Gobineau, Comte de

views updated

Gobineau, Comte de 1814-1882


Discredited today and largely ignored by his compatriots during his lifetime, Comte Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was nonetheless a key contributor to nineteenth-century race theories. Born in Ville-dAvray, France, in 1814, he argued that racial difference was not only key to understanding the problems of history, but that it was the precondition of history. Comte de Gobineau posited two broad categories based on the shape of peoples heads: Aryan or dolichocephalic populations, and Alpine or brachycephalic people. But it was his theory of racial mixing and degeneracy that won him admirers and detractors.

In the Essai sur linégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 18531855), Gobineau claims the existence of three original, distinct human races: white, black, and yellow. Of these, white people, or Aryans, occupied the highest rank in a hierarchy of three. However, the fusion of these original races in history had, Gobineau argues, resulted in degeneracy and would eventually account for the decline of all civilization. The Essai and other writings, such as La fleur dor (The Golden Flower) which was published posthumously in Germany in 1918 and in France in 1923, are thus infused with apocalyptic inferences: despite notable exceptions of golden flowering, all human societies face decline, not because of corruption or the abandonment of religious ideals, or even because of bad government. In themselves, these factorspoisonous blossomscannot undermine a nation unless its people had already degenerated through mixing. The degenerate man properly so called is racially different from the heroes of the great ages who, for example, were to be found in the Roman Empire prior to its greatest successes. Despite his French nationality, Gobineaus Martinican Creole mother took him to Germany and had him educated in the gymnasium system, where he acquired his admiration for things Germanic. He came to believe that the Germanic race was heir to Roman purity, and he dedicated his Essai to George V (18191878), king of Hanover.

Gobineaus work built on the earlier racial typologies of the French naturalist Baron George de Cuvier (17691832), but it incorporated new developments in biology, archeology, and the emerging sciences of ethnology and physiology. It was also inflected by his royalism and Orientalism, the latter inspired by his years as a diplomat in Persia (18551858, 18621863).

Although a protégé of Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), through whom he received his first diplomatic postings in Persia, Gobineau eschewed Enlightenment notions of intellectual equality or fraternity across different races. Tocqueville labeled Gobineaus views false and pernicious. In turn, Gobineau claimed that intellectual fraternity across races was the deluded product of miscegenation. This was the risk of imperialism. According to Gobineau, a principle of death emerges when a stronger people assumes ownership over conquered lands. Although growing into nationhood, such societies faced the danger of mixing their blood. Despite producing an initial strength, these newly mixed people would lack the power of their ancestors. Segregation was thus natural and manifested itself in a spirit of isolation that persists in peoples despite their mixed origins. In his broad-sweeping claims, he praises Arabs, Persians, Jews, Farsis, and Turks for being repulsed by the prospect of crossing blood.

Gobineaus elevation of a blond, blue-eyed Aryanism as the racial ideal found acceptance in Imperial Germany, attracting the admiration of Richard Wagner (18131883), Ludwig Schemann (18521938), and Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow (18491929). With von Bulows support, Schemann founded the Gobineau Society in 1894. Members included Swiss jurist Johann Kaspar Bluntschli (18081881) and British-born political philosopher and proponent of the theory of a German master race, Houston Swiss Chamberlain (18551927). Under the sway of Gobineaus writings, Chamberlain argued for social practices that reflected the inequality of the races. Chamberlain, however, adjusted Gobineaus theory of degeneracy and predicted instead a growing Aryan strength. Gobineaus influence upon German National Socialism would eventually be incorporated, along with a racialized reading of Charles Darwin (18091882), into the pro-Nordic writings of Ludwig Woltmann (18711907). In the United States, Gobineaus Essai was translated by Swiss immigrant Henry Hotz, with an appendix by the proslavery physician and polygenist, Josiah Nott (18041873). Gobineau was not pleased with the American translation of his Essai sur linégalité des races humaines, which he thought too selective. Where the original edition ran to over one thousand pages, the American translation was cut down to less than four hundred pages.

