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Müller, Friedrich Maxlocked

  • R. C. C. Fynes

Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900)

by George Frederic Watts, 1894–5

Müller, Friedrich Max (1823–1900), Sanskritist and philologist, was born on 6 December 1823 in Dessau, the capital of the small duchy of Anhalt-Dessau in Germany, the only son of the popular lyric poet Willhelm Müller (1794–1827), and his wife, Adelheid (1799?–1883), elder daughter of Präsident von Basedow, the prime minister of the duchy.

Early life and education

Müller was named after his mother's elder brother Friedrich, and after Max, the leading character in C. M. von Weber's opera Der Freischütz, Weber being his godfather and a close friend of his parents. In later life, after his final settlement in England, he adopted Max as part of his surname, Müller alone 'being as distinctive a name as Smith without a prefix' (G. Max Müller, 1.2).

His father died suddenly in October 1827, when Müller was not yet four years old. Müller was devoted to his mother, and her grief cast a gloom over his childhood. In his Autobiography he describes how day after day his mother would take him and his sister to their father's grave, where she would stand for hours, sobbing and crying. Nevertheless, the 'depressing atmosphere' at his home failed to have a lasting effect on Müller, who remained 'brimful of fun and mischief'.

At the age of six Müller entered the Gymnasium or high school in Dessau, where he was remembered as a lively boy, popular among his schoolfellows. At Easter 1839, following the death of his maternal grandfather, he was sent to the Nicolai School in Leipzig, where he received a sound grounding in the study of the classical authors. He stayed in the household of a family friend, Dr Carus, and there continued a musical education which had begun before he was six, when a neighbouring musician had secretly taught him to play the pianoforte as a surprise for his mother. Müller joined in the Carus family's musical soirées, and saw much of Felix Mendelssohn, who was at that time conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig.

In order to qualify for a small scholarship from the Anhalt government, Müller found that he had to pass his examination for admission to the University of Leipzig not at Leipzig but at Zerbst in Anhalt. The schools in Anhalt laid a greater stress on mathematics, the sciences, and modern languages than Müller's school in Leipzig, so it was necessary for him to become proficient in these subjects in a very short time. However, he passed the examination with a first class, and obtained the scholarship, worth about £6 per year, without which he would have been unable to attend the university.

On entering the University of Leipzig in the summer term of 1841 Müller decided to concentrate on Greek and Latin. However, he began to find study of the classical languages insufficiently challenging, since he could read Greek and Latin at sight, and could even speak the latter with ease, Latin being still a language of instruction in German schools and universities at that time. He attended lecture courses on a wide variety of topics, which, besides the classical languages, covered such subjects as Hebrew, Arabic, aesthetics, anthropology, and psychology. Attracted by the 'charm of the unknown', he began to attend the lectures of Professor Hermann Brockhaus who had come to Leipzig in the winter of 1841 as the university's first professor of Sanskrit. In the winter term of 1843–4 he heard Brockhaus lecture on the Rig Veda, the study of which was to be Müller's life work. In September 1843, at the age of nineteen, he passed the examination for the degree of doctor of philosophy. Too poor to buy the dress coat necessary for the occasion, he wore a borrowed one. While at Leipzig, he began to work on what was to be his first book, a German translation of the Sanskrit collection of didactic fables, the Hitopadeśa, which was published in March 1844 and dedicated to Brockhaus. Naturally gregarious, Müller found time to participate fully in the student life of Leipzig, even to the extent of fighting three duels.

Berlin and Paris

Müller went to Berlin in March 1844, having decided to spend a year at the university studying comparative philosophy with Franz Bopp and, more especially, philosophy with Friedrich Schelling, the idealist philosopher. He also wished to examine the Chambers collection of Sanskrit manuscripts which had recently been acquired by the king of Prussia. Bopp's lectures he found a disappointment, the great pioneer of the science of comparative philology then being prematurely infirm, but Schelling received him kindly, and Müller continued to attend his lectures, even though their expense was a burden to him. Müller eked out his small stipend by translating and copying Sanskrit manuscripts. At that time he wrote in his diary, 'I cannot give up Sanskrit, though it holds out no prospect for me' (Chaudhuri, 43). Short of funds, he nevertheless mingled in Berlin society, and was a welcome guest at several musical and artistic households.

