Theories of Race

Arthur, Comte de Gobineau

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    Arthur, Comte de Gobineau



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Arthur, comte de Gobineau was a French aristocrat, novelist, dilettante, diplomat, and, by virtue of his massive historical and polemical tome Essai de l’inégalité des races humaines (1853), a synthesis of contemporary conservative politics and scientific thought in a range of fields, one of the most influential thinkers on the subject of race in history. Most of his influence did not, however, come in his day, in his country, or among those who considered race from a scientific perspective. Rather, he became a hero and a watchword to those born in other countries and other eras, to whom the full scope of the arguments he made was less appealing or useful than reductive versions of it, applied to other purposes and causes than the quixotic ones he intended.

Indeed, “Gobineau” is not so much the name of an author as a code word for a series of appropriations. Controversial but not sensational when it appeared, his work became important, first in the American South where it was taken up by pro-slavery apologists, and then half a century later in Europe and especially Germany where it provided a theoretical foundation for anti-Semitic nationalism. Gobineau had spoken out explicitly against both causes.

A contemporary of Charles Darwin (1809-82) and Karl Marx (1818-83), Gobineau was not a man of his time. He despised most of the nations of Europe, especially Celtic Ireland; he feared the advance of Russia; and he was critical of all of the Americas including the United States. He found his own country of France particularly appalling; its participation in the revolutionary fervor of 1848 and, before that, the French Revolution provided him with the immediate provocation to write the Essai, which he intended as the conceptual groundwork for a revanchist corrective to what he saw as the mob rule of democracy. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt pointed out that while German race-thinking was part of “an effort to unite the people against foreign invaders” it was, in Gobineau and in France generally, “a weapon for civil war and for splitting the nation.”* So great was Gobineau’s disdain for the mass of Frenchmen that it has been argued that his manifest contempt for Negroes as a race characterized by ignorance, sensuality, and a tendency to violence should actually be understood as a displaced version of his antipathy toward the French peasantry.** In an 1856 letter Gobineau told a friend that his book had grown not out of race-hatred but out of his “hatred for democracy and its weapon, the Revolution” (see Biddiss in Further Reading, 514). Making classes into races, Gobineau, as Arendt put it, “invented racism almost by accident” (172).

Despite the belatedness of his fame in Germany and elsewhere, Gobineau was more behind his time than ahead of it. He reserved his greatest admiration for the ethos of medieval chivalry and for traditional hierarchies and authorities in general and his own Bourbon lineage in particular. His sense of history was dominated by a tragic awareness of lost glories and civilizations in decline. His original contribution to the intellectual discourse of the time was to conceive of the progress or, more frequently, the regress of civilization in racial terms.

Having learned of races from his reading of Blumenbach, Gobineau drew the inference that racial groups were as diverse and unequal in their moral and intellectual attributes as they were in their physical appearances. He then applied the race concept as he understood it—his understanding of the term admitted of only three primal races—to all those instances in history in which, through migration or invasion, groups or “stocks” encountered other groups and were transformed as a consequence. Race and the differences between races were, he concluded, the hidden causes of revolutions, insurrections, and wars. Successful peoples were those who had been able to repel or minimize any corruption or pollution of their racial stock; unsuccessful peoples were those who had “degenerated” by allowing the stock or “blood” of the elite group to be diluted and corrupted by mingling either with inferior groups or with the masses within their own. France provided a particularly lamentable instance of degeneration in which the Teutonic “Frankish” aristocracy represented by the Bourbon dynasty had actually been displaced by the common people, constituted of inferior Celts and the Gauls whom the Franks had conquered in the fifth century.

The situation of France was urgent, but it was only one example. The argument of the Essai is that the future of all civilizations depended on the recognition of the inequality of races, and for a restoration of the hierarchy from which that civilization had sprung. Shadowing and overshadowing this argument was Gobineau’s deeply pessimistic sense that the white race was currently in the process of annihilating itself by mingling its noblest blood with inferior races. Despite the “secret repulsion” [répulsion secrète] of all peoples for the “crossing of blood,” crossings of superior and inferior races had, Gobineau noted, proliferated throughout history, frustrating true progress for all but a tiny number of peoples (including Arabs and Jews) who had managed to maintain their racial purity (Essai, I, Chap. IV, 62).