What Chamberlain, supporter Robert Knox, and others failed to acknowledge was Gobineaus insistence that the Aryan ideal had been overtaken by history. They also overlooked Gobineaus less than flattering condemnation of white Americans as an assortment of the most degenerate races of olden-day Europe, as well as his resistance to American treatment of slaves and Native Americans, and his argument that racial mixing, and specifically black blood, had produced artistic mastery.

Within fifty years of his death, a systematic challenge to and rejection of Gobineaus work had emerged in the writings of Léopold Senghor (19062001), Aimé Césaire, and Léon Damas (19121978). Their formulation of the negritude movement in Paris in the 1930s to 1940s owed much to Senghors opposition to Gobineaus pronouncements upon race mixing. Senghors rethinking of Gobineaus work led to his influential theory of cultural métissage, an alternative energized multiplicity that incorporated an African past into a hybridized present in the Americas and Caribbean. Among the African diasporic writers influenced by negritude was Martinican essayist Suzanne Roussy Césaire (19151966). Her call to cannibalize and incorporate white Western culture into African diasporic culture reflected the strong cultural backlash against Gobineaus purist agenda.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, Biological; Racism; Tocqueville, Alexis de



Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. 1856. The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races, with Particular Reference to their Respective Influence in the Civil and Political History of Mankind, ed. Henry Hotz. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. 1869. Histoire des Perses. Paris: Plon.

Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. [1876] 1935. Nouvelles Asiatiques. Paris: Librairie academique Perrin.

Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. [1915] 1999. The Inequality of Human Races. Trans. Adrian Collins. New York: Fertig.

Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. 1924. The Golden Flower. Trans. Ben Ray Redman. New York: Putnam.

Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. 1925. Five Oriental Tales. New York: Viking.

Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. 1970. Selected Political Writings, ed. Michael D. Biddiss. New York: Harper.

Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. 1988. Mademoiselle Irnois and Other Stories. Trans. and eds. Annette Smith and David Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Banton, Michael. 1998. Racial Theories. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Bernasconi, Robert, ed. 2003. Race and Racism in Continental Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Biddiss, Michael. 1970. Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau. New York: Weybright and Talley.

Biddiss, Michael, ed. 1970. Gobineau: Selected Political Writings. London: Cape.

Blumenbach, Johan Friedrich. 2000. On the Natural Variety of Mankind. In The Idea of Race, eds. Robert Bernasconi and Tommy C. Lott. 2737. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Césaire, Suzanne Roussy. 1942. Misère dune poèsie: John Antoine-Nau. Tropiques 4: 4950. Reprinted in Tropiques: Collection complete, 19411945. 1978. Paris: Jean-Michel Place.

Césaire, Suzanne Roussy. 1943. Le surréalisme et nous. Tropiques 89.

Césaire, Suzanne Roussy. 1945. Le grand camou age. Tropiques 1314.

Clinton, David. 2003. Tocqueville, Lieber, and Bagehot: Liberalism Confronts the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gobineau, C. Serpeille de, ed. 1933. Correspondence entre le Comte de Gobineau et le Comte de Prokesch-Osten, 18541876. Paris: Plon.

Mitchell, Harvey. 2002. America after Tocqueville: Democracy against Difference. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Solomos, John, and Les Back, eds. 1999. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1959. The European Revolution and Correspondence with Gobineau. Trans. and ed. John Lukacs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Yvette Christiansë

Gobineau, Joseph Arthur De

views updated

Gobineau, Joseph Arthur De



Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) is best known as the author of the Essai sur I’inégalité desraces humaines (1853–1855), which made race the principal explanatory factor in history and had an important influence on the development of the concept of race in the nineteenth century. Although during his lifetime Gobineau received little recognition in his native France, after his death his racial theories aroused considerable interest, especially in Germany.

