Race, Theory of

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In the 18th century the "founding fathers" of anthropology almost all believed that the human races differed in innate intelligence, or even in virtue. Obviously the idea of such racial differences is far older than the first attempts at their scientific classification.

Early Beliefs

Primitive tribes who laid claim to particular genealogies, going back to legendary ancestors, developed these ideas in their own way. In classical Greece, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle were "racists" in the modern sense of the word: according to Aristotle, the Greeks were born to be free while the barbarians were slaves by nature. However, in the melting pot of Alexander's empire and later in the Roman empire, belief in ethnocentrism faded; this was especially true of Stoic philosophy. The Jewish tradition, with its majestic story of Adam which furnished all men with a common ancestor, can be considered the first historical example of a fundamentally "antiracist" conception. On this subject the Talmud states: "for the sake of peace among creatures, the descent of all men is traced back to one individual, so that one may not say to his neighbor, my father is greater than yours" (Sanh. 4:5). Belief in a common descent from Adam was taken over by Christianity and became one of the fundamentals of the Christian principle of the equality of all men before God. However, at the same time, medieval society was divided into three estates – commoners, clergy, and nobility – superiority being ascribed to the "blue blood" of the latter. As most of Europe's reigning monarchs were of Germanic origin, there was a tendency apparent from the earliest days to accord a measure of preeminence to "Germanic blood." Conflicts between such conceptions of degree and the Christian universalist principle were particularly acute in the 16th-century Spanish empire. It was only after lengthy struggles and theological discussions that the Spaniards recognized the native races they found in America as men endowed with souls. At the same time, through statutes dealing with racial purity (limpieza de sangre), a system of racial discrimination was instituted in Spain, applying to the descendants of Jews and Moors who had been converted to Christianity. In spite of their baptism, the blood of these "new Christians" was considered impure and their race inferior.

Eighteenth-Century Anthropological Theories

So, during the whole of European history, it is possible to speak of latent, or even open, racial prejudice. The establishment of the anthropological sciences in the 18th century enabled these prejudices to be expressed systematically, and the systems of classification worked out by the scientists Buffon and Linnaeus were typical in this respect. Both men coupled features (color of skin, type of hair, etc.) with mental and moral characteristics, which were interpreted in favor of the white man of Europe. Buffon, whose system was more overtly racial than Linnaeus', even considered the white man as the norm, the "king of the creation," and colored men as members of degenerate races. The tendency to regard the white race as superior characterized the majority of anthropological systems elaborated during the 18th and 19th centuries. The rejection of biblical anthropology favored this trend, because then it became possible to attribute different origins to different races. Thus, according to *Goethe, Adam was the ancestor of the Jews only, while *Voltaire believed that black men were an intermediate species between white men and apes. In the 18th century the major systems of classification (of which the best known and least marred by racial value judgments was that of Blumenbach) distinguished between only four or five principal races. The Jews were usually included in the white race, in whose midst they were supposed to form a nation sui generis. But at the beginning of the 19th century, with the emergence of nationalist struggles, writers began to multiply the number of races, to distinguish between different European races and even to set one against the other. There was continuous interaction in this field between the mental climate of the time, itself closely related to political upheavals, and the current intellectual theories.

Nineteenth-Century Nationalism

From then on racist or quasiracist notions took root, especially in Germany where nationalist agitators like E.M. Arndt and F.L. Jahn extolled the merits and qualities of the Teutonic race. The philosopher *Fichte elaborated a patriotic theory postulating that German was the original language (Ursprache) of Europe and the Germans its original people (Urvolk). After 1815, many German students and academics propounded these opinions as part of the Pan-Germanic movement. Ideas of the same type also spread in other countries. After the restoration of the monarchy in France some bourgeois intellectuals, reacting against the pretensions of the "Frankish" nobility, claimed to belong to the native "Gallic" race. In Britain "Germanism" or "Teutonism" found influential supporters in Carlyle and Thomas Arnold. In more enlightened English circles the "He-brew race," which had given the West its spiritual values, was championed by Benjamin *Disraeli: "All is race, there is no other truth" was his maxim. In that age the concept of "race" was espoused by numerous authors as a substitute for divine providence as the determining factor in history. Germany continued to be the principal nursery of race theories reinforced by scientific pretensions, partly because its political divisions before 1871 stimulated nationalist fervor, and partly because according to the most prevalent notions the Germans were the only European nation which could claim to be a wholly "pure" race, that is, purely Teutonic. Heinrich *Heine commented ironically: "We Germans are the strongest and wisest race; descendants of our princely house sit on all European thrones; our Rothschilds control all the world's stock markets; our scholars lead in all sciences; we know it all."

