The fall of civilizations is at once the most striking and obscure of all historical phenomena. Inspiring the mind with terror, it is a calamity so majestic and inscrutable that the thinker never tires of it. ... When we perceive that, after a period of strength and glory, all human societies come to decline and fall, all of them, I say, without exception; when we become aware with what fearful silence the earth displays upon its surface the debris of the civilizations that preceded our own... when the mind, reverting to our modern states, takes the measure of their extreme youth and recognizes that some, having arisen but yesterday, are already in a state of decrepitude; then we acknowledge, not without a shudder ... how rigorously the word of the prophets on the instability of all things applies to peoples--to peoples no less than to states, to states no less than to individuals..
Peoples perish because they are degenerate and for no other reason.... No longer able to withstand blows or to pick themselves up after suffering them, they place before us the spectacle of their death throes. If they die, it is because they no longer possess the vigor that their ancestors had in passing through the dangers of life. ... How and why is that vigor lost? That is what we need to know. How does a people degenerate? That is what we must explain...
The word degenerate, when applied to a people, means (as it ought to mean) that the people has no longer the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it has no longer the same blood in its veins, continual adulterations having gradually affected the quality of that blood. In other words, though the nation bears the name given by its founders, the name no longer connotes the same race ; in fact, the man of a decadent time, the degenerate man properly so called, is a different being, from the racial point of view, from the heroes of the great ages. I agree that he still keeps something of their essence; but the more he degenerates, the thinner does this "something " become. ...He is only a very distant kinsman of those he still calls his ancestors. He, and his civilization with him, will certainly die on the day when the primordial race-unit is so broken up and swamped by the influx of foreign elements, that its effective qualities no longer exercise sufficient influence. [In this book, I will show by examples] that great peoples, at the moment of their death, share only a very small and insignificant amount of the blood of their founders and... thereby have explained clearly enough how it is possible for civilizations to fall—the reason being that they are no longer in the same hands.
... Generally the dominating peoples begin by being far fewer in number than those they conquer; 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 another reason for the rapid disappearance of the conquering races. 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. ...
...I have now given meaning to the word "degeneration"; and so have been able to show how a nation loses its vitality. I must next proceed to prove what for the sake of clearness I have had to put forward as a mere hypothesis; namely, that there are real differences in the relative value of human races. The consequences of proving this will be considerable, and cover a wide field. But first I must lay a foundation of fact and argument capable of holding up such a vast building...
The idea of an original, clear-cut, and permanent inequality among the different races is one of the oldest and most widely held opinions in the world. [and yet today it is often challenged] "All men," say the defenders of human equality, "are furnished with similar intellectual powers, of the same nature, of the same value, of the same compass." These are not perhaps their exact words, but it is certainly the right meaning. So the brain of the Huron Indian contains in an undeveloped form an intellect which is absolutely the same as that of the Englishman or the Frenchman! Why then, in the course of the ages, has he not invented printing or steam power? I should be quite justified in asking our Huron why, if he is equal to our European peoples, his tribe has never produced a Caesar or a Charlemagne among its warriors....The difficulty is usually met by the blessed phrase, "the predominating influence of environment." According to this doctrine, an island will not see the same miracles of civilization as a continent, the same people will be different in the north from what it is in the south, forests will not allow of developments which are favored by open country. What else? The humidity of a marsh, I suppose, will produce a civilization which would inevitably have been stifled by the dryness of the Sahara! However ingenious these little hypotheses may be, the testimony of fact is against them. In spite of wind and rain, cold and heat, sterility and fruitfulness, the world has seen barbarism and civilization flourishing everywhere, one after the other, on the same soil.
... We often hear of negroes who have learnt music, who are clerks in banking-houses, and who know how to read, write, count, dance, and speak, like white men. People are astonished at this, and conclude that the negro is capable of everything! And then, in the same breath, they will express surprise at the contrast between the Slav civilization and our own. The Russians, Poles, and Serbians (they will say), even though they are far nearer to us than the negroes, are only civilized on the surface; the higher classes alone participate in our ideas, owing to the continual admixture of English, French, and German blood. The masses, on the other hand, are invincibly ignorant of the Western world and its movements, although they have been Christian for so many centuries—in many cases before we were converted ourselves! The solution is simple. There is a great difference between imitation and conviction. Imitation does not necessarily imply a serious breach with hereditary instincts; but no one has a real part in any civilization until he is able to make progress by himself, without direction from others. What is the use of telling me how clever some particular savages are in guiding the plough, in spelling, or reading, when they are only repeating the lessons they have learnt ? Show me rather, among the many regions in which savages have lived for ages in contact with Europeans, one single place where the religious doctrines, the ideas, customs, and institutions of even one European people have been so completely assimilated that progress in them is made as naturally and spontaneously as among ourselves. Show me a place where the introduction of printing has had results, similar to those in Europe, where our sciences are brought to perfection, where new applications are made of our discoveries, where our philosophies are the parents of other philosophies, of political systems, of literature and art, of books, statues, and pictures!
Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) (1853–1855)
by Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau was intended as a work of philosophical enquiry into decline and degeneration. It is today considered as one of the earliest examples of scientific racism.