The second through sixth books of the Essai undertake a comprehensive tour d’horizon of human history, documenting the history of nations and civilizations as a series of racial events. Crucial as these books were to Gobineau’s project, they have not been translated into English, and were of little interest to Gobineau’s readers even in France. English and German translators and readers have been almost exclusively interested in the first book, in which the argument is established, with chapters on the causes of political catastrophe, the evidence for permanent racial inequalities, general accounts of “civilization” and “degeneration,” and, in a final chapter, an account of the moral and intellectual differences among the three major races. It is in this final chapter that Gobineau makes the case for the “Arians.”

Gobineau appropriated the concept of an Arian race from those who, like Sir William Jones, identified, largely on the basis of linguistic evidence available or even comprehensible only to a tiny group of exceptionally learned scholars, an aboriginal group that had migrated from its homeland in central Asia to northwestern India, and from there to Persia and the Middle East, and finally to Europe. Gobineau identified this group as a race, the parent group of the Teutonic “race germanique” from which the Frankish people had descended. [On Aryans, see also Renan and Virchow.] In their brilliant original form, Gobineau argues, the Arians were a powerful, creative, energetic, and physically beautiful race, responsible for founding, in the course of their extensive migrations, virtually all the great civilizations of the world.

Conventionally religious, Gobineau was concerned to harmonize such ideas with the Biblical account. He argued that Moses had not registered a strong sense of the profound differences among the peoples of the world because he was describing only a single human group, and had no need to do so. Conceding the monogenetic unity of the species in the first dawn of humanity, Gobineau still insisted on the currently-existing and, he insisted, permanent “racial” differences and inequalities that were associated with polygenesis. The Bible’s authority, he said, was restricted to theology, and Moses could not be troubled to establish scientific fact. Like others including Broca who had wearied of speculation on the subject, Gobineau was indifferent to the question of the origin of differences and to the terminological question of whether races constituted distinct species or only permanent varieties. For him, the only relevant fact was the manifold and manifest inequalities currently exhibited by the various races. On this subject, too, his views were largely conventional.

One exception to convention was Gobineau’s admiration for Jews, whose historical resistance to racial mixing or amalgamation earned his consistent praise. Throughout the Essai, the Jews are represented as a model of racial purity, a superbly forged race comparable to the ancient Greeks, a free, strong, and intelligent people, far superior to their neighbors. “In this miserable corner of the world,” he asked, “what were the Jews? A people dextrous in all they undertook, a free, powerful, intelligent people, who, before losing bravely, and against a much superior foe, the title of independent nation, had furnished to the world almost as many doctors as merchants” (209).

It was only by excising or simply ignoring those passages that those such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain (the son-in-law of Richard Wagner, who promoted Gobineau’s theory of an Aryan master-race) and Nazi ideologues in the twentieth century could claim a warrant from Gobineau for their antisemitism. A more complicated but equally pernicious act of selective appropriation involved the translation of the Essai into English, which happened almost immediately after publication. It was this book by which Gobineau became known to readers in the United States.

The first book of Gobineau’s Essai had appeared in 1853, just before Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon published Types of Mankind. Gobineau had included cautious but respectful references to Samuel George Morton’s craniological studies as a suggestive approach to racial inequalities, and had gone to the trouble of reprinting Morton’s footnote recording the statistics for the cranial capacity of the major races (324; see the entry on Morton). Recognizing a kindred spirit, Nott arranged for a translation of Book I of Gobineau’s immense text—about two hundred pages of Gobineau’s original eight hundred and seventy-three.

He gave the task of translation to a young friend in Mobile, Alabama, a precocious Swiss émigré, Henry Hotz. The translation appeared in 1856 with the title The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races and included a one-hundred page “Analytical Introduction” by Hotz and an appendix in which Nott (after saying that he had “seldom perused a work which has afforded me so much pleasure and instruction as the one of Count Gobineau”) updated some of Morton’s cranial measurements, offered mild criticisms of Morton’s approach, and ventured some new if inconclusive reflections on the meanings of race and species and the implications of the Bible for the question of the unity of mankind (464). In confirmation of Morton’s preliminary conclusions about the cranial capacities of the several races, Nott included statistics provided by various hatmakers with whom he had corresponded.

Gobineau was unhappy with the translation, which in addition to its shocking freedom of adaptation ignored the last five books, setting aside vast tracts on the history of civilization that supported his generalizations, and eliminating altogether the criticisms he had made at the book’s conclusion of the mongrelized population of the United States.*** In Chapter VIII of Book VI, “Les colonisations européenes en Amérique,” Gobineau had specifically condemned the brutality of the Anglo-Saxon’s treatment of Indians and slaves.