"Aryan" and "Semite"

It is obvious that from then on the Jews were considered as a race apart, an Oriental one, and the spectacle of their success in all walks of life after emancipation strengthened the tendency to attribute to them certain specific – and detrimental – racial characteristics. In intellectual spheres the race theories of the 19th century received a powerful impetus and gained a new orientation from the linguistic discovery of the Indo-European group of languages. A confusion arose between languages and races, a mistake which had grave consequences. It was believed that the nations that spoke European languages, which were thought to have derived from Sanskrit, belonged to the Indo-European or "Aryan" race. In opposition to them was a "Semitic" race, represented by the Jews and the Arabs. Typically enough, German scholars used the term "Indo-Germanic" instead of Indo-European. Of course it was also taken for granted that the "Aryan" race was morally superior to the "Semitic" one. Thus, according to the famous Orientalist scholar Lassen, "the Semites do not possess that harmonious equilibrium between all the powers of the intellect which characterized the Indo-Germans." His well-known French colleague Ernest *Renan spoke of the "appalling simplicity of the Semitic mind." All original creations of the human spirit – with the possible exception of religion – were attributed to the "Aryans." Moreover, many authors considered that, to preserve their special qualities, the Aryan nations must avoid intermingling with the people of an "inferior race." They accorded the Germans the distinction of being the purest Aryans.

Such were the opinions, which, pushed to their limits, were developed and popularized by Comte de *Gobineau in his infamous Essai sur l'Inégalité des Races Humaines (1853–55). The racial theories of the 19th century tended to establish a double hierarchy: the superiority of the "Aryans" over "Semites" and other "inferior races"; and the superiority of the "Germans" over other "Aryans." The political and economic success (especially after 1871) of the nations that spoke Germanic languages and that therefore considered themselves as belonging to the Teutonic race helped to sanction these opinions. In Latin countries efforts were made to set up a rival hierarchy (which gave rise to the myths of "Latinity" and "Celticity") or, especially in France, to proclaim the superiority of a "racial mixture" over "racial homogeneity." Similarly, in the United States, the adherents of the "melting-pot" conception of the country (limited to the white race) were in conflict with the acolytes of the "Anglo-Saxon race." All these notions continued to be based on the tenacious confusion, typical of the materialist orientation of anthropological science in the 19th century, between "races" and languages or cultures.

However, during the same century, progress in anthropology, ethnography, and prehistory made most specialists gradually abandon these simplified conceptions. Thus the distinguished philologist Max Mueller, although he had previously supported such theories, announced in 1871 that it was absurd to speak of an "Aryan race" or of a "grammar based on the size of the head." However, the "Aryan theory" continued to gain adherents among the general public. It was propagated in every country in school textbooks, which usually summarily repeated ancient opinions and classified Europeans as "Aryans," all except the "Semitic" Jews. The anti-Jewish campaigns, from then on styled "antisemitic," made their contribution to the spread of the theory. As a result of all this, by 1900 the existence of an "Aryan race" was firmly established in the public mind as a scientific truth. Usually, this only implied a vague belief in the intellectual or moral superiority of the "Aryans" over the "Semites," and a more marked superiority of the "whites" over the "yellows" and especially the "blacks." But in the arena of the violent antisemitic campaigns of the time, some fanatics worked out elaborate eschatological systems in which the struggle between the Aryan and Semitic races was the counterpart of the final struggle between Good and Evil. The most influential of these writers was the Anglo-German Houston Stewart *Chamberlain, who stated that the original sin of the Jews was that from ancient times they had been a mixed race opposed to Aryan purity. Ingenuously, in the time of King Cyrus, the Aryans had committed the fatal blunder of protecting the Jews: "…under the protection of Aryan tolerance was planted the seed from which Semitic intolerance spread its poison over the earth for thousands of years, a curse on all that was noble and a shame to Christianity."

From the second quarter of the 20th century scientific anthropology rid itself almost entirely of the dangerous error of dividing the human races into "superior" and "inferior," or even "good" and "bad." At that same time, however, in a defeated and disoriented Germany, gripped by unemployment, this same error helped to weld a political party and then grew into a state dogma. Thus, from 1933 the theory of race was nothing but a kind of totemistic mythology, serving to justify an imperialistic and murderous expansionism.

In the later part of the 20th century, all such theories of race, whether applied to Jews or other groups, had been largely dicredited by the scientific community.


M.F. Ashley Montagu, Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942); H. Kohn, Idea of Nationalism (1944); G.W. Allport, Nature of Prejudice (1954); unesco, Race Question in Modern Science (1957); L.L. Snyder, Idea of Racialism (1962); L. Poliakov, Histoire de l'Antisémitisme de Voltaire à Wagner (1968); S. Conn and E.E. Hunt, Living Race of Man (1965); idem, The Origin of Races (1962); idem, The Races of Europe (1939); idem, The Story of Man (19622); A.R. Jensen, in: Harvard Educational Review, 39, no. 1 (Winter 1969), 1–123; 39, no. 2 (Spring 1969), 273–356; L. Edson, in: The New York Times Magazine (August 31, 1969), 10–11; M. Deutsch, in: Harvard Educational Review, 39, no. 3 (Summer 1969), 523–57.

[Léon Poliakov]