In December 1844 Baron Hagedorn, a boyhood friend, invited Müller to stay at his expense in his apartment in Paris. Müller had long felt that a stay in Paris was indispensable for the continuance of his Sanskrit studies, so he accepted the offer, arriving in that city in March 1845. During the fifteen months he stayed in Hagedorn's rooms, his host never once appeared. This caused much hardship to Müller, who was consequently forced to live at his own expense, supporting himself by copying manuscripts and assisting other scholars. Müller's chief object in visiting Paris was to meet and study with the eminent French Sanskritist Eugène Burnouf. The two rapidly became close friends. At the time of their first meeting, Müller's interest lay mainly in the philosophy of the Upanisads, but Burnouf encouraged him to undertake instead what was to be his magnum opus, the preparation of the first printed edition of the Rig Veda. Müller began copying and collating manuscripts of the text of the work, which consists of some 1028 hymns. At Burnouf's prompting, he decided to publish it with the commentary of the fourteenth-century Vedic scholar Sayana, itself a voluminous work, filling about four thousand pages of folio manuscript.

Among Müller's fellow students at Paris were the Sanskrit scholars Rudolf Roth and Theodore Goldstücker. He was on friendly terms with the latter, but between Roth and Müller there was a coolness dating from an occasion when Roth helped himself too freely to a dish of oysters which the two were sharing. This incident was trivial enough in itself, but it was not to be entirely unconnected with some of the academic controversies of Müller's later life. Roth was to become co-author with Otto von Böhtlingk of the great Sanskrit lexicon the Sanskrit-Wörterbuch, and in late 1845 Müller received an offer from Böhtlingk to go to St Petersburg, where Böhtlingk was a member of the Imperial Russian Academy, and there print his edition of the Rig Veda, in collaboration with Böhtlingk and at the expense of the academy. Müller, dissatisfied by guarantees given by the academy, rejected the offer. Böhtlingk and his associates, displeased by Müller's eventual success in finding a publisher for the Rig Veda in England, were to become hostile critics of Müller and his works.

Early years in Oxford

While working in Paris, Müller felt the need to consult certain manuscripts which were held in London at the library of the East India Company, and by June 1846 he had saved enough money for a short visit to England. He had intended to stay in England for three weeks but the country was to be his home for the rest of his life. On the voyage from Boulogne he met the famous correspondent of The Times, William Howard Russell. The two became lifelong friends. 'So simple, so straight, and so learned; kindly and grave, but with a keen sense of humour, and a most bright and joyous disposition' (G. Max Müller, 1.51): such were Russell's later recollections of Müller. Another lifelong friendship begun at that time was with the Prussian minister in London, Baron von Bunsen. Bunsen, a diplomat and a man of the world, was able to provide his younger friend with patronage and an entrée into London society. It was at the persuasion of Bunsen and of Horace Hayman Wilson, Boden professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford and librarian of the East India Company, that the board of directors of the East India Company agreed to underwrite the considerable expense of printing and publishing Müller's edition of the Rig Veda. Bunsen provided the invitation that resulted in Müller's first visit to Oxford, where in 1847 he lectured to the British Association on 'the relationship of Bengali to the Aryan and aboriginal languages of India'. The few days he spent in Oxford delighted him, and he felt 'a silent love' for the city which was to be his home.

In February 1848 Müller was visiting Paris, collating manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Royale, when the revolution broke out. Bullets came through the windows of his lodgings. Managing somehow to safeguard his manuscripts, he hurried back to London, where he was the first to report to Bunsen at the Prussian legation the news of Louis Philippe's flight from Paris. Bunsen immediately took him to see Palmerston, to whom Müller related the events he had witnessed in Paris, illustrating his account with one of the bullets that he had retrieved from his room.

