The Boden Professor of Sanskrit election, 1860

It's normal to label Wikipedia as part of the liberal propaganda system, which of course it is, but its sheer breadth of scope makes it impossible to turn it into a coherent lie, so a lot of information comes through it that right-thinking people would prefer was kept quiet. Further, I get the faint impression that someone in influence is pushing in a faintly reactionary direction — something that comes through most strongly in the choice of historical “featured articles” that are selected daily.

I was particularly fascinated by the featured article of the 7th of August, The Boden Professor of Sanskrit Election, 1860. That drew comment in some quarters as an amazingly minor and trivial piece of history to be unexpectedly well-documented, but to me, involved as I was in the long and difficult debate within the reactionary movement about the origins of cultural relativism, anti-racism and multiculturalism, it was a bombshell.

That it is not a minor or trivial piece of history is clearly evident from reading the Wikipedia article itself. The merits of the candidates were hotly disputed, the campaigns carried on in national newspapers, recognised on both sides as part of the “culture war” that is today so often denied. When the forces of conservatism won, the law was changed to prevent another such embarrassment occuring in future.

In this story, Max Müller represents the progressive establishment. He was a German Lutheran. His father was a poet, his grandfather a prime minister of Anhalt-Dessau. He wrote a dissertation on the Ethics of the Jewish philosopher Spinoza.

The Wikipedia story presents him as the downtrodden outsider, facing the great entrenched power of tradition and conservatism with nothing but his superior scholarship. The details make clear that everyone important was on his side: senior academics, The Times, the East India Company, and even senior Anglican clergymen, while his opponent Monier Williams relied for his victory on the old rural landowning class, out of power except in a few anachronistic areas such as the Convocation of Oxford University, to which they had shown up as part of the routine of their upbringing. They were due — overdue, in the view of the powers of the time — to be disenfranchised, and in due course were. As Müller himself wrote to his mother, “all the best people voted for me, the Professors almost unanimously, but the vulgus profanum made the majority”.

The social basis of conservatism and progressivism was also represented by the two men: Williams, son of an officer in the East India Company’s army, Müller, grandson of a European Prime Minister.

What’s remarkable about the election is not simply that it was an episode in the culture war between advancing universalism and retreating traditionalism, but that it was openly so, and that it was debated in terms of which side should win the culture war. It was universally understood that the line taken by Oxford University in this matter was of crucial importance for the future. There is no suggestion of academia being remote or isolated from the key cultural and political battlefields:

The Professorship is not for Oxford alone.
It is not for 'The Continent and America'.
It is for India.
It is for Christianity.
Let us then Vote for the man who is well-known and loved in India, and who, even by the voice of his opponents, is declared to be a trustworthy depositary of the Christian interests of a Christian Foundation.

Today, Müller’s Wikipedia article is three times the length of Williams’, and includes this gem:

The designer Mary Fraser Tytler stated that Müller’s book Chips from a German Workshop (a collection of his essays) was her “Bible”, which helped her to create a multi-cultural sacred imagery.

Christopher Minkowski is the current Boden professor of Sanskrit (under the 1882 rules that removed control of the chair from the Convocation of Oxford graduates and brought it under the control of the University authorities). In his inaugral lecture in 2006, he made reference to the history of the professorship, contrasting the intent behind its original endowment — promotion of missionary Christianity in India — with the contrary attitude represented by Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatick Society in Calcutta in 1784. Minkowski describes Jones as “the most prominent articulator in his day of a universalizing Enlightenment ideal, believing that the study of the cultural artefacts of ancient civilizations, and especially of India’s ancient civilzation, could provide instruction and edification for modern people. At the same time, he argued that it would be in the interests of good government in India for British rulers to understand the culture of those whom they ruled, and to govern as much as possible through pre-existent cultural forms.”

As to what Wikipedia says about Jones, well, I have to stop somewhere, and he looks well worth an article in his own right. Tutor to the future Earl Spencer (later Home Secretary), friend of Benjamin Franklin and supporter of American independence are minor asides in his biography

Back to Müller and Williams, I don’t want to oversimplify; a claim that Williams represents tradition and Müller the nascent Cathedral is more than supportable, but is subject to interesting qualifications. The mid-nineteenth century in England was the period where the progressive elite was privately shrugging off Christianity as a source of truth for their own use, while not yet abandoning it as the basis of the social order. Williams’ faction is therefore not simply the Tory opposition to progressivism, but also elements of the Whig side whose ideology still centred on the Christian religion rather than the new progressive morality that was beginning to separate itself from it. There was still a large overlap between puritan morality and progressive ideology, but differences were appearing, and the new multiculturalism was one of them. Thus, the bishops were for Müller, while the missionaries were for Williams.

The contradiction survives today in the Church of England and other protestant denominations — pockets of socially conservative Christians sending missionaries to convert the heathens to the True Faith, in spite of a hierarchy over them dedicated to social justice, respect for other religions, and the political debates of the day