The name of Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816 – 1882) rarely appears nowadays except in a context of moral dudgeon. The first sentence of the Wikipedia article devoted to Gobineau perhaps unsurprisingly informs the reader, in rather lazy prose, that “Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau… was a French aristocrat who was best known by his contemporaries as a novelist, diplomat, and travel writer but is today most remembered for developing the theory of the Aryan master race and helping to legitimise racism by scientific racist theory and racial demography.” (Punctuation corrected.) The term “scientific racist theory” especially courts self-condemnation through its editorial heavy-handedness and its retrojection of a contemporary item of ideological cant: Objectively, Gobineau sought only to articulate a scientific racial theory or a scientific theory of race. The term “master-race” moreover is foreign to Gobineau’s text; and “Aryan,” as Gobineau properly uses it, is an ancient tribal self-designation. Had someone accused Gobineau of racism, or of being a racist, the term would have baffled him entirely. The reliably left-leaning Wikipedia is not alone, however, in treating Gobineau as thoroughly toxic. The New World Encyclopedia, in its online version, asseverates that “although [Gobineau’s] racial theories did not receive immediate attention in Europe,” nevertheless “it was through the influence of the Bayreuth circle and Richard Wagner that his views became popular, and his anti-Semitic theories developed.” The Encyclopedia’s rhetorical maneuver draws on the widely circulated notion that National Socialism began proleptically with Wagner, who therefore qualifies himself as morally pernicious, and it extends Wagner’s supposed vileness backwards to the one who planted the seed of wickedness in Wagner’s mind – namely Gobineau in his proper person. That reading Gobineau’s prose inspired Wagner to be a rabid anti-Semite and led to the Holocaust seems to be the implication.
Leaving aside the imputation that Wagner was a Proto-Hitler, which while of considerable interest belongs in another discussion, these slick mischaracterizations of Gobineau’s treatise on The Inequality of the Human Races (1854) reveal themselves as being based on prejudicial and superficial readings of that book; or perhaps on a universal omission to read it. What then would a careful and unprejudiced reading of The Inequality of the Human Races yield? The present essay proposes to answer that question. (Note: Inequality is a work in four extensive volumes that touch on a variety of topics and that in many ways establish the science of comparative ethnography; the first volume, however, functions as an extended introduction to the other three, summarizing their contents in advance. For the sake of tractability, I confine my remarks to that first volume.)
I. Context: Rousseau. The Inequality of the Human Races belongs in the genre of anthropology, a line of scientific investigation that plausibly boasts a French origin – and that origin would be in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754), written exactly a century before Gobineau’s book and, in fact, a much more influential volume than The Inequality of the Human Races, by far. Gobineau’s treatise has a complicated relation to Rousseau’s Discourse, picking up some of its propositions and continuing them while radically rejecting certain other of its propositions. Rousseau’s Discourse contributed a number of ideas to the intellectual justification of the Revolution in France, in respect of whose destructive results on French society, and beyond French society on the larger arena of European culture, Gobineau took the contrarian stance of a conscientious Reactionary. In this way, Gobineau aligns himself with such as François-René, Viscomte de Chateaubriand; Alfred Victor, Comte de Vigny; Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre; Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine, Chevalier de Pratz; and even with such as Charles Baudelaire – aristocrat-intellectuals, all but the last, who, in the decades after the Napoleonic restoration, became prominent voices, differing sometimes noticeably in their emphasis of principles, on the monarchical Right-Wing of the political spectrum in La belle nation. Like all these men, Gobineau wrote in a variety of genres, producing scientific and philosophical treatises, novels, poetry, and books of observation on foreign and exotic places. Among Gobineau’s books one will find a history of Persia, a country where he served for a time as French ambassador; a discussion of the method of deciphering the Sumerian cuneiform, and accounts of visits to Newfoundland and Polynesia among other far-flung locales. A 1915 Edition of Gobineau’s book included a sympathetic new introduction by the Swiss German-speaking Jewish physician and Nietzsche-scholar Oscar Levy. When The Inequality of the Human Races first appeared in English in 1854, it bore the title, The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races: “Diversity,” that very shibboleth of multicultural contemporaneity!