The mystique of elitism and race in Gobineau’s thought had its roots in certain circumstances of his life. His family was noble, but the origins of its nobility were obscure. His father, Louis de Gobineau, was a captain in the royal guard, and his mother, Anne-Louise Magdeleine de Gercy, was the daughter (if we believe Gobineau) of an illegit imateson of Louis xv. Gobineau’s adolescence was tormented by the marital conflict between his parents, and he began very early to question whether “all kinds of blood and all origins are alike.”

Gobineau went to Paris in 1835 and became a member of its literary, artistic, and scientific circles. He attended the salons of Madame de Serre, of Remusat, and of Tocqueville. Initially he seemed to lean toward a sort of liberalism in politics, but the revolution of 1848 instilled in him a permanent abhorrence of democracy. When Tocqueville served as minister of foreign affairs of the republic in 1849, Gobineau became his private secretary, and upon Tocqueville’s fall, Gobineau entered the diplomatic service. The books he wrote about the countries in which he lived—Germany, Persia, Greece, Brazil, and Sweden—were all pervaded by his the ories of race.

Aristocratic by temperament himself, Gobineau sought passionately all his life to justify elitism both scientifically and philosophically. From the outset, he defined the elite in ethnic terms, identifying it with a superior race, a “race of masters.” He asserted that the white race is superior to the yellow and black races by virtue of its intelligence, its capacity for reflection, its love of order and liberty, its sense of honor, and its pre-emption of all civilized values, and he claimed superiority among the whites for the pure Aryan. Unhappily, however, as he saw it, this ethnic hierarchy has no permanence, for races are constantly mixing; indeed, there are no more pure races. This mixing is disastrous, for it lowers the superior elements to the level of the less gifted and leads eventually to de generation and to the extinction of civilization. On the political level, the mixing of races finds its expression in democracy, which Gobineau considered the worst form of state. In a draft foreword written in 1877 for a second edition of the Essai, he admitted that his race theory was “a natural consequence of [his] horror and disgust at democracy.” The Essai reveals Gobineau’s profound pessimism, ending as it does with an apocalyptic vision of the world in the final stage of decay—an era of uniformity, mediocrity, and passivity on the part of individuals.

Gobineau’s pessimism about the fate of civilization came to be reinforced by the justified conviction that he was not being appreciated. His travels to Greece, Persia, and Brazil only served to confirm his idea that the mixture of races causes degeneration. Full of hatred and contempt for the “mixed breeds,” he returned from Brazil to France in 1870 to experience the France—Prussian War, defeat, the Commune, and the installation of the republic. These events convinced him that the downfall of his country was inevitable, led as it was by the “Gallo-Roman rabble,” the “bourgeoisie.”

His last ministry was in Stockholm, from 1872 to 1876, and he did much writing there. He finished his novel Les pléiades (1874), in which he presented the idea that, as a consequence of racial degeneration, an elite must be sought among individuals—individuals who stand out by virtue of their love of liberty, their sense of honor, and their energy—and he went back to work on his poem Amadis (1887), into which he poured his feudal ideas, his hatreds, and his apocalyptic vision of a degenerate world. There too he worked on Ottar Jarl (1879), the story of a Norwegian pirate, the imaginary founder of his own family of which he claimed to be the last offshoot; the work is a rather pathetic attempt to prove that he was an elite being. In Stockholm, too, he embraced the pagan spirit, leaving behind not only the Catholicism of his family but also many other forms of religious and philosophical thought that he had accepted succes sively since childhood.

His growing hostility toward a society that failed to appreciate him led to his being retired prematurely in 1876. He lived out his last years in Italy, full of bitterness and pessimism, separated from his wife, and in financial stringency.

R. Thenen

[For the historical context of Gobineau’s work, seeRace.]


(1847) 1961 Mademoiselle Irnois, suivi de Adélaϊde. Paris: Gallimard.

(1853–1855) 1933 Essai sur l’inégalité des races hu-maines. 6th ed. 2 vols. Paris: Firmin-Didot. → Partially translated into English in 1915 as The Inequality of Human Races.

