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.”
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”.