What is the central argument and what are the related theses of Rousseau’s book to which Gobineau, in the chapters of his essay, responds? Rousseau interests himself in the social phenomenon of inequality, which he elsewhere qualifies as moral inequality. Rousseau assumes the existence of a pervasive, scandalous, and unjustifiable inequality, much as his modern followers on the political left do today, but in defense of Rousseau he thinks on a higher plane by far than they. Even where his argument plays a rhetorical con-game, as it sometimes does, in order to disguise its weaknesses, the reader might still follow both the argument and its rhetorical elaboration with a certain degree of mordant admiration. Rousseau keenly wants to understand inequality genetically, that is to say, on the basis of its origin, which by itself is certainly a legitimate project. Such an endeavor entails the formulation of a comprehensive anthropology. In the Discourse, Part I, using the device of the rhetorical question, Rousseau asks (in Maurice Cranston’s translation), “For how can we know the source of inequality among men if we do not first have knowledge of men themselves?” A difficulty now arises, because, as Rousseau argues, contemporary man is not primordial man. Rousseau therefore poses the additional question, “How can man come to know himself as nature made him once he has undergone all the changes which the succession of time and things must have produced in his original constitution, and so distinguish that which belongs to his own essence from that which circumstances and progress have added to, or altered in, his primitive state?” It is not really a question, as acute readers will have noticed; it is more in the character of a series of bold and in some cases dubious assertions disguised under the interrogative syntax.
The phrases “man… as nature made him,” “his original constitution,” and “his primitive state,” much like the earlier phrase “his own essence,” when taken together suggest an objectively knowable entity; and yet on the other hand, this entity, in Rousseau’s description of it, remains elusive to knowledge. The obstacles that loom up in the way of the desired cognition arise from a cumulus of “change” and “progress,” notions that stand in considerable tension with any concept of nature or essence. Man possesses, Rousseau appears to argue, or rather he once in the past possessed, a nature or essence, but the steady succession of centuries has seen the metamorphosis, the erosion, or perhaps the dispossession, of that nature or essence. Indeed, as Rousseau continues, it becomes clear that modern man lacks an essence such that there is something false or inauthentic about him. It is “cruel,” Rousseau asserts, that “the whole progress of the human species removes man constantly farther and farther from his primitive state,” until ironically, “it is through studying man that we have rendered ourselves incapable of knowing him.” In the Discourse, Part II, Rousseau famously stipulates the event that derailed man from the continuation of his true nature and began his degradation. In Rousseau’s myth, a malefactor invented property and persuaded his naïve fellows to accept the innovation. This man “was the true founder of civil society.” Acute readers will have remarked the frequency with which, in Part I, Rousseau invokes knowledge (savoir); and they will at the same time have noted that, according to Rousseau, scholarship, by accumulating facts, constitutes itself not as an avenue but rather as an impediment to knowledge. The concept of “progress,” understood as the accumulation of knowledge, thus, on its own, acquires a destabilizing ambiguity. For this reason, Rousseau has proposed that his essay should commence “by setting aside all the facts.” What then will substitute itself for “the facts”?