The English translation was, then, not a mere re-presentation of Gobineau’s text in English, but a project with a particular and local purpose, to provide scholarly support for arguments about the inequality of the races, and about the inferiority of the Negro in particular, that were favored by the pro-slavery faction in the American South. For reasons that remain mysterious, the Swiss émigré Hotz embraced this purpose wholeheartedly, acquiring, if he did not already have, the attitudes and assumptions about race that were common in the American South at the time. He embraced these so fervently that he volunteered to serve during the Civil War as a pro-Confederate propagandist in England. A committed supporter of slavery, he would not return to a post-slavery America; he remained in Europe after the war and died in 1887.

Displaying a striking confidence and sense of his own importance, Hotz—twenty or twenty-one years old when he was given the task of translating Gobineau—begins his long introduction by weighing in on the numerous questions and issues that had dominated the scientific discourse on race and on humanity more generally, mounting criticisms of Prichard, Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, John Locke and many others. He also provides extended personal ruminations on the best forms of government, the meaning of civilization, and the intentions of God, offering his own reflections on the numerous issues addressed or touched on by Gobineau. He rehearses with considerable feeling the history of “the white and the black races, supposed by many to represent the two extremes of the scale of gradation. The whole history of the former,” he says, “shows an uninterrupted progress; that of the latter, monotonous stagnation. To the one, mankind owes the most valuable discoveries in the domain of thought, and their practical application; to the other, it owes nothing” (32). As evidence of the scientific consensus on these issues, Hotz reproduces a chart from Robert Gordon Latham’s Natural History of the Varieties of Man (1850):

Table from Robert Gordon Latham

Most remarkably, Hotz announces that he, the translator, has a definite “purpose”—the restoration of a traditional understanding of “nation” to mean not just a people united by consanguinity and a particular form of government but rather “a population consisting of homogeneous ethnical elements” (65). Hotz proposes, in other words, to use his translation, which he freely admits is not “literal,” of Gobineau to redefine the nation as something like a race, a people with unique and unalterable characteristics (99). These “ethnical” characteristics do not, however, consist of physical traits but rather of certain political and cultural practices, including respect for women, love of liberty, representative government, trial by jury, “and all the discoveries in political science upon which we pride ourselves most” (243). This list of liberal and democratic principles, especially when attached to a polity, the slaveholding states of the American South, that would soon rise up in rebellion, would very likely have struck Gobineau as impudent rejections of his most cherished convictions.

In order to be able to claim support for his ambitions from Gobineau, Hotz had to find a way to include the American nation in Gobineau’s phrase “our civilization.” To this end, he interposed a long headnote before Chapters VIII and IX in which he explained that the core group of the American nation had emigrated from northern Europe and particularly from England, which “presents a happy fusion of some of the most distinguished branches of the German family.”

If we now glance at the United States, we shall there find—at least in the first years of her national existence—a pendant to what has been asserted of England. The elements of the population of the original thirteen States, were almost exclusively of English, Lowland Scotch, Dutch, and Swedish blood; that is to say, decidedly Germanic. Ireland was as yet slightly represented. France had made but inconsiderable contributions to the population. Since we have assumed a rank among the great powers of the earth, every portion of the inhabited globe has sent us its contingent of blood, yet even now, the great body of the nation belongs to the Teutonic race.

In (the untranslated) Book VI, Gobineau had commented precisely on this American insistence on an “Anglo-Saxon” core, saying that “This name of Anglo-Saxons seems to flatter the imagination of the inhabitants of the great transatlantic confederation, in spite of the increasingly equivocal right that the present population may have to claim it.” [Ce nom d'Anglo-Saxons parait flatter l'imagination des habitants de la grande confédération transatlantique; malgré le droit de plus en plus équivoque que la population actuelle peut avoir à le réclamer”; Book VI, Chapter VII]. As if fending off the persistent critique of racial mixing in America that Gobineau makes in the parts of the Essai he was not translating, Hotz adds a further comment:

Much has been said of the effects of ethnical mixture. Many consider it as decidedly beneficial, others as decidedly deleterious. It seems to me susceptible of mathematical demonstration, that when a very inferior race amalgamates with one of higher order, the compound—though superior to the one, must be inferior to the other. In that case, therefore, mixture is injurious. But when various branches of the same race, or nearly cognate races mix, as in the case of the Saxons, Angles, Danes, and Normans, the mixture cannot but be beneficial. For, while none of the higher qualities are lost, the compound presents a felicitous combination of some of the virtues peculiar to each. (241)

