Keeping up with all the Joneses

Sir William Jones 1746-94
April 2, 1999

Andrew Robinson recalls the achievements of a neglected polymath national portrait gallery.

Beneath the high dome of St Paul's Cathedral, in the four corners formed by its supporting pillars, are statues of four of the greatest Britons of the age of Enlightenment: Samuel Johnson the dictionary maker, Sir Joshua Reynolds the painter, John Howard the prison reformer, and Sir William Jones. The first three names are still familiar to most people - not so the last name. This short but substantial and attractively written book should do something to restore Jones to the revered position he held at his death, aged only 47, in 1794.

"Sir William Jones was one of the greatest polymaths in history," according to Oxford University Press's dust jacket. For once this is no hyberbole. But, as the book's preface nicely observes: "History is unkind to polymaths. No biographer will readily tackle a subject whose range of skills far exceeds his own, while the rest of us, with or without biographies to read, have no mental 'slot' in which to keep a polymath's memory fresh. So the polymath gets forgotten or, at best, squashed into a category we can recognise, in the way Goethe is remembered as a poet, despite his claim to have been a scientist, or Hume as a philosopher, for all the six dumpy volumes of his History of England ."

The writer is Alexander Murray, fellow in modern history at University College, Oxford, where Jones lived as a scholar and fellow for ten years, from 1764 to 1774. As editor, Murray introduces seven contributions, which started life as Oxford lectures given in 1994 on the bicentenary of Jones's death, from a lawyer (David Ibbetson), a theologian (Gillian Evison), a classicist (Richard Fynes), an historian and anthropologist (Thomas Trautmann), an Arabist (Alan Jones), a Sanskritist (Richard Gombrich) and a former fellow in English literature and librarian of University College (Peter Bayley) - in itself testimony to Jones's remarkable intellectual range. And this, as Trautmann wonderingly comments, is to omit "Jones the Persianist, and Jones the poet, not to mention lesser Joneses such as the astronomer, the botanist and the natural historian of the pangolin". Last, but far from least, there is Jones the man: worldly, generous and humorous. On the plinth of the Jones statue, the Honourable East India Company, a body not known for its devotion to the life of the mind, records its "grateful sense of his public services, (its) admiration of his genius and learning, and (its) respect for his character and virtues".

The bare facts of Jones's life are that he was born in 1746, the grandson of a small farmer in the Isle of Anglesey and the son of a mathematician who from humble beginnings became a fellow of the Royal Society before he was 40 and later its vice-president, and an intimate of two lords chancellor, his former pupils. At Harrow, Jones showed exceptional promise in Latin and Greek, Hebrew and modern European languages. As a student at Oxford, he taught himself Arabic and Persian; his first seven major publications, appearing in his twenties, were all connected with these two languages. By the age of 26, his brilliance was generally recognised when he was elected a member of Johnson's Literary Club and a fellow of the Royal Society. But despite his social and literary connections, Jones was not wealthy; early on he realised that to support his passion for scholarship, he needed an income, and so he studied the law, became a barrister and published in the field (his Essay on the Law of Bailments is still particularly admired, says Ibbetson). For several years he petitioned (as a "would-be nabob" using "a humiliating degree of obsequious flattery", notes Bayley) for a lucrative judgeship in the supreme court in Bengal, but his republican views - he supported both the American and the French revolutions - were an obstacle to such a career. Finally, in 1783, George III agreed to intervene, and Jones left England with a knighthood and wife for Calcutta. He intended to remain for only six years and amass enough money to retire into a life of pure scholarship as a country gentleman, but he actually stayed twice as long, and died when on the point of departure for home. It is in India that Jones did the work for which he is chiefly remembered.

Soon after his arrival, he founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal - the prototype of 19th-century Asiatic societies in Britain, France, Germany and the United States. In 1786, at his "Third Anniversary Discourse", he made a revolutionary statement that still has the power to surprise and "has become the most cited passage of his writings" (Trautmann). He remarked:

"The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek , more copious than the Latin , and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, than no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick , though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit ; and the old Persian might be added to the same family."

Though Jones was not quite the first to suggest this amazing link - which is today's linguistic orthodoxy postulating an extinct common ancestral language, known as proto-Indo-European, for all the above-mentioned and some other languages - he was the first to put the idea on a sound footing. To quote Gombrich, Oxford's professor of Sanskrit, Jones saw "the kind of historical relationship which exists between languages in general, as opposed to their simultaneous creation at Babel". He thus can be said to have founded the discipline of comparative philology, or historical linguistics.