Rousseau includes among “the facts” the Scriptural and other mythic accounts of human origin; in addition, he gathers under the same title all empirical descriptions of tribal primitives whether historical or contemporary. Rousseau will put in their place his own powers of speculation and introspection, seeking the residue of human primordiality in the fastnesses of his subjectivity. “O Man,” Rousseau writes, “to whatever country you belong and whatever your opinions, listen: Here is your history, as I believe I have read it, not in the books of your fellow men who are liars but in Nature which never lies.” This capitalized “Nature” furnishes Rousseau with the environment in which the earliest men drew their common “original constitution.” Rousseau sets up the terms for a dialectical relation between the environment and a particular entity that finds itself there and at that time environed. Rousseau emphasizes the temporal distance, not so much between himself and the object of his speculation, as between the contemporary naïf, all too ready to believe the “liars,” and the object of his speculation. Rousseau promises the naïf that the account of man’s origin – or, more accurately, the account of man’s origin and his subsequent degradation – that he is about to narrate will explain the ordinary man’s discontentment with “the present condition”; and at the same time, it will function as “the indictment of [his] contemporaries.” Rousseau’s promise strongly implies that conspiring malefactors have secretly caused the misery of the “present condition,” such that the naïf need never blame himself for any of his unhappiness. Having appealed to the resentment of the naïf, Rousseau now begins to describe the supreme self-contentedness of primordial man or the Noble Savage. Concerning primordial man’s physiognomy, Rousseau writes, “I shall suppose him to have been at all times as I see him today, walking on two feet, using his hands as we use ours, casting his gaze over the whole of nature and measuring with his eyes the vast expanse of the heavens.” This same creature, however, despite the language of the final clause, possesses neither “supernatural gifts” nor any “artificial faculties.” He is solitary, not yet having formed any communal or even any sexual ties; his body is his sole instrument; and among animals, his attributes are middling.
The present generation exists only because primordial man survived – although in surviving, primordial man also changed, and not, as Rousseau sees it, for the better. Rousseau attributes the survival of primordial man, he who knows no mother, to the maternal solicitude of nature: “The earth, left to its natural fertility and covered with immense forests that no axe had ever mutilated, would afford on all sides storehouses and places of shelter to every species of animal. Man, dispersed among the beasts, would observe and imitate their activities, and so assimilate their instincts, with this added advantage that while every other species has only its own instinct, man, having perhaps none which is peculiar to himself, appropriates every instinct, and by nourishing himself equally well on most of the various foods the other animals divide among themselves, he finds his sustenance more easily than do any of the others.” Primordial man went naked; once he had easily satisfied his basic requirements, he slept a good deal. No marriage or family existed; procreation occurred through chance meetings of a sexually transient character, without sentiment, the mothers soon abandoning their children. “The savage man,” Rousseau claims, “deprived of any sort of enlightenment, experiences passions only,” in the form of the “simple impulsion of nature”; that is, thirst, hunger, sex, or exhaustion’s desire to quell itself in somnolence. His only language is “the cry of nature,” or the vocalization of his distress, when distress befalls him, but none answers another’s cry. In his perpetual and total solitude, primordial man experienced a type of happiness because he lived an existence of complete freedom. He was “a free being whose heart [was] at peace.”
Degeneracy commenced with the institution of property, but that degeneracy had its prequels in the formation of the dictatorial-patriarchal family, in the development of language, which subdued passion to reason, and in the gradual formation of super-familial communities and then super-tribal societies. Rousseau regards the development of language as an especially corrupting process, inimical to the absolute freedom of the Noble Savage hence also an important ingredient in modern unhappiness. Language is the sign of reflection, which inhibits action. In a remarkable passage near the beginning of the Discourse, Part I, Rousseau writes: “If nature destined us to be healthy, I would almost venture to assert that the state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal.” As previously mentioned, Rousseau seems to have been born a verbal prestidigitator, whose rhetorical strategy often entails leaving the reader in a state of well-planned perplexity. In the just-quoted sentence, for example, the hypothetical hence counterfactual “if” and the broad modal qualification “would almost” together indicate nothing less than a reflective state of mind that reins in the candor that wants to force its way out, freely, with no qualification whatsoever. The entire project of rediscovering primordial man through a descent into the self can only constitute itself in reflection, however misguided such reflection might be. Rousseau also subtly alludes to familiar stories while at the same time he refuses to specify the allusion. Reflection belongs to the Expulsion from Paradise, in the moment of which Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness and seek to cover it.
