|Arthur de Gobineau|
Portrait of Gobineau, by the Comtesse de la Tour, 1876
|Born||(1816-07-14)14 July 1816|
|Died||13 October 1882(1882-10-13) (aged 66)|
|Occupation||Novelist, diplomat, travel writer|
CountJoseph Arthur de Gobineau (14 July 1816 – 13 October 1882) was a Frencharistocrat who is best known today for helping to legitimise racism by use of scientific racist theory and "racial demography" and for his developing the theory of the Aryanmaster race. Known to his contemporaries as a novelist, diplomat and travel writer, Gobineau was an elitist who, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutions of 1848, wrote a 1400-page book, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, in which he claimed that aristocrats were superior to commoners and that they possessed more Aryan genetic traits because of less interbreeding with inferior races (Alpines and Mediterraneans).
Gobineau's writings were quickly praised by white supremacist, pro-slavery Americans like Josiah C. Nott and Henry Hotze, who translated his book into English but omitted around 1000 pages of the original book, including those parts that negatively described Americans as a racially mixed population. Gobineau's writings were also influential on prominent anti-Semites such as Richard Wagner, Wagner's son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the Romanian politician professor A. C. Cuza, and leaders of the Nazi Party, who later edited and re-published his work.
Life and theories
Gobineau came from an old well-established aristocratic family. His father, Louis (1784–1858), was a military officer and staunch royalist, and his mother, Anne-Louise Magdeleine de Gercy, was the daughter of a non-noble royal tax official. The de Gercy family had lived in the French Crown colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) for a time in the 18th century, and Gobineau was always obsessed with the fear he might have had black ancestry on his mother's side.
Reflecting his hatred of the French Revolution, Gobineau later wrote: "My birthday is July 14th, the date on which the Bastille was captured-which goes to prove how opposites may come together". As a boy and young man, Gobineau loved the Middle Ages, which he saw as a golden age of chivalry and knighthood that was much preferable to his own time. A person who knew Gobineau as a teenager described him as a romantic, "already an Amadis with chivalrous ideas and a heroic spirit, dreaming of what most noble and most grand".
Gobineau's father was very committed to restoring the House of Bourbon and helped the Polignac brothers escape from France. As punishment, Louis de Gobineau was imprisoned by Napoleon's secret police and was freed when the Allies took Paris in 1814. In the Hundred Days, the de Gobineau family fled France, and after Napoleon's final overthrow, following the Battle of Waterloo, Louis de Gobineau was rewarded for his loyalty to the House of Bourbon by being made a captain in the Royal Guard of King Louis XVIII. Despite expectations, the pay for a Royal Guardsman was very low, and the de Gobineau family struggled on his salary.
Magdeleine de Gobineau abandoned her husband for her children's tutor Charles de La Coindière and together with her lover took her son and two daughters on extended wanderings across eastern France, Switzerland and the Grand Duchy of Baden. To support herself, she turned to fraud (for which she was imprisoned), making his mother into a severe embarrassment to Gobineau, who never spoke to her after he turned twenty.
For the young Gobineau, committed to upholding traditional aristocratic and Catholic values, the disintegration of his parents' marriage, his mother's open relationship with her lover Coindière together with her turn to fraud, and the turmoil imposed by constantly being on the run and living in poverty were all very traumatic.
Gobineau spent the early part of his teenage years in the town of Inzligen where his mother and her lover were staying, during which time he became fluent in German. As a staunch supporter of the House of Bourbon, Louis de Gobineau was forced to retire from the Royal Guard after the July Revolution of 1830 brought to power King Louis-Philippe, Le roi citoyen ("the "Citizen King") who promised to reconcile the heritage of the French Revolution with the monarchy. Given his family's history of supporting the Bourbons, the young Gobineau regarded the July Revolution as a disaster for France. As a young man, Gobineau's views were those of a Legitimist committed to a Catholic France ruled over by the House of Bourbon. In 1831, de Gobineau's father took custody of his three children, and his son spent the rest of his adolescence in Lorient, in Brittany.
Gobineau disliked his father, whom he dismissed as a boring and pedantic Army officer incapable of stimulating thought. Lorient had been founded in 1675 as a base for the French East India Company as King Louis XIV had grand ambitions for making France into the dominant political and economic power in Asia. As those ambitions were not realized, de Gobineau developed a sense of faded glory as he grew up in a city that had been built to be the dominant hub for Europe's trade with Asia, a dream that had not been realized, as India became part of the British Empire rather than the French empire.
As a young man, Gobineau was fascinated with the Orient, as the Middle East was known in Europe in the 19th century (it was only with World War II that East Asia became the Orient and the term Middle East started to be used for the region). While studying at the Collège de Bironne in Switzerland, a fellow student recalled: "All of his aspirations were towards the East. He dreamt only of mosques and minarets; he called himself a Muslim, ready to make the pilgrimage to Mecca". Gobineau loved "Oriental" tales like those by the French writer Antoine Galland, often stated he wanted to become an Orientalist, and so read Arab, Turkish and Persian tales in translation, becoming what the French call "un orientaliste de pacotille (rubbish orientalist)". In 1835, Gobineau failed the entrance exams to the St. Cyr military school.
In September 1835, Gobineau left for Paris with just fifty francs in his pocket. with the aim of becoming a writer. He moved in with an uncle, Thibaut-Joseph de Gobineau, a Legitimist with an "unlimited" hatred of Louis-Philippe. Reflecting his tendency towards elitism, Gobineau founded a society of Legitimist intellectuals called Les Scelti ("the elect"), which included himself, the painter Guermann Bohn (German von Bohn) and the writer Maxime du Camp.
In the later years of the July Monarchy, Gobineau made his living writing serialized fiction (romans-feuilletons) and contributing to reactionary periodicals. Gobineau wrote for the Union Catholique, La Quotidienne, L'Unité, and Revue de Paris. At one point in the early 1840s, Gobineau was writing an article every day for La Quotidienne to support himself. As a writer and journalist, he struggled financially, and was forever looking for a wealthy patron willing to support him. As a part-time employee of the Post Office and a full-time writer, Gobineau was desperately poor, which, for someone who liked to imagine himself as an aristocrat living in luxury in a château in the countryside was very humiliating.
Gobineau's own family background made him a supporter of the House of Bourbon, but the nature of the Legitimist movement dominated by factious and inept leaders drove Gobineau to despair, leading him to write: "We are lost and had better resign ourselves to the fact". In a letter to his father, Gobineau complained of "…the laxity, the weakness, the foolishness and—in a word—the pure folly of my cherished party". Gobineau sent a copy of his poem Jean Chouan to Henri, comte de Chambord, the self-proclaimed "Henri V" as the Bourbon pretender to the throne styled himself, for which he was thanked by the comte as he wrote back expressing his gratitude for "your honorable sentiments, worthy of your father and your family, whose fidelity and devotion I know and appreciate".
Privately, Gobineau was worried that if the House of Bourbon should be restored, that Henri and his followers were all so stupid that it was inevitable that the Bourbons would be toppled by a revolution for a third time. At the same time, Gobineau regarded French society under the House of Orleans as corrupt and self-serving, dominated by the "oppressive feudalism of money" as opposed to the feudalism of "charity, courage, virtue and intelligence" held by the ancien-regime nobility. Gobineau wrote about July Monarchy France: "Money has become the principle of power and honour. Money dominates business; money regulates the population; money governs; money salves consciences; money is the criterion for judging the esteem due to men".
