative linguistics, mythology, and Eastern religious thought. He was notable for his varied interests and broad comparative theories and was the author and/or editor of more than 100 books. Like other scholars of his day, including Edward B. Tylor and Sir James Frazer, Muller derived his theories from texts rather than from personal experiences. Biographer Nirad C. Chaudhuri praised Muller for having brought a sympathetic portrayal of Eastern cultures and religions to a European audience. But as Laurens R. van den Bosch emphasized, Muller never actually visited India. Perhaps Muller’s best-known scholarly achievement is his editorship of The Sacred Books of the East, which was published in 50 volumes between 1879 and 1894. This collection constitutes an important compendium of both Hindu and Buddhist thought. In addition, Muller was responsible for introducing European audiences to a number of previously unknown Japanese Buddhist scriptures.
Born in Dessau, Germany, Muller was the son of the Romantic poet Wilhelm Muller. The young Muller evidenced an early interest in comparative language studies and studied philosophy, linguistics, and languages at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin, and Paris. Muller moved to England in 1848, became a member of Christ Church in Oxford, and remained at Oxford University for the rest of his life. At Oxford, Muller first taught modern languages. After being denied a professorship in Sanskrit in 1860, Muller’s persistence and productivity were rewarded by his appointment as professor of comparative philology in 1868 (a professorship that was established especially for him). Although he was German born, nearly all of Muller’s major publications are in English.
Muller is best known to contemporary anthropologists for his debate with Tylor, the founder of British social anthropology, concerning the origin of religion. This debate is still covered in most introductory anthropology textbooks. To summarize this debate, Tylor thought that the origin of religion is psychological experiences (especially dreams), whereas Muller opined that religion began with human perceptions of natural phenomena. Muller contended that at the root of all religions is the experience of the infinite provoked by nature, especially the power of the sun. He also postulated that most Indo-European gods were originally the names of natural phenomena that became falsely deified. Thus, as Muller provocatively asserted, religion is best understood as a “disease” of language. His actual theory, as presented in Contributions to the Science of Mythology (1897), is much more tentative and nuanced. He was not so much concerned with so-called diseases of language as with the expansive power of metaphor.
Muller’s essays on mythology are among his most accessible writings. It was his explorations of mythology that led him to delve further into the study of comparative religions. As early as 1849, he had seen evidence of nature worship in Indo-European mythology, beginning with the gods of Rig Veda, who were portrayed as active forces of nature and only partly personified as imagined supernatural persons. According to Muller, myths transform concepts into beings and stories, and the gods (whose beginnings were words constructed to express abstract ideas) were mistakenly transformed into imagined personalities. Muller’s theories concerning the significance of metaphor anticipated the theories of 20th-century anthropologists such as James W. Fernandez and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and his speculations on Indo-European languages also inspired the work of Georges Dumezil.
Muller’s scholarly legacy is mixed. He cultivated an engaging persona, hobnobbed with the elites of his day, and occupied a prominent place in Victorian intellectual circles. By all accounts, most of his public lectures were well received. As Roger O’Toole pointed out, during Muller’s lifetime, his reputation rivaled that of Tylor, Frazer, and Robertson Smith, but today it is marked by indifference. O’Toole cited Émile Durkheim’s critique of naturalism as one possible reason for the neglect of Muller’s ideas. O’Toole also faulted Muller for his excesses and sweeping generalizations; nevertheless, he contended that Muller deserves recognition as a founder of the scientific study of religion. Muller himself had coined the term “science of religion” (Religionwissenschaft) in 1873, but his notion of science differed considerably from that of contemporary anthropologists. First, he did not embrace participant observation. Muller seldom looked beyond texts. Second, his biases were apparent. Muller was not an advocate of objectivity in the study of world religions and adamantly insisted that the comparative study of world religions would ultimately lead to a greater appreciation of Christianity.
As a comparative linguist, Muller’s contributions were again mixed. To his credit, he advocated a modern contextual approach to the study of language and was among the first to suggest that the study of the language should be related to the study of the culture in which it had been used. He was also among the first to tie the development of languages to the study of belief systems, a theme developed in the writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. But he has been widely criticized for assuming that religions are like languages that can be classified into “families.” By and large, his translations of Hindu and Buddhist sacred texts are competent but have been largely superseded.
Finally, Muller’s work contributed to a growing interest in Aryan culture that focused on Indo-European (Aryan) traditions as opposed to Judeo-Christian (Near Eastern) traditions. But this new focus had unintended consequences, and some of Muller’s findings about the Aryan tradition began to be expressed in terms of racist ideologies. Muller had hoped, to the contrary, that the discovery of a common Indian and European ancestry would serve as a powerful argument against racism.
- Chaudhuri, N. C. (1974). Scholar extraordinary: The life of the professor the Rt. Hon. Friedrich Max Muller. London: Chatto & Windus.
- Crocker, J. C., & Sapir, J. D. (Eds.). (1977). The social use of metaphor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Littleton, C. S. (1977). The new comparative mythology: An anthropological assessment of the theories of Georges Dumezil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- O’Toole, R. (1998). Friedrich Max Muller. In W. H. Swatos, Jr. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of religion and society (pp. 314-315). Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.
- J. R. (2002). The essential Max Muller: On language, mythology, and religion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- van den Bosch, L. P. (2002). Friedrich Max Muller: A life devoted to the humanities. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill.
- Voigt, J. H. (1967). Max Muller: The man and his ideas. Calcutta, India: Mukhopadhyay.