(1854–1876) 1933 Correspondance entre le comte de Gohineau et le comte de Prokesh Osten (1854–1876). Paris: Plon.

(1856–1863) 1959 Les dépeêches diplomatiques du comte de Gohineau en Perse. Études d’histoire économique, polltique et sociale, No. 30. Geneva: Droz.

(1859) 1923 Trois ans en Asie (de 1855 à 1858). Paris: Grasset.

1861 Voyage à Terre-Neuve. Paris: Hachette.

(1865) 1933 Les religions et les philosophies dans I’Asie centrale. Paris: Gallimard.

(1868–1881) 1936 Lettres à deux athiniénnes (1868–1881). Athens: Castalie.

1869a Histoire des persés d’apres les auteurs orientaux, grecs et latins. 2 vols. Paris: Nourrit.

1869b L’Aphroessa. Paris: Maillet.

(1870–1882) 1938 Gobineau, Joseph Arthur de; and Pedro ii, Emperor of BrazilD. Pedro IIe o conde de Gobineau (correspondencias ineditas). São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional. → Letters written between 1870 and 1882. See pages 373-619 for the French originals.

1872 Souvenirs de voyage (Céephalonie, Naxie et Terre-Neuve). Paris: Plon-Nourrit.

(1872–1882) 1958 Correspondance, 1872-1882: Comte de Gobineau et Mere Benedicte de Gobineau. 2 vols. Paris: Mercure de France.

(1874) 1928 The Pleiads. New York: Knopf. → First published in French.

(1876) 1965 Nouvelles asiatiques. Paris: Garmier.

(1877) 1927 The Renaissance: Savonarola, Cesare Borgia, Julius II, Leo X, Michaelangelo. New York: Putnam. → First published in French.

1879 Histoire d’Ottar Jarl, pirate norvégien, conquérant du pays de Bray en Normandie, et de sa descendance. Paris: Didier.

1887 Amadis, poème. Paris: Plon. → Published posthu mously.

1907 La Troisième République francaise et ce qu’elle vaut. Strasbourg: Trubner. → Published posthumously.

(1923) 1924 The Golden Flower. New York: Putnam. → Five historical essays published posthumously in French. Written originally as prefaces to the five parts of Gobineau’s play La renaissance, 1877.


Dreyfus, Robert 1905 La vie et les prophe’ties du comte de Gobineau. Paris: Lévy.

Études gobiniennes. 1966 Paris: Klincksieck.

Gaulmier, Jean 1965 Spectre de Gobineau. Paris: Pauvert.

Gobineau et le gobinisme. 1934 Nouvelle revue française 49. → The entire issue is devoted to Gobineau.

Lange, Maurice 1924 Le comte Arthur de Gobineau: Étude biographique et critique. Strasbourg: Librairie Istra.

[Numéro spécial consacré à Gobineau.] 1923 Europe No. 9.

[Numéro spécial consacré à Gobineau.] 1923 Nouveau mercure, 10.

Rowbotham, Arnold 1929 The Literary Works of Count de Gobineau. Paris: Champion.

Schemann, Ludwig 1913-1916 Gobineau: Eine Biographic 2 vols. Strasbourg: Tröbner.

Schemann, Ludwig 1914-1923 Quellen und Untersuchungen zum Leben Gobineau. 2 vols. Strasbourg: Trübner.

SeillÉre, Ernest 1903 La philosophic de l’impérialisme. Volume 1: Le comte de Gobineau et l’aryanisme historique. Paris: Plon-Nourrit.

Spring, Gerald M. 1932 The Vitalism of Count de Gobineau. New York: Institute of French Studies.

Tocqueville, Alexis de (1843–1859) 1959 Oeuvres, papiers et correspondances. Volume 9: Correspondance d’Alexis de Tocqueville et d’Arthur de Gobineau. Paris: Gallimard.