Like many others, Nott and Hotz discovered in Gobineau a highly congenial and adaptable mass of argumentation conducing to the conclusion that races were as unequal in endowment and capacity as they were different in physical appearance. Gobineau’s various other arguments about the ethnic character of the French aristocracy, the necessity of restoring traditional hierarchies, the splendor of the chivalric era, the degeneracy represented by the practice of slavery (a constant theme), or the brilliance of the Arian race had little value or even meaning for them. Neither Nott nor Hotz so much as mentions Arians.

The meaning, importance, and value of Gobineau’s work has always been disputed. For an extensive bibliography of secondary literature, see the Wikipedia entry on Arthur de Gobineau.

The selections below are taken from the Hotz translation, which, although free to the point of outright distortion and even invention, was the text through which Gobineau’s work was disseminated to English readers. A deep admirer of Gobineau, Adrian Collins, translated Book I in 1915, giving it the title The Inequality of Human Races; this work, while still a very incomplete representation of Gobineau’s text, is now considered the standard edition in English.

*Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando:  Harvest Book, 1976; orig. pub., 1948), 165.  See especially Chapter Six, “Race-Thinking before Racism,” 158-84.  

**See Alan Davies, Infected Christianity: A Study of Modern Racism (Toronto:  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988).

***See Lonnie A. Burnett, “Introduction:  Henry Hotze, Confederate Propagandist,” in Lonnie A. Burnett, ed., Henry Hotze, Confederate Propagandist: Selected Writings on Revolution, Recognition, and Race (Tuscaloosa:  The University of Alabama Press, 2008), 1-33, 5.

The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races



It is admitted that the germ of destruction is inherent in the constitution of communities; that so long as it remains latent, exterior dangers are little to be dreaded; but when it has once attained full growth and maturity, the nation must die, even though surrounded by the most favorable circumstances, precisely as a jaded steed breaks down, be the track ever so smooth.

Degeneracy was the name given to this cause of dissolution. This view of the question was a great step towards the truth, but, unfortunately, it went no further; the first difficulty proved insurmountable. The term was certainly correct, etymologically and in every other respect, but how is it with the definition. A people is said to be degenerated, when it is badly governed, abuses its riches, is fanatical, or irreligious; in short, when it has lost the characteristic virtues of its forefathers. This is begging the question. Thus, communities succumb under the burden of social and political evils only when they are degenerate, and they are degenerate only when such evils prevail. This circular argument proves nothing but the small progress hitherto made in the science of national biology. I readily admit that nations perish from degeneracy, and from no other cause; it is when in that wretched condition, that foreign attacks are fatal to them, for then they no longer possess the strength to protect themselves against adverse fortune, or to recover from its blows. They die, because, though exposed to the same perils as their ancestors, they have not the same powers of overcoming them. I repeat it, the term degeneracy is correct; but it is necessary to define it, to give it a real and tangible meaning. It is necessary to say how and why this vigor, this capacity of overcoming surrounding dangers, are lost. Hitherto, we have been satisfied with a mere word, but the thing itself is as little known as ever. The step beyond, I shall attempt to make.

In my opinion, a nation is degenerate, when the blood of its founders no longer flows in its veins, but has been gradually deteriorated by successive foreign admixtures; so that the nation, while retaining its original name, is no longer composed of the same elements. The attenuation of the original blood is attended by a modification of the original instincts, or modes of thinking; the new elements assert their influence, and when they have once gained perfect and entire preponderance, the degeneration may be considered as complete. With the last remnant of the original ethnical principle, expires the life of the society and its civilization. The masses, which composed it, have thenceforth no separate, independent, social and political existence; they are attracted to different centres of civilization, and swell the ranks of new societies having new instincts and new purposes. (147-53)

If this definition of degeneracy be accepted, and its consequences admitted, the problem of the rise and fall of empires no longer presents any difficulty. A nation lives so long as it preserves the ethnical principle to which it owes its existence; with this principle, it loses the primum mobile of its successes, its glory, and its civilization: it must therefore disappear from the stage of history. Who can doubt that if Alexander had been opposed by real Persians, the men of the Arian stock, whom Cyrus led to victory, the issue of the battle of Arbela would have been very different. Or if Rome, in her decadence, had possessed soldiers and senators like those of the time of Fabius, Scipio, and Cato, would she have fallen so easy a prey to the barbarians of the North? (163)