In this "age of national mediocrity" as Gobineau described it, with society going in a direction he disapproved of, the leaders of the cause to which he was committed being by his own admission foolish and incompetent and the would-be aristocrat struggling to make ends meet by writing hack journalism and novels, he became more and more pessimistic about the future. Gobineau wrote in a letter to his father: "How I despair of a society which is no longer anything, except in spirit, and which has no heart left". Gobineau complained that the Legitimists spent their time feuding with one another while the Catholic Church "is going over to the side of the revolution". Gobineau wrote:
"Our poor country lies in Roman decadence. Where there is no longer an aristocracy worthy of itself, a nation dies. Our Nobles are conceited fools and cowards. I no longer believe in anything nor have any views. From Louis-Philippe we shall proceed to the first trimmer who will take us up, but only in order to pass us on to another. For we are without fibre and moral energy. Money has killed everything (emphasis in the original)".
Breakthrough with the Kapodistrias article
In 1841, Gobineau scored his first major success when an article he submitted to Revue des deux Mondes was published on 15 April 1841. Gobineau's article was about the Greek statesman Count Ioannis Kapodistrias. At the time, La Revue des Deux Mondes was one of the most prestigious journals in Paris, and being published in La Revue des Deux Mondes put Gobineau in the same company as George Sand, Théophile Gautier, Philarète Chasles, Alphonse de Lamartine, Edgar Quinet and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve who were all regularly published in that journal. Gobineau's article had been secretly commissioned by Ioannis Kolettis, the Greek minister in Paris and a political enemy of Kapodistrias who was Gobineau's main source of information, which goes a long way towards explaining Gobineau's hostile picture of Kapodistrias.
Kolettis, a schemer known as "half lion, half fox", had started out as a doctor to the warlord Ali Pasha of Ioannina, had been a leader in the Greek war of independence and in the Hellenic kingdom had emerged as one of the leaders of the "French Party" in Greek politics before becoming the Greek minister in Paris. At the time, Kapodistrias was well regarded in France, and Gobineau's article, which was extremely derogatory towards him, caused in Sainte-Beuve's words "much anger" among French liberals.
Kapodistrias, a Corfiot nobleman who had become the Russian Foreign Minister and finally the first president of Greece, was well remembered in France for the pro-French policies he advocated at the Congress of Vienna, as a liberal influence at the court of the Emperor Alexander I, and for his work establishing Greek independence. For all these reasons many French liberals were upset at Gobineau's negative picture of Kapodistrias.
Gobineau hated Russia, and he portrayed Kapodistrias as a ruthless intriguer who was working to have Russia conquer all of the Balkans, portraying the Greek war of independence as a part of a Russian plot to weaken the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Gobineau argued that Kapodistrias, blinded by ambition, had attempted to use the cause of Greek independence to make himself master of the Balkans, becoming a tyrant who had been rightfully assassinated in 1831.
On international politics
Gobineau's writings on international politics were as generally pessimistic as his writings on France. Gobineau depicted Britain as a nation motivated entirely by hatred and greed and the domination of the British Empire around the globe as a source of regret. Gobineau often attacked King Louis-Phillipe for his pro-British foreign policy, writing that Louis-Phillipe had "humiliated" France by allowing the British empire to become the world's dominant power. However, reports of the impoverishment of Ireland were a source of satisfaction for Gobineau as he asserted: "It is Ireland which is pushing England into the abyss of revolution".
The growing power and aggressiveness of Russia, as Gobineau saw it, was a cause for concern for him as he regarded the disaster suffered by the British during the retreat from Kabul in the first war with Afghanistan in 1842 as sign that Russia would be the dominant power in Asia, writing: "England, an aging nation, is defending its livelihood and its existence. Russia, a youthful nation, is following its path towards the power that it must surely gain… The empire of the Tsars is today the power which seems to have the greatest future… The Russian people are marching steadfastly towards a goal that is indeed known but still not completely defined". Gobineau regarded Russia as an Asian power, and viewed what he saw as the inevitable coming triumph of Russia as a triumph of Asia over Europe.
Gobineau had mixed feelings about the German states, praising Prussia as a conservative society dominated by the Junkers while on the other hand worrying that increasing economic growth promoted by the Zollverein was making the Prussian middle class more powerful. Gobineau was critical of the Austrian Empire, writing the House of Habsburg ruled over such a mixed population of ethnic Germans, Magyars, Italians, Slavic peoples, etc. that it was inevitable that such a multi-ethnic society would go into decline while the "purely German" Prussia was destined to unify Germany. At the same time, Gobineau observed that millions of Germans were immigrating to the United States every year, which he described an attempt to escape from "… a homeland that is treacherously parcelled out and timidly oppressed" by a "bogus aristocracy" and the "cult of commerce", a place "devoid of patricians and full of courtesans".
Gobineau was likewise pessimistic about the Italian states, writing about Italy: "Shortly after the condottieri disappeared everything that had lived and flourished with them went too; wealth, gallantry, art and liberty, there remained nothing but a fertile land and an incomparable sky". About Spain, Gobineau denounced a nation which had rejected "a firm and natural authority, a power rooted in national liberty", predicating without order imposed by an absolute monarchy, Spain was destined to sink into a state of perpetual revolution. He was dismissive of Latin America, writing with references to the wars of independence: "The destruction of their agriculture, trade and finances, the inevitable consequence of long civil disorder, did not at all seem to them a price too high to pay for what they had in view. And yet who would want to claim that the half-barbarous inhabitants of Castile or the Algarve or the gauchos on the River Plate really deserve to sit as supreme legislators, in the places which they have contested against their masters with such pleasure and energy".
About the United States, Gobineau wrote: "The only greatness is that of wealth, and as everyone can acquire this, its ownership is independent of any of the qualities reserved to superior natures". Gobineau wrote the United States lacked an aristocracy with no sense of noblesse oblige as existed in Europe, the American poor suffered worse than the European poor, causing the United States to be a violent society, where greed and materialism were the only values that counted. Writing about the economic collapse caused by the Panic of 1837, Gobineau wrote: "There real estate gives only chimerical guarantees, thanks to the frantic land speculation. One recollects the position of the banks, and the depreciation of the paper money; and one must dwell on the difficulties of the local authorities, the incurable weakness of law enforcement, the impudence of those who are subject to its administration, and the impotence of the law to create respect for goods and persons". In an 1845 essay written as a public letter to an imaginary Bavarian farmer thinking of immigrating to the United States for a better life, Gobineau implored him not to go, predicating that he would impoverished, robbed and exploited in America, and advised him to stay put in Bavaria, an orderly Catholic society ruled by the House of Wittelsbach. Gobineau was in general hostile towards people in the Americas, writing that who in the Old World does not know "that the New World knows nothing of kings, princes and nobles?-that on those semi-virgin lands, in human societies born yesterday and scarcely yet consolidated, no one has the right or the power to call himself any greater than the very least of its citizens?"
Gobineau struck up a friendship and had voluminous correspondence with Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville praised Gobineau in a letter: "You have wide knowledge, much intelligence, and the best of manners". The latter man gave Gobineau an appointment in the Quai d'Orsay (the French foreign ministry) while serving as foreign minister during the Second Republic of France.
Reflecting his lifelong interest in the Orient, in 1852, Gobineau joined the Société Asiatique, and got to know several French Orientalists like Julius von Mohl very well. In 1846, Gobineau married Clémence Gabrielle Monnerot, who had pressed for a hasty marriage as she was pregnant by their mutual friend Hercule de Serre who had abandoned her and as a good Catholic she did not wish to give birth to an illegitimate child. Monnerot had been born in Martinique, and Gobineau was never quite entirely certain if his wife, and hence his two daughters had black ancestors or not, as it was a common practice for French slave masters in the Caribbean to take a slave mistress. Gobineau's opposition to slavery, which he held always resulted in harmful miscegenation to whites, stemmed from his own personal anxieties about the possibility that his mother or his wife might have had African ancestry.
The embittered royalist
Gobineau's novels and poems of the 1830s–40s were usually set in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance with aristocratic heroes who by their very existence uphold all of the values worth celebrating such as honor and creativity against a corrupt, soulless middle class. Gobineau's 1847 novel Ternove was the first time that Gobineau linked class with race, writing "Monsieur de Marvejols would think of himself, and of all members of the nobility, as of a race apart, of a superior essence, and he believed it criminal to sully this by mixture with plebeian blood".