Expanding upon Boulainvilliers’ use of ethnography to defend the Ancien Regime against the claims of theThird Estate, de Gobineau aimed for an explanatory system universal in scope: namely, that race is the primary force determining world events. Using scientific disciplines as varied as linguistics and anthropology, de Gobineau divides the human species into three major groupings, white, yellow and black, claiming to demonstrate that “history springs only from contact with the white races.” Among the white races, he distinguishes the Aryan race as the pinnacle of human development, comprising the basis of all European aristocracies. However, inevitable miscegenation led to the ‘downfall of civilizations’.
Background to the Book
Gobineau was a Legitimist who despaired at France’s decline into republicanism and centralization. The book was written after the 1848 revolution when Gobineau began studying the works of Xavier Bichat and Johann Blumenbach.
The book was dedicated to King George V of Hanover (1851–66), the last king of Hanover. In the dedication, Gobineau writes that he presents to His Majesty the fruits of his speculations and studies into the hidden causes of the “revolutions, bloody wars, and lawlessness” (“révolutions, guerres sanglantes, renversements de lois”) of the age.
In a letter to Count Anton von Prokesch-Osten in 1856 he describes the book as based upon “a hatred for democracy and its weapon, the Revolution, which I satisfied by showing, in a variety of ways, where revolution and democracy come from and where they are going.”
Arthur de Gobineau in 1864
Gobineau and the Bible
In Vol I, chapter 11, “Les différences ethniques sont permanentes” (“The ethnic differences are permanent”), Gobineau writes that “Adam is the originator of our white species” (“Adam soit l’auteur de notre espèce blanche”), and creatures not part of the white race are not part of that species. By this Gobineau refers to his division of humans into three main races: white, black, and yellow. The biblical division into Hamites, Semites, and Japhetites is for Gobineau a division within the white race. In general, Gobineau considers the Bible to be a reliable source of actual history, and he was not a supporter of the idea of polygenesis.
Superiority of the Aryans
Vol I, chapter 16, the final chapter of that volume, carries the long superscript “Récapitulation; caractères respectifs des trois grandes races; effects sociaux des mélanges; supérorité du type blanc et, dans ce type, de la famille ariane”, or, in English, “Recapitulation; respective characters of the three great races; social effects of [racial] mixtures; superiority of the white type and, within that type, of the Aryan family”. Gobineau claims that there have been no more than ten great civilizations, and that they have all been started by the white race. These civilizations are:
- The Indian civilization – built around a branch of the Aryans.
- The Egyptian civilization – founded by an Aryan colony from India.
- The Assyrians – to which are attached other civilizations such as the Jewish and the Phoenician. According to Gobineau, these are Hamites and Semites. Gobineau places the Iranian civilizations here, but claims that they are Aryans.
- The Greeks – originally Aryans, but with Semitic elements.
- The Chinese civilization – like the Egyptian founded by an Aryan colony from India.
- The old civilization of the Italian Peninsula – became a mosaic of Celts, Iberians, Aryans, and Semites.
- The Germanic races transformed in the 5th century the western spirit – they were Aryans.
- The Alleghanian civilizations in America.
- The Mexican civilizations in America.
- The Peruvian civilization in America.
In Vol VI, chapter 7, “Les indigènes américans” (“The native Americans”), Gobineau discusses the racial status of the native Americans and ends up suggesting that at least the royal families of the three American civilization groups mentioned above (8.-10.) were white, even Aryans of Scandinavian origin.
Josiah Clark Nott hired Henry Hotze to translate the work into English. Hotze’s translation was published in 1856 as The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races, with an added essay from Hotze and appendix from Nott. However, it “omitted the laws of repulusion and attraction, which were at the heart of Gobineau’s account of the role of race-mixing in the rise and fall of civilizations”.[ Gobineau was not pleased with the version; Gobineau was “particularly concerned that Hotze had ignored his comments on ‘American decay generally and upon slaveholding in particular’.”
The German translation Versuch über die Ungleichheit der Menschenrassen first appeared in 1897 and was translated by Ludwig Schemann, a member of the Bayreuth Circle and “one of the most important racial theorists of imperial and Weimar Germany”.
A new English language version The Inequality of Human Races, translated by Adrian Collins, was published in Britain and the USA in 1915 and remains the standard English language version. It continues to be republished in the USA.
Gobineau’s “influence on the development of racial theory has been exaggerated and his ideas have been routinely misconstrued”.
Gobineau’s ideas found an audience in the United States and in German-speaking areas more so than in France, becoming the inspiration for a host of racial theories, for example those of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. “Gobineau was the first to theorize that race was the deciding factor in history and the precursors of Nazism repeated some of his ideas, but his principle arguments were either ignored, deformed, or taken out of context in German racial thought”.
The Historian and Hitler-Biographer Joachim C. Fest describes Arthur de Gobineau, in particular his negative views on race mixing as expressed in his essay, as an eminent influence on Adolf Hitler and National socialism. In the Chapter “Vision” within his Book “Hitler” he writes that the influence of Gobineau on Hitler can be easily seen and that Gobineaus ideas were used by Hitler in simplified form for demagogic purposes: “Significantly, Hitler simplified Gobineau’s elaborate doctrine until it became demagogically usable and offered a set of plausible explanations for all the discontents, anxieties, and crises of the contemporary scene.”However, Professor Steven Kale has cautioned that “Gobineau’s influence on German racism has been repeatedly overstated”.