The idea of an innate and permanent difference in the moral and mental endowments of the various groups of the human species, is one of the most ancient, as well as universally adopted, opinions. With few exceptions, and these mostly in our own times, it has formed the basis of almost all political theories, and has been the fundamental maxim of government of every nation, great or small. The prejudices of country have no other cause; each nation believes in its own superiority over its neighbors, and very often different parts of the same nation regard each other with contempt. There seems to exist an instinctive antipathy among the different races, and even among the subdivisions of the same race, of which none is entirely exempt, but which acts with the greatest force in the least civilized or least civilizable. We behold it in the characteristic suspiciousness and hostility of the savage; in the isolation from foreign influence and intercourse of the Chinese and Japanese; in the various distinctions founded upon birth in more civilized communities, such as castes, orders of nobility and aristocratic privileges. Not even a common religion can extinguish the hereditary aversion of the Arab to the Turk, of the Kurd to the Nestorian of Syria; or the bitter hostility of the Magyar and Sclave, who, without intermingling, have inhabited the same country for centuries. But as the different types lose their purity and become blended, this hostility of race abates; the maxim of absolute and permanent inequality is first discussed, then doubted. A man of mixed race or caste will not be apt to admit disparity in his double ancestry. The superiority of particular types, and their consequent claims to dominion, find fewer advocates. This dominion is stigmatized as a tyrannical usurpation of power. The mixture of castes gives rise to the political axiom that all men are equal, and, therefore, entitled to the same rights. Indeed, since there are no longer any distinct hereditary classes, none can justly claim superior merit and privileges. But this assertion, which is true only where a complete fusion has taken place, is applied to the whole human race—to all present, past, and future generations. The political axiom of equality which, like the bag of Æolus, contains so many tempests, is soon followed by the scientific. It is said—and the more heterogeneous the ethnical elements of a nation are, the more extensively the theory gains ground—that, "all branches of the human family are endowed with intellectual capacities of the same nature, which, though in different stages of development, are all equally susceptible of improvement." This is not, perhaps, the precise language, but certainly the meaning. Thus, the Huron, by proper culture, might become the equal of the Englishman and Frenchman. Why, then, I would ask, did he never, in the course of centuries, invent the art of printing or apply the power of steam; why, among the warriors of his tribe, has there never arisen a Cæsar or a Charlemagne, among his bards and medicine-men, a Homer or a Hippocrates?

These questions are generally met by advancing the influence of climate, local circumstances, etc. An island, it is said, can never be the theatre of great social and political developments in the same measure as a continent; the natives of a southern clime will not display the energy of those of the north; seacoasts and large navigable rivers will promote a civilization which could never have flourished in an inland region;—and a great deal more to the same purpose. But all these ingenious and plausible hypotheses are contradicted by facts. The same soil and the same climate have been visited, alternately, by barbarism and civilization. The degraded fellah is charred by the same sun which once burnt the powerful priest of Memphis; the learned professor of Berlin lectures under the same inclement sky that witnessed the miseries of the savage Finn.

What is most curious is, that while the belief of equality may influence institutions and manners, there is not a nation, nor an individual but renders homage to the contrary sentiment. Who has not heard of the distinctive traits of the Frenchman, the German, the Spaniard, the English, the Russ. One is called sprightly and volatile, but brave; the other is sober and meditative; a third is noted for his gravity; a fourth is known by his coldness and reserve, and his eagerness of gain; a fifth, on the contrary, is notorious for reckless expense. I shall not express any opinion upon the accuracy of these distinctions, I merely point out that they are made daily and adopted by common consent. The same has been done in all ages. (172-78)

After having mentioned the facts which prove the inequality of various branches of the human family, and having laid down the method by which that proof should be established, I arrived at the conclusion that the whole of our species is divisible into three great groups, which I call primary varieties, in order to distinguish them from others formed by intermixture. It now remains for me to assign to each of these groups the principal characteristics by which it is distinguished from the others.

The dark races are the lowest on the scale. The shape of the pelvis has a character of animalism, which is imprinted on the individuals of that race ere their birth, and seems to portend their destiny. The circle of intellectual development of that group is more contracted than that of either of the two others.