Müller's edition of Rig Veda was being printed in Oxford at the university press, and in May 1848 he decided to settle there in order to give closer attention to the project. The kindness and hospitality he met with in Oxford did much to assuage his homesickness. In late 1849 the first volume was published, after four laborious years spent in what were often very trying conditions. The chief difficulty was in collating and understanding the manuscripts of Sayana's commentary, which had been made by scribes who did not fully understand its meaning, and were consequently full of errors which had to be emended by Max Müller as he was thenceforward known. Furthermore, Sayana's commentary abounds in quotations taken without reference from many other works, most of which had not then been edited or published; all these quotations had to be checked and explained. It was a gigantic undertaking. For the subsequent volumes, which appeared at regular intervals, Max Müller was able to pay assistants who helped with the more mechanical aspects of the work. The sixth and final volume was published in 1874, Max Müller having presented the last sheet of the last volume to the first international congress of orientalists held in London in September of that year.

Max Müller's lively personality soon made him a popular figure in Oxford society, particularly in the more musical households, where his skill as a pianist made him a very welcome guest. His future in Oxford was secured in early 1851 when he was appointed deputy Taylorian professor of modern European languages, in place of Francis Henry Trithen, the incapacitated holder of the chair. On Trithen's death in 1854 Max Müller succeeded to the full professorship. The first course of lectures he gave was on the history and origin of modern languages, the second on the Nibelungen. The lectures were a great success and attracted large audiences, since he had the gift of interesting a non-specialist audience. He prepared a textbook consisting of extracts from German literature, which was published as German Classics in 1858. As Taylorian professor, the main focus of his teaching was on the development of the modern European languages; his lecturing on Sanskrit was mostly confined to the illustration of comparative philology. Nevertheless, his History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature published in 1859 showed that he was still able to find time for active research into Vedic literature. For the later dramas and lyric poems of Sanskrit's classical period, he had little appreciation, regarding them as mere 'pretty ditties'. As teaching aids for the language, in 1866 he published a Sanskrit Grammar and an annotated edition of the Hitopadeśa.

In 1851 Max Müller had been made an honorary MA of the university and a member of Christ Church through the sponsorship of his friend and patron Dean Gaisford, and in 1854 he became a full MA by decree of convocation. In 1855 he became a naturalized British citizen. He was appointed a curator of the Bodleian Library in 1856, resigning in 1863. He held the post once again between 1881 and 1894. In 1858 he accepted the offer of a fellowship of All Souls.

On 3 August 1859 Max Müller married Georgina Adelaide (1834/5–1916), the elder daughter of Riversdale William Grenfell, a copper smelter, and his wife, Charlotte. Their marriage was happy, and four children were born: Ada in 1860, Mary in 1862, Beatrice in 1864, and John in 1867. Both parents were devastated by the death of Ada at the age of fifteen in 1876. Mary also predeceased her parents, dying in 1886, having married F. C. Conybeare in 1883.

In May 1860 Wilson, the professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, died suddenly. Max Müller was the best-qualified candidate to fill the vacant chair, but Monier Williams, who had been professor of Sanskrit at the East India College at Haileybury until its closure in 1858, stood as an opposing candidate. At that time the holders of many Oxford chairs were elected by the entire body of Oxford MAs, of whom most were country clergymen. Elections to chairs resembled parliamentary elections, far more regard being paid to the political and religious views of the candidates than to their academic qualifications. The burning question in mid-nineteenth-century Oxford was whether the university should be a religious or a secular institution. Max Müller's Christianity was grounded in a liberal Lutheranism, and he had no empathy for the theological and ecclesiastical struggles of contemporary Oxford, which he regarded with detached amusement. Williams, who was the candidate of the evangelical party, was no more than a competent scholar, unable to rival Max Müller in terms of ability or achievement. Williams's supporters waged a press campaign against Max Müller, in which they urged that his religious views and German birth rendered him unworthy of the chair. These considerations weighed heavily with the country clergy, who at best had a minimal understanding of the nature of Sanskrit, and who flocked to Oxford in large numbers for the election, which was held in December 1860. Williams was elected with 833 votes, against 610 for Max Müller, whose bitter disappointment at this defeat rankled for many years.