The novel, set against the backdrop of the Hundred Days of 1815, concerns the disastrous results when the aristocrat Octave de Ternove unwisely marries the daughter of a miller. Gobineau was horrified by the Revolution of 1848 and disgusted by what he saw as the supine reaction of the European upper classes to the revolutionary challenge, writing in the spring of 1848 about the news from Germany: "Things are going pretty badly… I do not mean the dismissal of the princes—that was deserved. Their cowardice and lack of political faith make them scarcely interesting. But the peasants, there they are nearly barbarous. There is pillage, and burning, and massacre—and we are only at the beginning".
As a Legitimist, Gobineau disliked the House of Bonaparte, and was displeased when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president of the republic in 1848. However, Gobineau came to support Bonaparte as the best man to preserve order, and in 1849, when Tocqueville became Foreign Minister, his friend Gobineau became his chef de cabinet. Despite his frequent denunciations of the 19th century as an era of greed with no principles, Gobineau decided it was better to have a lucrative career in the Quai d'Orsay under Bonaparte than it was to hold fast to his Legitimist principles by writing for reactionary newspapers that paid poorly. Gobineau served as a successful diplomat for the Second French Empire. Initially he was posted to Persia, before working in Brazil and other countries.
In his own lifetime, Gobineau was known as a novelist, as a poet and for the travel writing recounting his adventures in Iran and Brazil rather than for the racial theories for which he is now mostly remembered. However, Gobineau always regarded his book Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines as his masterpiece and wanted to be remembered as the author of that work. A firm reactionary who believed in the innate superiority of aristocrats over commoners—whom he held in utter contempt—Gobineau came to embrace scientific racism as a way of justifying aristocratic rule over racially inferior commoners.
Under the shock of the Revolution of 1848, Gobineau had first expressed his racial theories in his 1848 epic poem Manfredine where he revealed his fear that the revolution of 1848 was the beginning of the end of aristocratic Europe, with the common folk descended from lesser breeds taking over.Manfredine, which is set at the time of the revolt in Naples against Spanish rule in 1647 (an allegory for 1848), concerns the eponymous character, a noblewoman on whom Gobineau spends a good five hundred lines tracing her descent from Viking ancestors. The poem features the lines:
"Et les Germains, montrant leur chevelure blonde, Que portaient leurs aïeux, dans tous les coins du monde, Paraissent pour régner. Neptune et son trident, Servent l'Anglo-Saxon, leur dernier descendant, Et les déserts peuplés de la jeune Amérique, Connaissenet le pouvior de ce peuple héroïque, Mais Romains, Allemands, Gaulois… Pour en finir, Ce qui n'est pas Germain est créé pour servir"
("And the Germans, displaying the blond hair of their ancestors, emerged to rule in every corner of the world. Neptune and his trident serve the Anglo-Saxon, their last descendant, and the peopled deserts of young America know the strength of this heroic people. But as to the Romans, Alemanni, Gauls… to put it briefly, those who are not German are created to serve".)
Theory on French aristocrats
Reflecting his disdain for ordinary people, Gobineau claimed that French aristocrats like himself were the descendants of the Germanic Franks who conquered the Roman province of Gaul in the 5th century AD while common French people were the descendants of racially inferior Celtic and Latin peoples. This was an old theory first promoted in a tract by Count Henri de Boulainvilliers who had argued that the Second Estate (the aristocracy) was of "Frankish" blood and the Third Estate (the commoners) were of "Gaulish" blood. The Canadian theologian, Reverend Alan T. Davies wrote that in the Ancien Régime France was characterized by extremely rigid social distinctions and that, unlike Britain with its "open aristocracy", the French nobility had evolved into a "caste". Again unlike Britain, where there was a certain sense of Britishness linking the different levels of society, the French Second Estate had literally come to view the Third Estate as biologically different from and inferior to themselves. As someone born after the French Revolution had destroyed the idealized Ancien Régime of his imagination, Gobineau felt a deep sense of pessimism regarding the future. Davies described Gobineau as someone who was extremely "alienated" from the society and age he was living in, and wrote that Gobineau's frequent prophecies about the coming destruction of European civilization, as there was not enough Aryan blood left to sustain Europe, reflected the fact that Gobineau, who was unable to embrace his age, instead wished for its destruction.
For Gobineau, the French Revolution having destroyed the racial basis of French greatness by overthrowing and in many cases killing the aristocracy was the beginning of a long, irresistible progress of decline and degeneration which could only end with the utter collapse of European civilization. For Gobineau, what the French Revolution had begun, the Industrial Revolution was finishing and, for him, industrialization and urbanization were a complete disaster for Europe. Gobineau was no socialist, but he had an intense hatred of capitalism, which allowed for poor men to rise up and become rich by their own talents and skills, something that was an affront to everything that Gobineau believed in. Davies wrote about Gobineau:
Having identified his own fortunes with a caste that had been overthrown in 1789, he detested an age that had turned against his aristocratic (racial) linage and values. In his estrangement, he consoled himself with sad reflections on the impending death of civilization, although there is sufficient narcissism in his pages to suggest that his own death was also the object—perhaps the true object—of his contemplation… To the jaded man-of-letters, the would-be aristocrat, these "deep stagnant waters" over which the fragile structure of civilization was suspended were steadily rising, and France—and Europe—would soon be submerged.
Like many other European romantic conservatives, Gobineau looked back nostalgically at an idealized version of the Middle Ages as an idyllic agrarian society living harmoniously in a rigid social order. Gobineau loathed modern Paris, a city he called a "giant cesspool" full of les déracinés; the criminal, impoverished, drifting men with no real home; whom Gobineau considered to be the monstrous products of centuries of miscegenation, who were always ready to explode in revolutionary violence at any moment. Gobineau was an ardent opponent of democracy, which he claimed was mere "mobocracy"—a system that allowed the utterly stupid mob the final say on running the state. Gobineau's daughter noted her father was socially isolated in Paris, writing: "Our family were not numerous. We were, in short, déracinés. Had the Gobineaus, Joseph and Louis, gone back to Bordeaux after the Revolution, they doubtless would have rediscovered all those cousins and so forth who had issued in the course of many centuries. But in Paris they were isolated, save for some families of distant cousins". For someone who believed that the family was the basic unit holding society together, Gobineau believed French society was breaking down as too many young men without families were pouring into Paris to seek a better life, though he failed to note this description also applied to himself.
Swiss and German interludes
From November 1849 to January 1854 Gobineau was stationed at the French legation in Bern as the First Secretary. It was during his time in Switzerland that Gobineau wrote the majority of the Essai. Gobineau hated Swiss democracy, writing: "I am tempted to regard this country as the prototype, as the very ideal of democracy, if you like, but even more still of self-government". About Swiss politicians, Gobineau complained of "the intrigues… of these big, fine and quite stupid democrats, who are very tame when they need your help and very violent when they do not". Gobineau believed that Switzerland was destined for a violent revolution as "The profound apathy of the Swiss regarding everything, except issues of profit and its conservation, surrenders them to a very small number of daring radicals".
More happily for Gobineau, he was stationed in Hanover in the fall of 1851 as acting Chargé d'Affaires, in which he was impressed with the "traces of real nobility" he stated he saw at the Hanoverian court. Gobineau especially liked the blind King George V whom he saw as a "philosopher-king" and it was to George that the Essais were dedicated. Gobineau praised the "remarkable character" of Hanoverian men and likewise commended Hanoverian society as having "an instinctive preference for hierarchy" with the commoners always deferring to the nobility, which he explained on racial grounds.