Rousseau thus insinuates a parallelism between his account of man’s fall and the Genesis account of the same, but his intention never permits itself to stop there. The Biblical fall, pardoning the expression, is temporally permanent; that is, it reigns as long as time lasts, and those who seek redemption understand that redemption will come only when time itself reaches its end. Christ will mediate that redemption. Rousseau offers himself as the timely mediator of a this-worldly redemption. It only requires that one internalize his Gnostic gospel of liberation.
In the Discourse, Part II, Rousseau traces the stages of man’s putative increasing unhappiness. A good summary passage is the one concerning the link between metallurgy and agriculture. In hunting and gathering, which required only stone implements, man maintained a degree of freedom: “So long as men applied themselves only to work that one person could accomplish… they lived as free, healthy, good and happy… but from the instant one man needed the help of another, and it was found to be useful for one man to have provisions enough for two, equality disappeared”; whereupon “property was introduced, work became necessary, and vast forests were transformed into pleasant fields which had to be watered with the sweat of men, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and flourish with the crops.” The prolepsis of The Communist Manifesto is obvious. Beyond that, the prolepsis of that latest mutation of Marxism, the one calling itself multiculturalism, is equally obvious. As in Rousseau’s narrative, so too in multiculturalism’s narrative, the past was sweet but the present is bitter; the European variety of society, in being the most developed, in belonging more than any other to the present, qualifies itself as the most unequal and oppressive. Apparent differences of achievement, finally, are the wicked misrepresentations of the oppressors – the liars – who use rhetoric to obfuscate injustice and thereby sustain their victims in docility.
Rousseau proposes his account of man’s degeneration from freedom into slavery as universal. Every human society, even the society of the far-flung Patagonians, trends in the direction of unnatural inequality and moral corruption. The Discourse, Part II, concludes on a note of fury, with Rousseau preaching the necessity of revolution. “There is a class of men who attach importance to the gaze of the rest of the world,” he writes, as if he were not one of them. The difference between the savage and the citizen consists in the fact that “the savage lives within himself” whereas the “social man lives always outside himself.” In effect, and radically, the Discourse takes on the character of a diatribe against civilization, the total abolition of which, probably by violence, it encourages. How else but by violence could such a program complete itself? In this way the Discourse gets ahead of revolutionary Communism, which, in Russia, entailed ambitious programs of literacy and, as Lenin put it, the electrification of the countryside. When the curious party today reads in a journal article that a university professor somewhere in the Ivy League condemns mathematical rigor because calculus humiliates those who cannot master it – this is essentially Rousseauvianism, a revolution so sweeping that it proposes to sacrifice cognition to equality.
II. Gobineau’s Inequality as a Response to Rousseau’s Discourse. Rousseau anticipates – no doubt because he coins – much of the cant of the contemporary politically correct regime, which fixates, obsessively if not also exclusively, on the twinned and sacrosanct concepts of equality and oppression. No institutionally acculturated modern reader will experience so much as the tiniest atom of cognitive dissonance while reading the Discourse. Its resentment and narcissism fit it perfectly to the emotional state of the contemporary Cultural Marxist. Gobineau’s Inequality, on the other hand, would no doubt inspire in the liberal-modern reader fear-and-trembling, conniption-fits, boiling outrage, and, after extended pearl-clutching, an urgent need to retreat to safe spaces in the heresy-free zone. Gobineau would have classified Rousseau as a “Unitarian,” not a reference to any post-Christian religious sect, but to the school that insists on the unqualified unity of the human species and the absolute equality of its societies and peoples – on their interchangeability, as it were, except for the existing society. In his “O Man” oration in the Discourse, for example, Rousseau addresses the total humanity as sharing in the same millennial and millennially misrepresented, narrative and as requiring one and the same therapy to deliver it from its state of dispossession. Rousseau is the therapist and his oratory is the therapy; or rather, its practical application in violence, to overthrow oppression through the abolition of consciousness, will be the therapy. Gobineau himself endorses the Diversitarian alternative to the Unitarian doctrine. He is, in effect, an actual Multiculturalist but with this difference: In his view it is the earthly globe at large, in the vastness of its continents and oceans, that furnishes the plural and proper homes of the many peoples. These peoples, by their own dispositions, prefer to keep to themselves. They exercise their proper freedom in the nullification of any aggressive multicultural program that comes campaigning, far from its own deluded home, in their homelands. Gobineau would not attempt to nullify their nullification of such a trespass. Indeed, drawing a wealth of examples from the Near-Eastern and Central-Asian phases of Hellenism, Gobineau argues that the majority of peoples, historically speaking, have rejected the cosmopolis. Once the Seleucid polity has retracted, the veneer of Greekness vanishes, and the local Bactrian and Tocharian societies revert to their never-really-subdued traditions.