Comte de Gobineau

views updated

Comte de Gobineau

Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (1816-1882), was a French diplomat, man of letters, and racial theorist. He was the first to propound the idea of Aryan superiority as a scientific theory.

Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was born on July 14, 1816, at Ville d'Avray near Paris, the scion of a noble family that remained loyal to the Bourbons. He attended school at the College of Bienne in Switzerland. From 1835 until his diplomatic sojourns he lived in Paris, where he occupied himself with literary work and a wide range of studies.

The Comte de Gobineau's aristocratic connections led to a meeting with Alexis de Tocqueville. When Tocqueville became foreign minister for a brief time in 1849, he made Gobineau his private secretary and, soon after, chief of his Cabinet. Later, Gobineau was made first secretary in the embassy at Berne, and later he held posts at Hanover and Frankfurt.

Gobineau's Theory

Gobineau's most important work, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-1855), partly translated into English in 1856, was an expression of his basic understanding of the meaning of his own life and of the events of his times. He was a royalist who despised democracy. He believed he was a descendant of a noble race of men, and he saw the French Revolution as a direct result of the bastardization of the race to which he belonged.

Gobineau sought to create a science of history by explaining the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of race. There were three races—the blacks, who were stupid and frivolous, but in whom the senses were well developed; the yellows, who craved mediocrity; and the whites, who were strong, intelligent, and handsome. Of the whites, the Aryans were superior, with the Germans being the purest of the Aryans. "German" did not refer to the entire German nation, die Deutschen, but rather to a tribe of Aryans, die Germanen, or Teutons, who had invaded Europe and set themselves up as an aristocracy to rule over the indigenous Celts and Slavs, who were inferior.

Gobineau did not believe that there are any modern pure races, nor was he set against all race mixing. He believed that civilization arose as the result of conquest by a superior race, virtually always Aryan, over inferior races. While Aryans were brave, strong, and intelligent, nevertheless they were a bit unimaginative and weak in sense perception. A small amount of infusion of black blood would heighten the senses and improve the imagination. Such an infusion, by way of Semites, explains the flowering of art and philosophy in ancient Greece.

However, Gobineau held that while some race mixing is good, too much is very bad, as it leads to the stagnation of civilization. Because Aryans have an appetite for race mixing, which made civilization possible in the first place, race mixing will eventually go too far, leading to the eventual destruction of civilization.

Gobineau was no nationalist. He associated nationalism with democracy and believed that both promoted excessive mixing of Aryan with inferior bloods. The disturbances of 1848 and 1871 increasingly convinced him that race mixing already had gone too far and European civilization was doomed. Today one can only wonder at this French count's fantastic version of the Germanic concept of the twilight of the gods!

Diplomatic and Literary Career

In 1854 Gobineau went to Teheran as first secretary, becoming minister to Persia in 1861. Several works on Persian society resulted, as well as a number of stories with a Persian setting.

In 1864 Gobineau represented France at Athens and in 1868 at Rio de Janeiro, where he became a friend of the Brazilian emperor, Dom Pedro II. Gobineau's last post was at Stockholm in 1872. He was forced to retire from the diplomatic corps in 1876 and spent most of his remaining years in Italy.

Gobineau continued his literary career. The Pleiads (1874) is considered his finest novel. Many of his literary writings were published posthumously. He met Richard Wagner in Rome in 1876 and subsequently made several trips to his home in Bayreuth. Gobineau's racial theories had not been well received in France, but Wagner was very much impressed by Gobineau's views. Partly through the influence of the Bayreuth circle, Gobineau's racial ideas became popular in Germany in the decades after his death in Turin on Oct. 13, 1882.

Further Reading

A recent work on Gobineau is Michael D. Biddiss, Father of Racist Ideology (1970). Two older works are Arnold H. Rowbotham, The Literary Works of Count de Gobineau (1929), and Gerald M. Spring, The Vitalism of Count de Gobineau (1932). See also Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937). □

About this article

Joseph Arthur de Gobineau

All Sources -
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic