Gobineau, Comte Joseph Arthur de (1816–1882)

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Comte Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was a French philosopher, historian, novelist, and diplomat. Gobineau's diplomatic duties during the Second Empire carried him to Switzerland, Persia, Greece, and Brazil, where he produced a number of historical and ethnographic works of considerable merit. He is best known for his Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (4 vols., Paris, 18531855; Vol. 1 translated into English by Adrian Collins as The Inequality of Human Races, London, 1915). This work is usually considered an important contribution to nineteenth-century racist thought; but Gobineau's racism was a by-product of his attempt to account for the decline of the European aristocracy in terms of the more general problem of the decline and fall of civilizations.

Gobineau presented his work as an essay in positivistic social theory; in the preface to the second edition (1884), he argued that Henry Thomas Buckle and Charles Darwin had merely proceeded along lines originally marked out by himself. Superficially, then, Gobineau's work resembled those positivistic theories of culture in which his century abounded. However, it differed from them in its categorical rejection of the doctrine of "progress." His work was profoundly pessimistic, and in the end Gobineau predicted the ineluctable decay, not only of Western civilization, but of the whole of humanity. Thus, Gobineau's racism differed from the later racism of the imperialist period. He was neither a nationalist nor a proponent of the idea of "the white man's burden." He was, rather, an apologist for a class that had come to feel that since it no longer had a genuine social role to fill, society itself was no longer possible.

Gobineau held that the human species was originally divided into three races as a result of environmental conditioning. The Negro race is dominated by "desire" and the need to gratify desire, and hence is the natural enemy of civilization. Driven by the need for sensual gratification alone, the Negro lacks both speculative and technical capability. The yellow race is the antitype of the Negroid, lacking in physical vigor but possessing a natural talent for technical accomplishment that allows it to create pseudo civilizations but prohibits it from developing any genuine science. The white race is superior to the other two because it combines energy and intelligence in just the right proportions. The white race has a genuine "love of life," but it is able to control and direct that love to culturally creative ends. The white man is a speculative thinker, which allows him to create both a science of nature and a science of politics. This makes of the white man the natural conqueror of the other two races. Whatever these other races have accomplished in the way of civilizational growth they owe to the superaddition of white blood, Gobineau held.

By the same token, however, racial intermixture results in the debilitation of the white race. Unlike the Darwinists, who saw survival itself as evidence of fitness, Gobineau held that in every racial mixture it is the weaker strain that predominates. In the long run, then, racial intermixture must result not so much in the elevation of inferior breeds as the mongrelization of the entire species. Thus envisaged, the white race is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Its inherent excellence drives it forth to world conquest, but that very conquest leads to its decline. Gobineau's theory of civilization, in short, was not so much an attempt to explain the facts of history as to justify his own overriding sense of senescens saeculum, a product of the breakdown of the social class to which he belonged.

Obviously, such a theory could not serve as a rationalization for imperialistic expansion, for if Gobineau were right, it would be better for the white race to cease expanding and seal itself off from contact with all other races. But Gobineau was valuable to the reactionary groups of his time even though he opposed imperialism, for he was an ardent enemy of liberalism. His theory explicitly designated the social egalitarianism of the radicals as an instrument of further mongrelization. The city of Paris, where the races mixed in perfect equality, proved his point, he wrote, because there "tradition is respected not at all."

As for nationalism, Gobineau regarded this phenomenon as another evidence of the breakdown of racial solidarity. He dreamed of an international aristocracy of blood to which the purest elements of all nations belong. His book La renaissance (Paris, 1877; translated into English by P. V. Cohen as The Renaissance, New York, 1913) was intended to demonstrate that as long as the white race had retained its internationalist sense of caste and eschewed expansion and intermixture, it had remained creative and productive. Neither libertarian nor expansionist, the aristocracy of the Renaissance, as represented by such figures as Cesare Borgia, Michelangelo, and Raphael, was able to produce masterpieces of art and politics. The problem of race did not intrude itself into Gobineau's handling of the Renaissance, because in La renaissance he was dealing with a preliberal, amoral, and creative example of the white race's power. But this book does contain an implicit criticism of his own age, dominated, in his opinion, by weak-willed liberals and traditionless mongrels.

See also Buckle, Henry Thomas; Darwin, Charles Robert; Racism.


additional works by gobineau

Trois ans en Asie. Paris: Hachette, 1859.

Les religions et les philosophies dans l'Asie centrale. Paris: Didier, 1865.

Histoire des Perses, 2 vols. Paris: H. Plon, 1869.

Correspondance d'Alexis de Tocqueville et d'Arthur de Gobineau. Paris, 1959. The correspondence is also available in an English translation by John Lukacs in Alexis de Tocqueville, The European Revolution & Correspondence with Gobineau (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), edited by Lukacs.

works on gobineau

Combris, Andrée. La philosophie des races de Gobineau. Paris: Alcan, 1937.

Falk, Reinhold. Die weltanschauliche Problematik bei Gobineau. Berlin: Norm-druck, 1936.

Ferguson, W. J. Renaissance in Historical Thought. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1948. On Gobineau as historian.

La nouvelle revue Française 42 (February 1934). Issue dedicated to Gobineau and his work.

Schemann, Ludwig. Gobineau und die deutsche Kultur. Leipzig, 1910; 7th ed. Leipzig: Teubner, 1934.

Sellière, Ernst. Le Comte de Gobineau et l'aryanisme historique. Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1903.

Streidl, Rudolf. Gobineau in der französichen Kritik. Würzburg: R. Mayr, 1935.

Hayden V. White (1967)