Later life

After 1860 the focus of Max Müller's career changed. He continued his work on the Rig Veda, but most of his energy was devoted to the preparation of popular books and lectures, mostly in the fields of comparative philology and comparative mythology. The need to compensate for his rebuff at Oxford, where he remained Taylorian professor, led him to seek acclaim among a wider audience. His lectures on the science of language, given at the Royal Institution, London, in 1861 and 1863, were a great public success. The published lectures were reprinted fifteen times between 1861 and 1899. Max Müller became one of the leading figures of Victorian public life, engaging in public debates on topical questions, chiefly through the medium of letters to The Times.

Despite some opposition, in 1865 Max Müller was elected oriental sub-librarian of the Bodleian Library, but his health broke down under the strain of holding this post together with the Taylorian chair, and he resigned the sub-librarianship in 1867. In the following year the university abolished the Taylorian chair and in its place created a new chair of comparative philology, specifically for him. This relieved him from the necessity of lecturing on modern languages and added to his salary. Max Müller was thus the first occupant of a chair founded by the university itself, all previous chairs having been established by royal or private benefactions. In December 1875, the final volume of the Rig Veda having been published in the previous year, he decided to resign this chair and to return to Germany. His ostensible reason for resigning was to make himself free to concentrate on Sanskrit studies, but pique at the university's decision to make Monier Williams an honorary doctor of civil laws appears to have been the underlying motive. However, he was prevailed upon to change his mind; the university allowed him to retain the title and salary of professor of comparative philology while a deputy was appointed to do the work. He held the chair until his death.

The last thirty years of Max Müller's life were chiefly devoted to writing and lecturing on comparative religion. His Introduction to the Science of Religion was published in 1873. Lectures on this topic were given at the Royal Institution in 1870, in 1873 at Westminster Abbey, where in 1878 he inaugurated the annual Hibbert lectures on the science of religion, and at the University of Glasgow, where he was Gifford lecturer from 1888 to 1892. The most important project of these years was his founding and editing of a series of English translations of Indian, Arabic, Chinese, and Iranian religious texts. The Sacred Books of the East were intended for a general readership, and were translated by various scholars, Max Müller himself contributing translations of selections from the hymns of the Rig Veda, the Upanisads, and the Dhammapada, a Buddhist text. The volumes were published by Oxford University Press. The university and the government of India underwrote the cost of their production. Of the forty-nine volumes of translation in the series, only one remained to be published at the time of Max Müller's death. In 1887 the maharaja of Vijayanagara offered to underwrite the cost of a second, corrected edition of the Rig Veda, and to pay the salary of an assistant. The new edition, published in 1892, was largely the work of Max Müller's assistant, Maurice Winternitz, who corrected the text and checked the proof sheets. In 1897 Max Müller published a large work, Contributions to the Science of Mythology.

Despite poor health in the last two years of his life, Max Müller continued to write, publishing in 1899 The Six Systems of Hindu Philosophy, as well as producing essays and material for his autobiography. He died at his home, Parks End, 7 Norham Gardens, Oxford, on 28 October 1900, and was buried in the Holywell cemetery, Oxford, on 1 November 1900. His wife survived him.

Significance and reputation

Max Müller was a pioneer in the fields of Vedic studies, comparative philology, comparative mythology, and comparative religion, which he was chiefly responsible for introducing and popularizing in Britain. However, owing to the rapid advance of knowledge in these fields in the latter half of the nineteenth century, many of his ideas and a large part of his methodology had become obsolete long before his death. His work in comparative mythology and comparative religion was largely based on philological identifications which were later demonstrated to be untenable, and his philological methodology was replaced by the nascent science of anthropology. His strange theory that mythology is a 'disease of language' is taken from Sayana. Initially, he believed that languages were linked to race, being the expression of the thought of the races who spoke them, and he freely wrote of 'the Aryan race' and the 'Semitic race'. He modified his views in the 1880s, but he continued to write of an 'Aryan blessing' and a 'spiritual succession which began with the first apostles of that noble speech'. Such romanticism informed his support for German nationalism and Prussian expansion, and he engaged in a public controversy with Gladstone in which he championed the German cause in the Franco-Prussian war.