If the negro’s narrow and receding forehead seems to mark him as inferior in reasoning capacity, other portions of his cranium as decidedly point to faculties of an humbler, but not the less powerful character. He has energies of a not despicable order, and which sometimes display themselves with an intensity truly formidable. He is capable of violent passions, and passionate attachments. Some of his senses have an acuteness unknown to the other races: the sense of taste, and that of smell, for instance.

But it is precisely this development of the animal faculties that stamps the negro with the mark of inferiority to other races. I said that his sense of taste was acute; it is by no means fastidious. Every sort of food is welcome to his palate; none disgusts him; there is no flesh nor fowl too vile to find a place in his stomach. So it is with regard to odor. His sense of smell might rather be called greedy than acute. He easily accommodates himself to the most repulsive.

To these traits he joins a childish instability of humor. His feelings are intense, but not enduring. His grief is as transitory as it is poignant, and he rapidly passes from it to extreme gayety. He is seldom vindictive—his anger is violent, but soon appeased. It might almost be said that this variability of sentiments annihilates for him the existence of both virtue and vice. The very ardency to which his sensibilities are aroused, implies a speedy subsidence; the intensity of his desire, a prompt gratification, easily forgotten. He does not cling to life with the tenacity of the whites. But moderately careful of his own, he easily sacrifices that of others, and kills, though not absolutely bloodthirsty, without much provocation or subsequent remorse. Under intense suffering, he exhibits a moral cowardice which readily seeks refuge in death, or in a sort of monstrous impassivity.

With regard to his moral capacities, it may be stated that he is susceptible, in an eminent degree, of religious emotions; but unless assisted by the light of the Gospel, his religious sentiments are of a decidedly sensual character.

Having demonstrated the little intellectual and strongly sensual character of the black variety, as the type of which I have taken the negro of Western Africa, I shall now proceed to examine the moral and intellectual characteristics of the second in the scale—the yellow.

This seems to form a complete antithesis to the former. In them, the skull, instead of being thrown backward, projects. The forehead is large, often jutting out, and of respectable height. The facial conformation is somewhat triangular, but neither chin nor nose has the rude, animalish development that characterizes the negro. A tendency to obesity is not precisely a specific feature, but it is more often met with among the yellow races than among any others. In muscular vigor, in intensity of feelings and desires, they are greatly inferior to the black. They are supple and agile, but not strong. They have a decided taste for sensual pleasures, but their sensuality is less violent, and, if I may so call it, more vicious than the negro’s, and less quickly appeased. They place a somewhat greater value upon human life than the negro does, but they are more cruel for the sake of cruelty. They are as gluttonous as the negro, but more fastidious in their choice of viands, as is proved by the immoderate attention bestowed on the culinary art among the more civilized of these races. In other words, the yellow races are less impulsive than the black. Their will is characterized by obstinacy rather than energetic violence; their anger is vindictive rather than clamorous; their cruelty more studied than passionate; their sensuality more refinedly vicious than absorbing. They are, therefore, seldom prone to extremes. In morals, as in intellect, they display a mediocrity: they are given to grovelling vices rather than to dark crimes; when virtuous, they are so oftener from a sense of practical usefulness than from exalted sentiments. In regard to intellectual capacity, they easily understand whatever is not very profound, nor very sublime; they have a keen appreciation of the useful and practical, a great love of quiet and order, and even a certain conception of a slight modicum of personal or municipal liberty. The yellow races are practical people in the narrowest sense of the word. They have little scope of imagination, and therefore invent but little: for great inventions, even the most exclusively utilitarian, require a high degree of the imaginative faculty. But they easily understand and adopt whatever is of practical utility. The summum bonum of their desires and aspirations is to pass smoothly and quietly through life.

It is apparent from this sketch, that they are superior to the blacks in aptitude and intellectual capacity. A theorist who would form some model society, might wish such a population to form the substratum upon which to erect his structure; but a society, composed entirely of such elements, would display neither great stamina nor capacity for anything great and exalted.