Initially, Jones had not intended to learn Sanskrit, a language known in 1783 to only one Briton (Jones's friend Sir Charles Wilkins); even Jones felt that by his late thirties he had mastered enough languages to be going on with. But soon he decided that a knowledge of Sanskrit was necessary to his work as a judge, located some willing Indian teachers (among the many unwilling pundits who regarded the language as too sacred to be taught to a foreigner) and became fascinated by its literature. "Jones was not the first European Sanskritist," says Evison, "but he was the first European to capture the imagination of the West through the introduction of new images, styles and themes from Sanskrit literature." His 1789 translation of the play Sakuntala by India's greatest dramatist, Kalidasa (probably of the 5th century AD), caused a literary sensation and inspired the prologue to Goethe's Faust - though according to (Alan) Jones, Oxford's professor of classical Arabic, the influence on Goethe of Jones's Persian and Arabic translations was "much greater" (which is easy to believe, from the excellence of some Jones translations of Arabic poetry cited by his namesake). And one of his nine hymns to Indian deities written in English provided Shelley, the most famous alumnus of University College, "with the initial inspiration for his 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'" - according to Fynes, who attributes "views which are original enough to deserve to be regarded as the earliest formulation of the poetics of Romanticism" to one of Jones's numerous essays.

Jones's fascination with Sanskrit literature led to another crucial breakthrough, this time in history. Two centuries ago, India's classical past was lost in myth - "abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long", said a contemptuous Macaulay - without any chronological anchor to the history of the rest of the world. Alexander the Great was known to have invaded northern India in 3-25 BC, but how to relate this event to the rulers of India? With his "remarkable flair for cultural comparison", says Fynes, Jones was able to link the names of a river (Erranaboas), a city (Palibothra) and a ruler (Sandracottus) mentioned in a contemporary Greek account of India with the names Hiranyabahu, Pataliputra and Chandragupta in later Sanskrit works. Since the Greek account was securely datable, Jones was able to show that Chandragupta (founder of the Mauryan dynasty and grandfather of the great emperor Ashoka) must have ascended the throne sometime between 325 and 313 BC. Using the Sanskrit king lists, a framework for Indian history could now be established.

This discovery was announced by Jones in his "Tenth Anniversary Discourse" to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in 1793. In the meantime, he had published extensively on Indian law, both the Hindu and Islamic codes: works that would form "the basis for a great deal of the Indian jurisprudence of the next hundred or more years" (Ibbetson). Jones was determined, using his special linguistic gifts, to provide English judges in Calcutta with a reliable digest of the original legal works, including a translation of Manu, the greatest Hindu law-giver (whom Jones oddly insisted on spelling as "Menu", so that in St Paul's his statue, in which he holds a large book of "Menu", appears to suggest that this god-like figure was some kind of waiter).

Behind his determination lay a firm conviction that common law should be favoured over statute law, which resonated with his long-held republican sympathies. "If law was to be identified by reference to the will of the people rather than simply by looking at the facts of political domination in the state, then there should be no question of transplanting wholesale the English legal system into India," comments Ibbetson. "Jones was willing to face up to the implications of this", ie the need to judge Indians by their own laws, which therefore needed to be properly formulated in English.

And yet - as Ibbetson clearly shows - Jones believed that English law was superior to traditional Indian laws; there was, for instance, no question of applying anything other than British law to British subjects resident in India. Which brings us to that most contentious of issues: to what extent was Jones, and the knowledge he accumulated as the quintessential Orientalist in India, tainted by his undoubted services to British imperialism?

Trautmann and Gombrich address this question to some degree, and refer briefly to Edward Said's famous attack on Orientalism. Trautmann comments that Jones's "complexities and contradictions illustrate again the truth that empire was a project of liberalism as much as of conservatism". Gombrich identifies an irony: "for all that he went to India unrepentantly to serve British imperial interests, Jones had a more vivid and sincere appreciation of Sanskrit literature, in its broadest sense, and a less patronising attitude towards Indian scholarship, than has ever been noticeable in the one-and-a-half centuries of scientific study since, or indeed is noticeable today, when many western academics have become so guilt-ridden that they eschew the very name of 'Orientalist'." While agreeing with these comments, I cannot help but regret the absence of an Indian contributor to the book.

This criticism (and some surprising typos) apart, Sir William Jones: A Commemoration is a most admirable collection. I feel proud, as a former student of University College (Oxford's oldest college, now celebrating its 750th anniversary) with "Orientalist" tendencies, to think that Jones and V. S. Naipaul once studied at "Univ". Both writers, in very different ways, demonstrate a fruitful obsession with a subject of eternal interest: East and West, Orient and Occident, and what each can learn from the other.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

Sir William Jones 1746-94: A Commemoration

Editor - Alexander Murray
ISBN - 0 19 920190 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 169

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