Much to his displeasure, Gobineau was sent back to Switzerland, which he continued to disparage in his dispatches to Paris at every chance. In 1853, Gobineau wrote about Switzerland that here existed "only suffering agriculture and mediocre industry, where governments without power or prestige, have no means of containing the passions of the masses, from whatever source the agitations may spring...It is quite evident that such a country is ruled by the poor, and there the poor will welcome with alacrity all the theories that appear to promise them relief in the present or the future".
In January 1854, Gobineau was sent as First Secretary to the French legation at the Free City of Frankfurt. About the Federal Diet that sat in Frankfurt, Gobineau wrote: "The Diet is a business office for the German bureaucracy—it is very far from being a real political body". Gobineau wrote that the interests of the smaller German states like Bavaria and Hanover counted for nothing at the Diet and everything was decided by Prussia and Austria. Gobineau hated the Prussian representative at the Diet, Prince Otto von Bismarck because of Bismarck's advances towards Madame Gobineau. By contrast, the Austrian representative at the Diet, General Anton von Prokesch-Osten became one of Gobineau's best friends. Prokesch-Osten was a reactionary Austrian soldier and diplomat who hated democracy and saw himself as a historian and orientalist, and for all these reasons Gobineau bonded with him. It was during these periods that Gobineau began to write less and less to his old liberal friend Tocqueville and more and more to his new conservative friend Prokesch-Osten.
Gobineau's racial theories
Gobineau came to believe that race created culture, arguing that distinctions among the three races—"black", "white", and "yellow"—were natural barriers, and that "race-mixing" breaks those barriers and leads to chaos. Of the three races, Gobineau argued that blacks were physically very strong, but incapable of intelligent thought. Regarding the "yellows" as Gobineau called Asians, he claimed that they were physically and intellectually mediocre, but had an extremely strong materialism that allowed them to achieve certain results. Finally, Gobineau wrote that whites were the best and greatest of the three races as whites and whites alone were the only ones capable of intelligent thought, were physically the most beautiful and were the only ones capable of creating beauty. Gobineau wrote that "The white race originally possessed the monopoly of beauty, intelligence and strength" and that whatever of the positive qualities the Asians and blacks possessed was due to subsequent miscegenation.
Within the white race, there was a further subdivision between the Aryans, who were the epitome of all that was great about the white race, and non-Aryans. Gobineau took the term Aryan ("light one" or "noble one") from Hindu legend and mythology which describes how the Indian subcontinent was conquered at some time in the distant past by the Aryans. This is generally believed to have reflected folk memories of the arrival of the Indo-European peoples into the Indian subcontinent. In the 19th century, there had been much public interest in the discovery by Orientalists like William Jones of the Indo-European family of languages, and that apparently unrelated languages such as English, Irish, Albanian, Italian, Greek, Russian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Kurdish, Farsi and so forth were all part of the same family of languages spoken across a wide swath of Eurasia from Ireland to India. The ancient Hindu scriptures with their tales of Aryan heroes were of major interest to scholars attempting to trace the origins of the Indo-European peoples. Gobineau equated language with race, and mistakenly believed that the Indo-European peoples were a racial group rather than a linguistic group.
Gobineau wrote in the Essai: "Languages, being unequal among themselves, are completely linked to the relative merit of race". As such, Gobineau argued on the basis of the Hindu scriptures, which stated that the highest castes are the descendants of the Aryans, that the Hindu caste system reflected an admirable determination of the Aryans to attempt to preserve their superior blood from being intermixed with the racially inferior, conquered peoples. Gobineau wrote that it was the conversion of much of the Indian subcontinent to Buddhism, with its message of universal salvation before the Hindu revival recaptured the subcontinent for Hinduism that led to the higher Hindu castes having their blood "soiled" via sex with racial inferiors. Gobineau regarded Buddhism, together with Islam, as religions of decay, and argued that any society that embraced Islam or Buddhism was clearly in a state of decline.
Gobineau believed that the white race had originated somewhere in Siberia, the Asians in the Americas and the blacks in Africa. Gobineau thought that the numerical superiority of the Asians had forced the whites into making a vast migration that led them into Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent and that both the Bible and Hindu legends about the conquering Aryan heroes reflected folk memories of this migration. In turn, the whites had broken into three sub-races, namely the Hamitic, Semitic and Japhetic peoples—the latter were the Aryans of Hindu legend and were the best and greatest of all the whites.
Gobineau claimed that the Aryans had founded all ten of the great civilizations of the world, writing "In the ten civilizations no Negro race is seen an initiator. Only when it is mixed with some other can it even be initiated into a civilization. Similarly, no spontaneous civilization is be found among the yellow races; and when the Aryan blood is exhausted stagnation supervenes". Gobineau, mindful of his own supposed noble and Frankish, descent classified the Germanic peoples as being the Aryans in Europe.
The Aryans had also moved into India and Persia. Gobineau used medieval Persian epic poetry, which he treated as completely historically accurate accounts, together with the beauty of Persian women (whom Gobineau saw as the most beautiful in the world) to argue that Persians were once great Aryans, but unfortunately the Persians had interbred with the Semitic Arabs too much for their own good. At the same time, Gobineau argued that in Southeast Asia the blacks and Asians had intermixed to create the sub-race of the Malays. He classified Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa as racially mixed.
Despite his pride in being French, Gobineau often attacked many aspects of French life under the Third Republic as reflecting "democratic degeneration"—namely the chaos that he believed resulted when the mindless masses were allowed political power—which meant that critical reception of Gobineau in France was very mixed. Gobineau's contempt for ordinary people emerges from his letters, where his preferred term for common folk was la boue ("the mud").
Gobineau questioned the belief that the black and yellow races belong to the same human family as the white race and share a common ancestor. Trained neither as a theologian nor a naturalist, and writing before the popular spread of evolutionary theory, Gobineau took the Bible to be a true telling of human history. In his An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, he ultimately accepts the prevailing Christian doctrine that all human beings shared the common ancestors Adam and Eve (monogenism as opposed to polygenism). But, he suggested that "nothing proves that at the first redaction of the Adamite genealogies the colored races were considered as forming part of the species"; and "We may conclude that the power of producing fertile offspring is among the marks of a distinct species. As nothing leads us to believe that the human race is outside this rule, there is no answer to this argument."
Gobineau believed that the white race was superior to the other races in the creation of civilized culture and maintenance of ordered government. The American historian Geoffrey Field summarized Gobineau's work as:
Written after the Revolutions of 1848–49, the Essai was a post-mortem of the old aristocratic order in Europe, characterized by reverence for hierarchy, social status and family lineage… Superior in beauty, intellect and creative vigor, the white race (and especially its illustrious Aryan branch) was the bearer of culture and civilization, responsible for the triumphs of the past. But the process of civilization inevitably involved miscegenation with inferior breeds, leading to a slow debilitation of the noble race over centuries. For Gobineau, history revealed the tragic "fall" of man from a presumed racial purity into a degenerate condition of racial corruption and mongrelization. Pockets of Aryan blood remained, especially among the nobility, but decline was inevitable and irreversible.
Contemporary society, argued Gobineau, offered abundant proof of his conclusions. Revolutionary convulsions, false egalitarian and democratic ideals, the selfish materialism of the bourgeoisie, and the phlegmatic response of the nobility to these challenges were inescapable symptoms of depravity. France was exhausted, Britain was being slowly corrupted by liberalism, while, as Michael Biddiss has shown, Gobineau was by no means sympathetic towards Prussia. If anything, in his last years he viewed the process of decay as accelerating: in a cold, objectivist and ironical tone he depicted a global crisis and a vision of racial doom.
Gobineau thought that the development of civilization in other periods was different from his own, and speculated that other races might have superior qualities in those civilizations. But, he believed European civilization represented the best of what remained of ancient civilizations and held the most superior attributes capable for continued survival. Gobineau stated he was writing about races, not individuals: examples of talented black or Asian individuals did not disprove his thesis about the supposed inferiority of the black and Asian races. Gobineau wrote:
I will not wait for the friends of equality to show me such and such passages in books written by missionaries or sea captains, who declare some Wolof is a fine carpenter, some Hottentot a good servant, that a Kaffir dances and plays the violin, that some Bambara knows arithmetic… Let us leave aside these puerilities and compare together not men, but groups.
Gobineau argued that race was destiny, declaring rhetorically:
"So the brain of a Huron Indian contains in undeveloped form an intellect which is absolutely that same as an Englishman or a Frenchman! Why then, in the course of the ages has he not then invented printing or steam power?
Gobineau went on to write: "Nowhere is the soil more fertile, the climate more mild than in certain parts of America. There is an abundance of great rivers, the gulfs, the bays, the harbors are large, deep, magnificent and innumerable. Precious metals can be dug out almost at the surface of the ground." Gobineau argued the failure as he saw it of the American Indians of North America to create a civilization comparable to that of Europe proved his thesis of white supremacy as he maintained that the climate and geography of North America was better than Europe, yet no great cities, art, or inventions ever emerged from the Indians.
Gobineau's primary thesis was that European civilization flowed from Greece to Rome, and then to Germanic and contemporary civilization. He thought this corresponded to the ancient Indo-European culture, which earlier anthropologists had misconceived as "Aryan"—a term that only Indo-Iranians are known to have used in ancient times. This included groups classified by language, for example the Celts, Slavs and the Germans.
Gobineau later came to use and reserve the term Aryan only for the "German race" and described the Aryans as 'la race germanique'. By doing so, he presented a racist theory in which Aryans—that is Germans—were all that was positive.
After reading the Essai, de Tocqueville had told Gobineau that: "Alone in Europe, the Germans possess the talent for getting impassioned about what they see as abstract truth, without any regard for the practical consequences—and it is they who could provide you with a really favorable audience whose opinions would sooner or later have repercussions in France". Tocqueville further asked Gobineau:
"What advantage can there be in persuading base peoples living in barbarism, indolence or slavery that, such being their racial nature, they can do nothing to improve their situation or change their habits or government? Do you not see inherent in your doctrine all the evils engendered by permanent inequality—pride, violence, scorn of fellow men, tyranny and abjection in all their forms?"
Gobineau described the Aryans as physically extremely beautiful and very tall; of immense intelligence and strength, and endowed with incredible energy, great creativity in the arts and a love of war. Like many other racists, Gobineau believed that one's looks determined what one did, or in other words, beautiful people created beautiful art while ugly people created ugly art. Gobineau's theory had a major influence on National Socialist aesthetes. In 1970, the American historian Gerhard Weinberg summarized the Nazi view of the relationship between race and art as: "The cultural accomplishments of civilizations are the product of their racial composition—the great artists of Renaissance times were all Nordics whose works reflect their own appearance, while the monstrosities of modern art only mirror the appearances of their creators. Botticelli must have been as slim as his famous Venus, Rubens must have been as corpulent as the figures he painted and Picasso presumably has three eyes. Anyone who considers this summary as unfair is urged to examine Paul Schultze-Naumburg's Kunst und Rasse (Munich: Lehmann, 1928, 1935) , since the illustrations convey its message to anyone who does not read German".
The British Sinologist Arnold Rowbotham wrote that for Gobineau the superiority of the Aryan was a totally "amoral superiority", as for Gobineau's Aryan heroes, "might was right". Gobineau wrote that Aryans in their original, pure state did whatever they liked because they were superior to anyone else and had no external morality. Rowbotham wrote about Gobineau's Aryan theories that: "Stripped of its racial mysticism it makes force a virtue and even a necessity. Carried to its logical conclusion, it would mean a return to barbarism, for Gobineau at least implies that all the arts of civilization are non-Aryan or, at least the result of race-mixing."
Gobineau originally wrote that, given the past trajectory of civilization in Europe, white race miscegenation was inevitable and would result in growing chaos. Despite his claims that whites were the most beautiful of his races, Gobineau believed that Asian and black women had immense powers of sexual attraction over white men, and that whenever whites were in close proximity to blacks and Asians, the result was always miscegenation as white men were seduced by Asian and black women, to the detriment of the whites. Through not expressly obsessed with antisemitism, Gobineau saw the Jews as praiseworthy for their ability to avoid miscegenation while at the same time depicting the Jews as another alien force for the decay of Aryan Europe.
Gobineau attributed much of the economic turmoil in France to pollution of races. Gobineau ended the Essai with the predication that the "Asian" Russian Empire would soon be the dominant power in Europe, which would superseded by China, once that state was modernized, and the Chinese would then conquer Europe. Gobineau warned Tocqueville against "the great desire to open up China" as the French should "examine more carefully the consequences of such camaraderie".
The Essai attracted mostly negative reviews from French critics, which Gobineau used as a proof of the correctness of his racial theories, writing "… the French, who are always ready to set anything afire—materially speaking—and who respect nothing, either in religion or politics, have always been the world's greatest cowards in matters of science". Later in his life, with the spread of British and American civilization and the growth of Germany, he altered his opinion to believe that the white race could be saved. The German-born American historian George Mosse argued that Gobineau projected all of his fears and hatreds about the French middle class and working class onto the Asians and the blacks.
Summarizing Mosse's argument, Davies argued that: "The self-serving, materialistic oriental of the Essai was really an anti-capitalist's portrait of the money-grubbing French middle class..." while "the sensual, unintelligent and violent negro" that Gobineau portrayed in the Essai was an aristocratic caricature of the French poor. In his writings on the French peasantry, Gobineau characteristically insisted in numerous anecdotes that he claimed were based on personal experience that French farmers were coarse, crude people incapable of learning, indeed of any sort of thinking beyond the most rudimentary level of thought, and as the American critic Michelle Wright wrote, "the peasant may inhabit the land, but they are certainly not part of it…". Wright further noted the very marked similarity between Gobineau's picture of the French peasantry and his view of blacks.
Gobineau and war
Despite having failed the entrance exams to St. Cyr, Gobineau had an intensely militaristic view of the world, believing that different races were born to hate each other and humans have an innate desire to kill one another. Gobineau wrote war was a natural part of the human condition and for a nation: "It will either conquer or be conquered". Gobineau dismissed pacifism, writing: "Even if the friends of universal peace succeeded in making Europe disgusted with war, they would still have to bring about a permanent change in the passions of mankind" and that peace was only possible "if all races were actually gifted, in the same degree, with the same powers". Despite being a diplomat whose nominal job was achieve French policy goals without resort to war and despite his personal distaste for the House of Bonaparte, Gobineau very much welcomed the militarism of Napoleon III as bringing greatness back to France. In 1854, Gobineau approved of the Crimean War, writing that France would gain much prestige by declaring war on Russia, a nation that Gobineau had always hated. In a letter to his sister Caroline in October 1854, Gobineau wrote: "After twenty years of a peace that has promoted only corruption and revolution, we find ourselves in a military atmosphere which, from its very beginning, has encouraged many fine things… I consider war, despite its evils, as a blessing".