We are now arrived at the third and last of the “primary” varieties—the white. Among them we find great physical vigor and capacity of endurance; an intensity of will and desire, but which is balanced and governed by the intellectual faculties. Great things are undertaken, but not blindly, not without a full appreciation of the obstacles to be overcome, and with a systematic effort to overcome them. The utilitarian tendency is strong, but is united with a powerful imaginative faculty, which elevates, ennobles, idealizes it. Hence, the power of invention; while the negro can merely imitate, the Chinese only utilize, to a certain extent, the practical results attained by the white, the latter is continually adding new ones to those already gained. His capacity for combination of ideas leads him perpetually to construct new facts from the fragments of the old; hurries him along through a series of unceasing modifications and changes. He has as keen a sense of order as the man of the yellow race, but not, like him, from love of repose and inertia, but from a desire to protect and preserve his acquisitions. At the same time, he has an ardent love of liberty, which is often carried to an extreme; an instinctive aversion to the trammels of that rigidly formalistic organization under which the Chinese vegetates with luxurious ease; and he as indignantly rejects the haughty despotism which alone proves a sufficient restraint for the black races.

The white man is also characterized by a singular love of life. Perhaps it is because he knows better how to make use of it than other races, that he attaches to it a greater value and spares it more both in himself and in others. In the extreme of his cruelty, he is conscious of his excesses; a sentiment which it may well be doubted whether it exist among the blacks. Yet though he loves life better than other races, he has discovered a number of reasons for sacrificing it or laying it down without murmur. His valor, his bravery, are not brute, unthinking passions, not the result of callousness or impassivity: they spring from exalted, though often erroneous, sentiments, the principal of which is expressed by the word “honor.” This feeling, under a variety of names and applications, has formed the mainspring of action of most of the white races since the beginning of historical times. It accommodates itself to every mode of existence, to every walk of life. It is as puissant in the pulpit and at the martyr’s stake, as on the field of battle; in the most peaceful and humble pursuits of life as in the highest and most stirring. It were impossible to define all the ideas which this word comprises; they are better felt than expressed. But this feeling—we might call it instinctive—is unknown to the yellow, and unknown to the black races: while in the white it quickens every noble sentiment—the sense of justice, liberty, patriotism, love, religion—it has no name in the language, no place in the hearts, of other races. This I consider as the principal reason of the superiority of our branch of the human family over all others; because even in the lowest, the most debased of our race, we generally find some spark of this redeeming trait, and however misapplied it may often be, and certainly is, it prevents us, even in our deepest errors, from falling so fearfully low as the others. The extent of moral abasement in which we find so many of the yellow and black races is absolutely impossible even to the very refuse of our society. The latter may equal, nay, surpass them in crime; but even they would shudder at that hideous abyss of corrosive vices, which opens before the friend of humanity on a closer study of these races.

Before concluding this picture, I would add that the immense superiority of the white races in all that regards the intellectual faculties, is joined to an inferiority as strikingly marked, in the intensity of sensations. Though his whole structure is more vigorous, the white man is less gifted in regard to the perfection of the senses than either the black or the yellow, and therefore less solicited and less absorbed by animal gratifications.

I have now arrived at the historical portion of my subject. There I shall place the truths enounced in this volume in a clearer light, and furnish irrefragable proofs of the fact, which forms the basis of my theory, that nations degenerate only in consequence and in proportion to their admixture with an inferior race—that a society receives its death-blow when, from the number of diverse ethnical elements which it comprises, a number of diverse modes of thinking and interests contend for predominance; when these modes of thinking, and these interests have arisen in such multiplicity that every effort to harmonize them, to make them subservient to some great purpose, is in vain; when, therefore, the only natural ties that can bind large masses of men, homogeneity of thoughts and feelings, are severed, the only solid foundation of a social structure sapped and rotten.

To furnish the necessary details for this assertion, to remove the possibility of even the slightest doubt, I shall take up separately, every great and independent civilization that the world has seen flourish. I shall trace its first beginnings, its subsequent stages of development, its decadence and final decay. Here, then, is the proper test of my theory; here we can see the laws that govern ethnical relations in full force on a magnificent scale; we can verify their inexorably uniform and rigorous application. The subject is immense, the panorama spread before us the grandest and most imposing that the philosopher can contemplate, for its tableaux comprise the scene of action of every instance where man has really worked out his mission “to have dominion over the earth.”

The task is great—too great, perhaps, for any one’s undertaking. Yet, on a more careful investigation, many of the apparently insuperable difficulties which discouraged the inquirer will vanish; in the gorgeous succession of scenes that meet his glance, he will perceive a uniformity, an intimate relation and connection which, like Ariadne’s thread, will enable the undaunted and persevering student to find his way through the mazes of the labyrinth: we shall find that every civilization owes its origin, its development, its splendors, to the agency of the white races. In China and in India, in the vast continent of the West, centuries ere Columbus found it—it was one of the group of white races that gave the impetus, and, so long as it lasted, sustained it. Startling as this assertion may appear to a great number of readers, I hope to demonstrate its correctness by incontrovertible historical testimony. Everywhere the white races have taken the initiative, everywhere they have brought civilization to the others—everywhere they have sown the seed: the vigor and beauty of the plant depended on whether the soil it found was congenial or not.

