The Influences of Buddhism and Comparative Religion on Matthew Arnold



The life of Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) encompassed the period of the Western ‘discovery’ of Buddhism, the emergence of the comparative religious study of Eastern religions, and the spread of the appearance in British popular and literary works of such concepts as karma, reincarnation, and nirvana. This essay first provides a summary of the European encounter with Buddhism in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the field of comparative religion, which took Buddhism as a primary object. It then surveys Arnold’s exposure to Buddhism and to comparative religion, in particular his study of Eugene Burnouf’s Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism. Finally, I analyze, as no previous scholar has, Arnold’s incorporation of Buddhist and comparative religious elements into his own religious criticism, focusing on Literature and Dogma (1873), a book about how to read the Bible that surprisingly draws upon certain aspects of Buddhist thought while rejecting others. Though writing as a devoted Christian, Arnold gained the conviction to challenge the central Protestant tenet of salvation by faith, as well as the traditional reliance on revelation through miracles, in part from the ethical focus and historicism that he learned from Buddhism and, even more so, from the methodology of comparative religion.