Persia: Gobineau's spiritual home
In 1855, Gobineau left Paris to become the first secretary at the French legation in Tehran, Persia (modern Iran), being promoted to chargé d'affaires the next year. Gobineau served as a French diplomat in the Free City of Frankfurt, the Kingdom of Hanover, the Swiss Confederation, the British Crown colony of Newfoundland and the Empire of Brazil, all of which he hated, and Persia together with Greece were the only places that Gobineau was stationed in that he ever had an affection for. The histories of Persia and Greece had played prominent roles in the Essai and Gobineau wanted to see both places for himself. Gobineau's mission was to keep Persia out of the Russian sphere of influence, but he cynically wrote: "If the Persians… unite with the western powers, they will march against the Russians in the morning, be defeated by them at noon and become their allies by evening". Gobineau's time was not taxed by his diplomatic duties, and he spent much time studying ancient cuneiform texts and learning Farsi, coming to speak a "kitchen Persian" that allowed him to talk to the Persians somewhat (Gobineau was never fluent in Farsi as he claimed to be). Despite having some love for the Persians, Gobineau was shocked that the Persians lacked his racial prejudices and were willing to accept blacks as equals, and criticized Persian society for being too "democratic". The British Orientalist Robert Irwin commented that "Only Gobineau could have classified Qajar Iran in the 1850s as too democratic" as Qajar Persia was an absolute monarchy with the Shah Naser al-Din having no limits on his powers whatever.
Gobineau was dismissive of Persia's prospects, writing the Persians are "rascals who are near enough are our cousins...This is what we shall become tomorrow...Nothing great, nothing tragic has happened here since the time of Herodotus". Gobineau wrote that the Persians had little sense of national interest and distrusted all governments, for instance trying to break the Shah's laws as much as they could get away with, leading to an anarchic individualism as everyone engaged in a free-for-all to advance their own interests, leading Gobineau to write: "They are an intelligent people, able to comprehend their own interests in the narrowest sense of the term, but they are also incurably decadent". Gobineau appreciated Persian manners, writing: "The Asiatic rabble has immense advantages over its European counterpart. However base it may be, it is never vulgar". Gobineau complained the Shah Naser al-Din was openly corrupt, selling off government offices to the highest bidder and the Peacock Throne did not care if the bidder was an aristocrat or not. However, Gobineau appreciated the appeal of Shia Islam as a factor holding Persia together: "This whole country… is full of the idea of God. Decrepitude, old age, extreme corruption, in short, death is present everywhere in institutions, customs and character; but this constant absorbing preoccupation with what is holy singularly ennobles all this ruin".
Gobineau saw Persia as a land without a future that was destined to be conquered by the West sooner or later, which for him was a tragedy for the West as he believed that Western men would all too easily be seduced by the beautiful Persian women, thus causing more miscegenation to further "corrupt" the West. However, Gobineau was obsessed with ancient Persia, seeing in Achaemenid Persia a great and glorious Aryan civilization, now sadly gone, that was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life. Gobineau loved to visit the ruins of Achaemenid period as his mind was fundamentally backward looking, preferring to contemplate past glories rather what he saw as a dismal present and even bleaker future. Gobineau's time in Persia inspired two books, Mémoire sur l'etat social de la Perse actuelle (1858) and Trois ans en Asie (1859). Through Gobineau was less than complimentary about modern Persia, writing to Prokesch-Osten that there was no "Persian race" as modern Persians were "a breed mixed from God knows what!", but he loved ancient Persia as the great Aryan civilization par excellence, noting that Iran means "the land of the Aryans" in Farsi. Gobineau was less Euro-centric than one might expect in his writings on Persia, believing that the origins of European civilization could be traced to Persia and criticized western scholars for their "collective vanity" in being unable to admit to the West's "huge" debt to Persia.
Nott and Hotze
In 1856, the Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines was translated into English. The translators were two American "race scientists", Josiah C. Nott and Henry Hotze, both ardent white supremacists (Nott also described his work as "niggerogy") and champions of slavery who found in Gobineau's anti-black writings a convenient justification for the "peculiar institution". Nott and Hotz found much to approve of in the Essai such as passages like the following where Gobineau wrote: "The Negro is the most humble and lags at the bottom of the scale. The animal character imprinted upon his brow marks his destiny from the moment of his conception". Much to Gobineau's intense annoyance, Nott and Hotze abridged the first volume of the Essai from 1,600 pages in the French original down to a mere 400 in English. At least part of why Hotze and Nott cut out so much was because of Gobineau's hostile picture of Americans. About white American people, Gobineau declared in the Essai:
They are a very mixed assortment of the most degenerate races in olden-day Europe. They are the human flotsam of all ages.: Irish, crossbreed Germans and French and Italians of even more doubtful stock. The intermixture of all these decadent ethnic varieties will inevitably give birth to further ethnic chaos. This chaos is no way unexpected or new: it will produce no further ethnic mixture which has not already been, or cannot be realized on our own continent. Absolutely nothing productive will result from it, and even when ethnic combinations resulting from infinite unions between Germans, Irish, Italians, French and Anglo-Saxons join us in the south with racial elements composed of Indian, Negro, Spanish and Portuguese essence, it is quite unimaginable that anything could result from such horrible confusions, but an incoherent juxtapositions of the most decadent kinds of people.
Passages like the above which were highly critical of white Americans were removed by Nott and Hotze from The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races, as the Essai was titled in English; they retained only the parts relating to the alleged inherent inferiority of blacks. Likewise, Nott and Hotze used Gobineau as a way of attempting to establish that white America was in fact in mortal peril as despite the fact that the vast majority of American blacks were slaves in 1856, as the two "race scientists" argued on the basis of the Essai that blacks were essentially a type of vicious animal rather human beings who would always pose a danger to whites. The passages of the Essai where Gobineau declared that, though of low intelligence, blacks had certain artistic talents and that a few "exceptional" African tribal chiefs probably had a higher IQ than that of the stupidest whites were not included in the American edition, as Nott and Hotze wanted nothing that might even in the slightest give blacks admirable human qualities. Beyond that, Nott and Hotz claimed that nation and race were one and the same, and that to be American was to be white. As such, the American translators argued in their introduction that just as various European nations were torn apart by nationality conflicts caused by different "races" living together, likewise ending slavery and granting American citizenship to blacks would cause the same sort of conflicts, but only on a much vaster scale in the United States.
A voyage to Newfoundland
In 1859, an Anglo-French dispute over the French fishing rights on the French Shore of Newfoundland led to an Anglo-French commission being sent to Newfoundland to find a resolution to the dispute. Gobineau was one of the two French commissioners dispatched to Newfoundland, an experience that he later recorded in his 1861 book Voyage à Terre-Neuve (Voyage to Newfoundland). In 1858, the Foreign Minister Count Alexandre Colonna-Walewski tried to send Gobineau to the French legation in Beijing, but Gobineau objected that as a "civilized European", he had no wish to go to an Asian country like China. As punishment, Walewski sent Gobineau to Newfoundland, telling him he would be fired from the Quai d'Orsay if he refused the Newfoundland assignment.
Joseph-Arthur, Count de Gobineau (1816-1882), was a French aristocratic novelist, diplomat, and theorist whose ideas greatly influenced the development of racist thought in Europe and the United States. He rejected Enlightenment explanations for human diversity, including the impact of geography and cultural or political institutions, instead insisting on permanent and unequal racial characteristics passed down since the earliest days of humankind. He argued that human history was defined by the rise of pure races with superior characteristics who, through a process of mixing with inferior races, gradually lost their vitality and collapsed, leaving the stage clear for purer races to rise. In particular Gobineau championed Germanic “Aryans,” a concept borrowed from the study of ancient languages and then applied to an imagined, superior race with traces running throughout the white races.
He articulated these ideas in his lengthy Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853), which did not attract much attention until he became friends with the composer Richard Wagner and his daughter Cosima in the 1870s. They publicized his ideas within nationalist circles, forming an important link later to the Nazis, who appropriated much of Gobineau’s theory to suit their interests. A 1915 translation into English, excerpted here, really introduced Gobineau’s ideas to English-speaking nationalists and eugenicists. However, these later appropriations should not obscure the central focus of Gobineau’s work. Although German antisemites focused on Jews as the enemy of the Aryan race and American racists focused on the dangers of black-white miscegenation, Gobineau had some positive, if also stereotypical, things to say about Jews and blacks and their contributions to civilization, even as he firmly maintained the superiority of whites overall. Gobineau was far more worried about the threat posed to Aryans by other, inferior white peoples, Slavs and Celts in particular, whose traces could be seen among the lower classes. His frame of reference was the 1848 revolution and the threat posed by democracy, which had given him a glimpse of the collapse of European civilization.
