home | 18-19th centuries index


previous | next

Joseph Gobineau, Race and Conquest

An aristocratic Frenchman, Joseph Gobineau (1816-82), moved in the same circles as Alexis de Tocqueville, and de Tocqueville was impressed by what he thought was Gobineau's charm and lively mind. Gobineau was a Roman Catholic with some liberal leanings. He held that morality was possibly independent of religious belief and that Christianity had added nothing morally significant to that which had been offered by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He thought that Jeremy Bentham had erred by accepting philosophical materialism, and, in a letter to de Tocqueville (dated October 16, 1843), he wrote that no religion was harmful if properly observed. Everyone, he wrote, wants "to perfect himself through a conception of duty" and "all have an immensely sincere desire to seek what is good." 

Politically, Gobineau was conservative. He was offended by the attempt at revolution in France in 1848 and its "pillage and burning, and massacre." Gobineau believed in local rights over central authority, and he believed in personal honor, which he considered an attribute of his class. He saw ideas about equality, democracy and "the mob" as a threat to the well-being of the world. He associated these ideas with materialism. Like many aristocrats he was not an enthusiastic nationalists. And he was hostile to the new industrial capitalism that was on the rise. He yearned for the old aristocratic order, which he believed was marked by respect for family and for hierarchy. Politically he saw liberalism as dangerous because it encouraged a lack of respect for social order.

Gobineau wrote that as he studied the "restless modern world" he found the horizons of his "inquiry" growing wider and wider and further into the past. Professionally he was a diplomat, and in his spare time he put the findings of his study into a book, a work of history, the title of which was The Inequality of the Human Races (Essai sur l'Inégalitédes Races humaines). These were times when others were trying to be scientific about race. At Leipzig, in Germany, in 1849 a work by Karl Gustav Carus had been published under the title On the Unequal Capacity of Different Races for Further Cultural Development. Also in Germany, the composer Richard Wagner, perhaps with no scientific pretensions, was proclaiming that race was the key to artistic creation. In Scotland in 1850, Robert Knox was attempting to be scientific with his book called The Races of Man. And in 1854 a book was published in the United States titled Types of Mankind, written by two men, Nott and Gliddon.

Gobineau intended to be scientific also. He believed that history could be scientific if properly done, and he made an effort to draw from reliable sources.

Gobineau wrote of white people – Aryans – having conquered India, and he assumed that these Aryans were superior to those in India that they had conquered. The Aryans in India, he claimed, had built one of the great civilizations.

Gobineau wrote that it was Aryans from India, moving to the Nile River, who had created the civilization of Egypt. He believed that Aryans had created the Assyrian civilization, which he described as including Phoenicians, Lydian, Carthaginians and Jews. He saw Aryans from India conquering their way to China had creating civilization there. And, of course, there was the great Greek civilization created by Aryans – the Greeks from the same stock as those great conquerors, the Medes, the Persians and the Bactrians. And there was the great Roman civilization, also created by Aryans. All the great civilizations, according to Gobineau, had been created by Aryans.

According to Gobineau, whites alone were culturally creative. Superiority, he believed, was demonstrated by conquest. Conquest was, he claimed, an expression of vigor and will-power by people with valor in their hearts. Whites he claimed have "reflective energy." Others, he believed were "never able to shake themselves from their impotence."

Gobineau believed that in examining the past he had discovered the laws of science governing the fall of civilizations. Degeneration came, he wrote, because conquerors always mixed with those they had conquered, polluting the purity of race of the conquerors, submerging the conquerors into the inferior body of non-Aryans. Jews, he held, had once been pure but had become a threat because they had been "bestialized" through mixing biologically with black Africans. 

The first two volumes of Gobineau's book appeared in 1853. Two more volumes appeared in 1855. His views fit with the belief in Europe's primacy in the world. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt was to write:

Nobody before Gobineau thought of finding one single reason, one single force according to which civilization always and everywhere rises and falls.

For Gobineau, as for the Roman historian Tacitus, Germans were heroic figures, with valor, a love of war and honor. Gobineau mentioned later Roman writers describing German invaders, and he wrote that the Germans "appear to us now as great and majestic as they were thought barbarous by the writers of the Later [Roman] Empire." Gobineau was one of those writers who believed that the Germans had made a great contribution European civilization after they had overrun the Roman Empire. This he believed was overturned with the Renaissance. The Renaissance, he claimed, marked a rejection of the Aryan-German cultural achievement.

Gobineau admired Prussia for being a purely German state, unlike Austria, whose empire embodied Italians, Slavs and Hungarians – a view that was to be shared by the Austrian born Adolf Hitler. Gobineau was to be celebrated by the National Socialists, but as with Nietzsche they would edit his work, removing his lack of hostility toward Jews.


Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau, by Michael D Biddiss, 1970

Young Nietzsche, by Carl Pietsch, 1991

A History of Western Society, Volume Two, Chapter 23, "Ideologies and Upheavals, 1815-1850" by John P. McKay, Bennet D. Hill and John Buckler, 1995

Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture, by Gusta Jahoda, 1999 (summarized)

Freedom in the Modern World, by Herbert J Muller, 1966

The History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, 1967

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.