In India, Max Müller was regarded as a great and learned pandit. In 1862 an assembly of Brahmans met near Poona to correct their manuscripts of the Rig Veda by the first three published volumes of his edition. He never visited India, and his view of the country was idealized. His writings on India were an important element in the formation of western ideas about Indian religion and also in India's opinion of itself, particularly in their dissemination of the myth of India's spirituality.

Max Müller was largely responsible for the revival of Buddhist scholarship in Japan, through his encouragement of young Japanese scholars with whom he came into contact from the 1870s. After his death, his library was acquired by Tokyo University.

Max Müller was a gifted literary stylist, producing a large number of articles and books on a variety of topics. His 1881 translation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason demonstrates his mastery of English and German prose. Though philosophers have tended to prefer Norman Kemp Smith's 1929 translation, Max Müller's stylish version of the Critique has continued to be well regarded. He even wrote a romance, Deutsche Liebe (1857), which went through thirteen editions and was translated into English, French, Italian, and Russian. Collections of his articles and reminiscences were published as Chips from a German Workshop (1867–75) and Auld Lang Syne (1898–9). He was dictating his Autobiography (1901) to his son at the time of his death. However, the sheer volume of his literary production was not compatible with the production of original research, of which he did little in the latter part of his life.

Naturally gregarious, Max Müller enjoyed great social acclaim, mixing with many of the royal families and leading figures of Europe. Dapper in appearance, he took a childlike pleasure in the many awards that he received: he was a privy councillor, he held Prussian and Italian knighthoods, the northern star of Sweden, the French Légion d'honneur, the Bavarian Maximilian, the German Albert the Bear, and the Turkish Mejidiye. He held several honorary doctorates, and was honoured by many learned societies.

His social acclaim, the honours he received, and the fact that he did little original research in his later years, led other, more austere scholars, such as Roth and the American Sanskritist W. D. Whitney, to attack Max Müller. There may have been some justification in their assessment of his later career, but their attacks should not detract from the importance of his pioneering achievements, especially in the fields of Vedic studies and comparative philology.



  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp., personal and family papers
  • U. Oxf., Taylor Institution, lectures and notes
  • All Souls Oxf., letters to Sir William Anson
  • Balliol Oxf., letters to Sir Robert Morier
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MS 44251
  • BL OIOC, letters to Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff, MSS Eur. F 234
  • BL OIOC, letters to H. H. Wilson, MSS Eur. E 301
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. W. Acland
  • CUL, corresp. with Charles Darwin
  • JRL, corresp. with E. A. Freeman
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning
  • NL Scot., letters to J. S. Blackie
  • Pembroke College, Oxford, letters to Sir Peter Renouf
  • University of Oregon, letters to Moncure Conway


  • B. Joy, bust, 1873 (now lost)
  • B. Joy, medallion, 1873, repro. in G. Max Müller, Life and letters, facing p. 453
  • R. Lehmann, crayon drawing, 1894, BM
  • G. F. Watts, oils, 1894–5, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. von Herkomer, watercolours, 1895, All Souls Oxf.
  • W. L. Colls, photograph, 1898, repro. in Max Müller, Life and letters, vol. 2, frontispiece
  • Barraud, photograph, NPG; repro. in Men and Women of the Day, 3 (1890)
  • C. L. Dodgson, photograph, NPG
  • W. & D. Downey, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in W. Downey and D. Downey, The cabinet portrait gallery, 4 (1893)
  • Hill & Saunders, two cartes-de-visite, NPG
  • Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1878)
  • W. Rothenstein, BM
  • Walker & Cockerell, photograph (aged thirty), repro. in Max Müller, My autobiography, facing p. 262
  • H. J. Whitlock, carte-de-viste, NPG
  • three photogravures, NPG

Wealth at Death

£18,998 4s. 8d.: resworn probate, Nov 1901, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

W. E. Gladstone , ed. M. R. D. Foot & H. C. G. Matthew, 14 vols. (1968–94)