In this excerpt, Gobineau defines “degeneracy” and establishes a basic narrative of how a conquering race loses vitality.
Here especially I must be concrete. I have just taken the example of a people in embryo, whose state is like that of a single family. I have given them the qualities which will allow them to pass into the state of a nation. Well, suppose they have become a nation. History does not tell me what the elements were that constituted the original group; all I know is that these elements fitted it for the transformation which I have made it undergo. Now that it has grown, it has only two possibilities. One or other of two destinies is inevitable. It will either conquer or be conquered.
I will give it the better part, and assume that it will conquer. It will at the same time rule, administer, and civilize. It will not go through its provinces, sowing a useless harvest of fire and massacre. Monuments, customs, and institutions will be alike sacred. It will change what it can usefully modify, and replace it by something better. Weakness in its hands will become strength. It will behave in such a way that, in the words of Scripture, it will be magnified in the sight of men.
I do not know if the same thought has already struck the reader; but in the picture which I am presenting -and which in certain features is that of the Hindus, the Egyptians, the Persians and the Macedonians – two facts appear to me to stand out. The first is that a nation, which itself lacks vigour and power, is suddenly called upon to share a new and better destiny – that of the strong masters into whose hands it has fallen; this was the case with the Anglo-Saxons, when they had been subdued by the Normans. The second fact is that a picked race of men, a sovereign people, with the usual strong propensities of such a people to cross its blood with another’s, find itself henceforth in close contact with a race whose inferiority is shown, not only by defeat, but also by the lack of the attributes that may be seen in the conquerors. From the very day when the conquest is accomplished and the fusion begins, there appears a noticeable change of quality in the blood of the masters. If there were no other modifying influence at work, then – at the end of a number of years, which would vary according to the number of peoples that composed the original stock – we should be confronted with a new race, less powerful certainly than the better of its two ancestors, but still of considerable strength. It would have developed special qualities resulting from the actual mixture, and unknown to the communities from which it sprang. But the case is not generally so simple as this, and the intermingling of blood is not confined for long to the two constituent peoples;
The empire I have just been imagining is a powerful one and its power is used to control its neighbors. I assume that there will be new conquests; and, every time, a current of fresh blood will be mingled with the main stream. Henceforth, as the nation grows, whether by war or treaty, its racial character changes more and more. It is rich, commercial, and civilized. The needs and the pleasures of other peoples find ample satisfaction in its capitals, tis great towns, and its ports; while its myriad attractions cause many foreigners to make it their home. After a short time, we might truly say that a distinction of castes takes the place of the original distinction of races.
Generally the dominating peoples begin by being far fewer in number than those they conquer; while, on the other hand, certain races that form the basis of the population in immense districts are extremely prolific – the Celts, for example, and the Slavs. This is yet another reason for the rapid disappearance of the conquering races. Again, their greater activity and the more personal part they take in the affairs of the State make them the chief mark for attack after a disastrous battle, a proscription, or a revolution. Thus, while by their very genius for civilization they collect round them the different elements in which they are to be absorbed, they are the victims, first of their original smallness of number, and then of a host of secondary causes which combine together for their destruction.
It is fairly obvious that the time when the disappearances take place will vary considerably, according to circumstances. Yet it does finally come to pass, and is everywhere quite complete, long before the end of the civilization which the victorious race is supposed to be animating. A people may often go on living and working, and even growing in power, after the active, generating force of its life and glory has ceased to exist. Does this contradict what I have said above? Not at all; for while the blood of the civilizing race is gradually drained away by being parcelled out among the peoples that are conquered or annexed, the impulse originally given to these people still persists. The institutions which the dead master had invented, the laws he had prescribed, the customs he had initiated – all these live after him. No doubt the customs, laws, and institutions have quite forgotten the spirit that informed their youth; they survive in dishonoured old age, every day more sapless and rotten. But so long as even their shadows remain, the building stands, the body seems to have a soul, the pale ghost walks. When the original impulse has worked itself out, the last word has been said. Nothing remains; the civilization is dead.
It think I now have all the data necessary for grappling with the problem of the life and death of nations; and I can say positively that a people will never die, if it remains eternally composed of the same national elements.
But, if like the Greeks, and the Romans of the later Empire, the people has been absolutely drained of its original blood, and the qualities conferred by the blood, then the day of its defeat will be the day of its death. It has used up the time that heaven granted at its birth, for it has completely changed its race, and with its race its nature. It is therefore degenerate.
In this passage, Gobineau argues that racial differences are permanent.
Whatever side, therefore, one may take in the controversy as to the unity or multiplicity of origin possessed by the human species, it is certain that the different families are to-day absolutely separate; for there is no external influence that could cause any resemblance between them or force them into a homogenous mass.
The existing races constitute separate branches of one or many primitive stocks. These stocks have now vanished. They are not known in historical times at all, and we cannot form even the most general idea of their qualities. They differed from each other in the shape of and proportion of the limbs, the structure of the skull, the internal conformation of the body, the nature of the capillary system, the colour of the skin, and the like; and they never succeeded in losing their characteristic features except under the powerful influence of the crossing of blood.
This permeance of racial qualities is quite sufficient to generate the radical unlikeness and inequality that exists between the different branches, to raise them to the dignity of natural laws, and to justify the same distinctions being drawn with regard to the physiological life of nations, as I shall show, later to be applicable to their moral life.
In this passage, Gobineau sums up his argument.
I have shown the unique place in the organic world occupied by the human species, the profound physical, as well as moral, differences separating it from all other kinds of living creatures. Considering it by itself, I have been able to distinguish, on physiological grounds alone, three great and clearly marked types, the black, the yellow, and the white. However uncertain the aims of physiology may be, however meagre its resources, however defective its methods, it can proceed thus far with absolute certainty.
The negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder. The animal character, that appears in the shape of the pelvis, is stamped on the negro from birth, and foreshadows his destiny. His intellect will always move within a very narrow circle. He is not however a mere brute, for behind his low receding brow, in the middle of his skull, we can see signs of a powerful energy, however crude its objects. If his mental faculties are dull or even non-existent, he often has an intensity of desire, and so of will, which may be called terrible. Many of his senses, especially taste and smell, are developed to an extent unknown to the other two races.
The very strength of his sensations is the most striking proof of his inferiority. All food is good in his eyes, nothing disgusts or repels him. What he desires to eat, to eat furiously, and to excess; no carrion is too revolting to be swallowed by him. It is the same with odours; his inordinate desires are satisfied with all, however coarse or even horrible. To these qualities may be added an instability and capriciousness of feeling, that cannot be tied down to an single object, and which, so far as he is concerned, do away with all distinctions of good and evil. We might even say that violence with which he pursues the object that has aroused his senses and inflamed his desires is guarantee of the desires being soon satisfied and the object forgotten. Finally, he is equally careless of his own life and that of others: he kills willingly, for the sake of killing; and this human machine, in whom it is so easy to arouse emotion, shows, in face of suffering, either a monstrous indifference or a cowardice that seeks a voluntary refuge in death.
The yellow race is the exact opposite of this type. The skull points forward, not backward. The forehead is wide and bony, often high and projecting. The shape of the face is triangular; the nose and chin showing none of the coarse protuberances taht mark the negro. There is further a general proneness to obesity, which, though not confined to the yellow type, is found there more frequently than in others. The yellow man has little physical energy, and is inclined to apathy; he commits none of the strange excesses sos common among negroes. His desires are feeble, his will-power rather obstinate than violent; his longing for material pleasures though constant, is kept within bounds. A rare glutton by nature, he shows far more discrimination in his choice of food. HE tends to mediocrity in everything; he understands easily enough anything not too deep or sublime. He has a love of utility and a respect for order, and knows the value of a certain amount of freedom. He is practical, int he narrowest sense of the word. He does not dream or theorize; he invents little, but can appreciate and take over what is useful to him. his whole desire is to live int eh easiest and most comfortable way possible. The yellow races are thus clearly superior to the black. Every founder of a civilization would wish the backbone of his society, his middle class, to consist of such men. But no civilized society could be created by them; they could not supply its nerve-force, or set in motion the springs of beauty and action.