The migrations of the white race, therefore, afford us at once a guide for our historical researches, and a clue to many apparently inexplicable mysteries: we shall learn to understand why, in a vast country, the development of civilization has come to a stand, and been superseded by a retrogressive movement; why, in another, all but feeble traces of a high state of culture has vanished without apparent cause; why people, the lowest in the scale of intellect, are yet found in possession of arts and mechanical processes that would do honor to a highly intellectual race.

Among the group of white races, the noblest, the most highly gifted in intellect and personal beauty, the most active in the cause of civilization, is the Arian race. Its history is intimately associated with almost every effort on the part of man to develop his moral and intellectual powers.

It now remains for me to trace out the field of inquiry into which I propose to enter in the succeeding volumes. The list of great, independent civilizations is not long. Among all the innumerable nations that “strutted their brief hour on the stage” of the world, ten only have arrived at the state of complete societies, giving birth to distinct modes of intellectual culture. All the others were imitators or dependents; like planets they revolved around, and derived their light from the suns of the systems to which they belonged. At the head of my list I would place:—

1. The Indian civilization. It spread among the islands of the Indian Ocean, towards the north, beyond the Himalaya Mountains, and towards the east, beyond the Brahmapootra. It was originated by a white race of the Arian stock.

2. The Egyptian civilization comes next. As its satellites may be mentioned the less perfect civilizations of the Ethiopians, Nubians, and several other small peoples west of the oasis of Ammon. An Arian colony from India, settled in the upper part of the Nile valley, had established this society.

3. The Assyrians, around whom rallied the Jews, Phenicians, Lydians, Carthaginians, and Hymiarites, were indebted for their social intelligence to the repeated invasions of white populations. The Zoroastrian Iranians, who flourished in Further Asia, under the names of Medes, Persians, and Bactrians, were all branches of the Arian family.

4. The Greeks belonged to the same stock, but were modified by Shemitic elements, which, in course of time, totally transformed their character.

5. China presents the precise counterpart of Egypt. The light of civilization was carried thither by Arian colonies. The substratum of the social structure was composed of elements of the yellow race, but the white civilizers received reinforcements of their blood at various times.

6. The ancient civilization of the Italian peninsula (the Etruscan civilization), was developed by a mosaic of populations of the Celtic, Iberian, and Shemitic stock, but cemented by Arian elements. From it emerged the civilization of Rome.

7. Our civilization is indebted for its tone and character to the Germanic conquerors of the fifth century. They were a branch of the Arian family.

8, 9, 10. Under these heads I class the three civilizations of the western continent, the Alleghanian, the Mexican, and the Peruvians.

This is the field I have marked out for my investigations, the results of which will be laid before the reader in the succeeding volumes. The first part of my work is here at an end—the vestibule of the structure I wish to erect is completed. (443-60)

Michael D. Biddiss Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau (Weybright & Talley, 1970).

Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Foundations of the 19th Century, 2nd ed. (London:  John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1912; orig. pub. in German, 1899). 

Paul A. Fortier, “Gobineau and German Racism,” Comparative Literature 19 (Autumn 1967) 4:  341-50.  

Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Paris:  Editions Pierre Belfond, 1967).   

Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, The Inequality of Human Races, trans. Adrian Collins (London: William Heinemann, 1915).    

Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916).  

Steven Kale, “Gobineau, Racism, and Legitimism:  A Royalist Heretic in Nineteenth-Century France,” Modern Intellectual History. Cambridge University Press, 7 (April 2010) 1: 33-61.  

John Nale, “Arthur de Gobineau on Blood and Race,” Critical Philosophy of Race, 2 (2014) 1, 106-24.  

Léon Poliakov, The Arian Myth:  A History of Nationalist and Racist Ideas in Europe (London:  Sussex University Press, 1971).

Michelle M. Wright, “Nigger Peasants from France:  Missing Translations of American Anxieties on Race and the Nation,” Callaloo 22 (Autumn, 1999), 4: 831-52.