Edward Conze was born Eberhart Julius Dietrich Conze (1904–1979). The British-born, German national was known as a scholar of Marxism and Buddhism. He emigrated to Britain in 1935 and lived there for most of the rest of his life.
Conze's parents, Dr Ernst Conze (1872–1935) and Adele Louise Charlotte Köttgen (1882–1962), were both from families were involved in the textile industry in the region of Langenberg, Germany. However, Ernst Conze had a doctorate in Law and served in the Foreign Office and later as a judge. Conze was born in London while his father was Vice Consul and thus entitled to British citizenship.
Conze was awarded a doctorate in philosophy from Cologne University in 1928 and did post-graduate work at several German universities. In 1932 he published Der Satz vom Widerspruch (The Principle of Contradiction) which he considered his master work. Because it was a work on the theory of dialectical materialism it attracted hostile attention from the Nazis. Conze associated with and helped to organise activities for Communists. The book was publicly burned and Conze forced to leave Germany for Britain.
In England, Conze taught German, philosophy, and psychology at evening classes, and later lectured on Buddhism and Prajñāpāramitā at various universities. However, the only permanent academic post he was offered had to be turned down because US immigration officials declined him a work permit on the basis of his past as a Communist.
A midlife crisis in 1941 saw him adopt Buddhism as his religion, having previously been influenced by Theosophy and astrology. He spent a brief period in the New Forest pursuing meditation and an ascetic lifestyle (during which he developed scurvy). At the end of this period he moved to Oxford where he began to work on Sanskrit texts from the Prajñāpāramitā tradition. He continued to work on these texts for the rest of his life.
Conze was married twice: to Dorothea Finkelstein and to Muriel Green. He had one daughter, with Dorothea.
In 1979 Conze self-published two volumes of memoirs entitled Memoires of a Modern Gnostic. Conze had planned and probably written a third volume which contained material his lawyer considered too inflammatory or libelous to publish while the subjects were alive. No copy of the third volume is known to exist. The Memoires are the principle biographical source for the life of Conze and reveal much about his personal life and attitudes. Conze was very much an early 20th Century German bourgeoisie. Despite having been a Communist, Conze saw himself as a member of the elite: “Speaking of ‘hoi polloi’, it has always been a cornerstone of my beliefs that there are two qualitatively distinct kinds of people... ‘the Noble ones’ and ‘the foolish common people’... the elite and the canaille”. (note that The word "canaille" literally means “a pack of dogs”). He also had something of a messiah complex “From early times onwards it has been my conviction that I have come from a higher realm... and that I was sent to the Western barbarians so as to soften their hearts by teaching them the Holy Prajñāpāramitā”. Unfortunately many of his views, while typical of are nowadays considered unsavoury.
“I did not want a wife at all, but a servant who would look after me while I was doing my scholarly work. If it had not been for the servant shortage which set in after 1918, I would never have had any motive to marry at all”.
“My further comments on the negrification [sic] of Notting Hill Gate manifestly contravene the Race Relations Act of June 1977. They are therefore removed to Part III”.
Conze was educated in several German Universities and showed a propensity for languages. He claimed that by twenty-four, he knew fourteen languages.
Following a mid-life crisis Conze turned to Buddhism and was particularly influenced by D. T. Suzuki. He made his name for his editions and translations of Sanskrit texts of the Buddhist Prajñāpāramitā literature. He published translations of all the principle texts of the genre, including the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8000 Line), Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (25,000 Line), Vajracchedikā, and Prajñāpāramitāhrdaya. All of these show the explicit influence of Suzuki's Theosophy infused Zen Buddhism.
Sometimes Conze's elist views are evident in his commentaries. For example with reference to the Heart Sutra he says “This Sutra is not meant for the stupid, the emotional, or the uninformed. Other means will assure their salvation. Everything that is at all worth knowing is contained in the [Heart Sutra]. But it can be found there only if spiritual insight is married to intellectual ability, and coupled with a delighting in the use of the intellect.”
A glance at a complete bibliography of Conze's oeuvre confirms that he was a man of industry and focus. His contribution to the field of Buddhism Studies, particularly of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, had a major influence on subsequent generations.
During his life time Conze was celebrated as a pioneering scholar of Buddhism and his books were widely read. However, over the years a more critical view has emerged.
Conze's translations have been identified as egregious examples of Buddhist Hybrid English by Paul Griffiths. Referring to a passage taken at random from Conze's translation of the Large Sutra, Griffiths says:
"This translation was originally published without notes or explanatory apparatus of any kind, and one cannot help but wonder if Dr. Conze ever thought about his audience. Non-Buddhologists, those who have no Sanskrit and no training in the intricacies of the prajñāpāramitā, cannot possibly make any sense of it whatever. Dr. Conze's translation bears only the most tenuous relationship to the English language in terms of syntax, and is full of unexplained technical terminology;"
In addition, Conze's editions of Sanskrit texts contain many mistakes. As he says of himself:
“I am constitutionally incapable of registering meaningless details correctly (that is the price of being an intuition type). Even when reading proofs I miss most of the misprints, because I automatically read, not what is there, but what ought to be there. In addition, both my interest and my training in grammar leave much to be desired…”.
For a complete bibliography of Conze's works see the website, Conze Memorial