We come now to the white peoples. These are gifted with reflective energy, or rather with an energetic intelligence. They have a feeling for utility, but in a sense far wider and higher, more courageous and ideal, than the yellow races; a perseverance that takes account of obstacles and ultimately finds a means of overcoming them; a greater physical power, an extraordinary instinct for order, not merely as a guarantee of peace and tranquility, but as an indispensable means of self-preservation. At the same time, they have a remarkable, and even extreme, love of liberty, and are openly hostile to the formalism under which the Chinese are glad to vegetate, as well as to the strict despotism which is the only way of governing the negro.
The white race are, further, distinguished by an extraoridinary attachment to life. They know better how to use it, and so,a s it would seem, set a greater price on it; both in their own persons and those of others, they are more sparing of life. When they are cruel, they are conscious of their cruelty; it is very doubtful whether such a consciousness exists in the negro. At the same time, they have discovered reasons why they should surrender this busy life of theirs, that is so precious to them. The principal motive is honour, which under various names has played an enormous part in the ideas of the race from the beginning. I need hardly add that the word honour, together with all the civilizing influences connoted by it, is unknown to both the yellow and the black man.
On the other hand, the immense superiority of the white peoples in the whole field of the intellect is balanced by an inferiority in the intensity of their sensations. In the world of the senses, the white man is far less gifted than the others, and so is less tempted and less absorbed by considerations of the body, although in physical structure he is far more vigorous.
Such are the three constituent elements of the human race I call them secondary types, as I think myself obliged to omit all discussion of the Adamite man. From the combination, by intermarriage, of the varieties of these types come the tertiary groups. The quaternary formations are produced by the union of one of these tertiary types, or of a pure-blooded tribe, with another group taken from one of the two foreign species.
Below these categories others have appeared – and still appear. Some the these are very strongly characterized, and form new and distinct points of departure, coming as they do form the races that have been completely fused. Others are incomplete, and ill-ordered, and, one might even say, anti-social, since their elements, being too numerous, too disparate, or too barbarous, have had neither the time nor the opportunity for combining to any fruitful purpose. No limits, except the horror excited by the possibility of infinite intermixture, can be assigned to the number of these hybrid and chequered races that make up the whole of mankind.
It would be unjust to assert that every mixture is bad and harmful. If the three great types had remained strictly separate, the supremacy would no doubt have always been in the hands of the finest of the white races, and the yellow and black varieties would have crawled for ever at the feet of the lowest of the whites. Such a state is so far ideal, since it has never been beheld in history; and we can imagine it only by recognizing the undisputed superiority of those groups of the white races which have remained the purest.
It would not have been all gain. The superiority of the white race would have bean clearly shown, but it would have been bought at the price of certain advantages which have followed the mixture of blood. Although these are far from counter-balancing the defects they have brought in their train, yet they are sometimes to be commended. Artistic genius, which is equally foreign to each of the three great types, arose only after the intermarriage of white and black. Again, in the Malayan variety, a human family was produced from the yellow and black races that had more intelligence than either of its ancestors. Finally, from the union of white and yellow, certain intermediary peoples have sprung, who are superior to the purely Finnish tribes as well as to the negroes.
I do not deny that these are good results. The world of art and great literature that comes from the mixture of blood, the improvement and ennoblement of inferior races – all these are wonders of which we must needs be thankful. The small have been raised. Unfortunately, the great have been lowered by the sam process; and this is an evil that nothing can balance or repair. Since I am putting together the advantages of racial mixtures, I will also add that to them is due the refinement of manners and beliefs, and especially the tempering of passion and desire. But these are merely transitory benefits, and if I recognize that the mulatto, who may become a lawyer, a doctor, or a business man, is worth more than his negro grandfather, who was absolutely savage, and fit for nothing, I must also confess that the Brahmans of primitive India, the heroes of the Iliad and the Shahnameh, the warriors of Scandinavia – the glorious shades of noble races that have disappeared – give us a higher and more brilliant idea of humanity, and were more active, intelligent, and trusty instruments of civilization and grandeur than the peoples, hybrid a hundred times over, of the present day. And the blood even of these was no longer pure.
However it has come about, the human races, as we find them in history, are complex; and one of the chief consequences has been to throw into disorder most of the primitive characteristics of each type. The good as well as the bad qualities are seen to diminish in intensity with repeated intermixture of blood; but they also scatter and separate off from each other, and are often mutually opposed. The white race originally possessed the monopoly of beauty, intelligence, and strength. By its union with other varieties, hybrids were created, which were beautiful without strength, strong without intelligence, or, if intelligent, both weak and ugly. Further, when the quantity of white blood was increased to an indefinite amount by successive infusions, and not by a single admixture, it no longer carried with its natural advantages, and often merely increased the confusion already existing in the racial elements. Its strength, in fact, seemed to be its only remaining quality, and even its strength served only to promote disorder. The apparent anomaly is easily explained. Each stage of a perfect mixture produces a new type of diverse elements, and develops special faculties. As soon as further elements are added, the vast difficulty of harmonizing the whole creates a state of anarchy. The more this increases, the more do even the best and reichest of the new contributions diminish in value, and b y their mere presence add fuel to an evil which they cannot abate. If mixtures of blood are, to a certain extent, beneficial to the mass of mankind, if thy raise and ennoble it, this is merely at the expense of mankind itself, which is stunted,a based, enervated, and humiliated int eh persons of its noblest sons. Even if we admit that it is better to turn a myriad of degraded beings into mediocre men than to preserve the race of princes whose blood is adulterated and impoverished by being made to suffer this dishonourable change, yet there is still the unfortunate fact that the change does not stop here; for when the mediocre men are once created at the expense of the greater, they combine with other mediocrities, and from such unions, which grow ever more and more degraded is born a confusion which, like that of Babel, ends in utter impotence, and leads societies down to the abyss of nothingness whence no power on earth can rescue them.
Such is the lesson of history. It shows us that all civilizations derive from the white race, that none can exist without its help, and that a society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble group that created it, provided that this group itself belongs to the most illustrious brach of our species.
Of the multitude of peoples which live or have lived on the earth, ten alone have risen to the position of complete societies. The remainder have gravitated round these more or less independently, like planets round their suns. If there is any element of life in these ten civilizations that is not due to the impulse of the white races, any seed of death that does not come from the inferior stocks that mingled with them, then the whole theory on which this book rests is false. On the other hand, if the facts are as I say, then we have an irrefragable proof of the nobility of our own species. Only the actual details can set the final seal of truth on my system, and they alone can show with sufficient exactness the full implications of my main thesis, that peoples degenerate only in consequence of the various admixtures of blood which they undergo; that their degeneration corresponds exactly to the quantity and quality of the new blood, and that the rudest possible shock to the vitality of a civilization is given when the ruling elements in a society and those developed by racial change have become so numerous that they are clearly moving away from the homogeneity necessary to their life, and it therefore becomes impossible for them to be brought into harmony and so acquire the common instincts and interests, the common logic of existence, which is the sole justification for any social bond whatever. There is no greater curse than such disorder, for however bad it may have made the present state of things, it promises still worse for the future.
Source: Arthur Count de Gobineau, The Inequality of Human Races, translated by Adrian Collins (London: William Heinemann, 1915).
Gobineau on the inequality of races (1853) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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