These observations have a corollary in Gobineau’s larger theoretical strand that supplies Inequality, not exactly with its major premise, which the title enshrines, but with its major topic and an associated – as Gobineau sees it – unavoidable thesis. Gobineau takes an interest, first of all, in the decline and fall of civilizations, which he attributes to a sole cause. Gobineau writes (Chapter I) of a “general cause,” one which “weighs imperiously on all societies without exception,” and that entails for them “the necessity of coming to an end.” According to Gobineau, “when we start from this fixed principle of natural death… we see that all civilizations, after they have lasted some time, betray to the observer some little symptoms of uneasiness”; and these conform themselves to “a like nature in all times and all places.” Gobineau acknowledges that, yes, “no civilization falls to the ground unless God wills it,” but he reminds his readers that this leaves open the question of what it is that arouses God’s displeasure and invites His chastisement – or rather of what arouses Him to the withdrawal of His active beneficence so that self-chastisement might follow its natural course. Gobineau identifies this cause in religious terms with “sin” and in natural-scientific terms with “the germ of destruction.” He argues that the sin or sickness of any society at any time is the same as the pandemic affliction of that society’s people. The Greek and Roman writers, as Gobineau remarks, looked to “luxury, effeminacy, [and] misgovernment” as causes of decline and extinction, but Gobineau for his own part rejects that thesis. The Roman Empire experienced bouts of luxury, effeminacy, and misgovernment, but through many centuries showed proneness to right itself. The English and Russian aristocracies, Gobineau observes, have raised luxury to a “pitch of refinement,” but their societies exhibit a “peculiar vitality.”
Neither fanaticism, nor immorality, nor irreligion causes societies to perish. “The corruption of morals,” Gobineau writes (Chapter II), “however terrible a scourge it may be, is not always an agent of destruction”; for “if it were, the military power and commercial prosperity of a nation would have to vary directly with the purity of its morals.” Gobineau can discover no persuasive evidence that this is the case. He believes indeed that moral Puritanism (think political correctness) is as much an outward sign of decadence in a society as rampant immorality itself, but neither is it the cause of decadence. In respect of skepticism, like luxury and effeminacy, it remains confined to the elite. Whether from the gods or God, the Roman people, as distinguished from the Senatorial class, never withdrew their allegiance; very often, their piety forced from their enlightened governors strict reaffirmation of the cultic tradition. What Gobineau (Chapter III) calls “the relative merit of governments” likewise has nothing essential to do with the health or longevity of a society. Gobineau’s definition of “bad government” merits attention. “A government is bad,” Gobineau writes, (1) “when it is set up by a foreign power”; (2) “when it is based on conquest”; (3) “when the principle upon which it rests becomes vitiated”; and (4) “when… it gives colour to an antagonism between the supreme power and the mass of the people.” The third criterion is the most important one, but what agency or tendency vitiates a society? Gobineau invokes the hypothesis (Chapter IV) that “if these poisonous blossoms,” that is, the four types of bad government, “are not grafted on a stronger principle of destruction, if they are not the consequences of a hidden plague more terrible still, we may rest assured that their ravages will not be fatal.” Whence, however, fatality? Gobineau writes, “The word degenerate, when applied to a people, means… that the people no longer has the same intrinsic value as it had before, because it no longer has the same blood in its veins, continual adulteration having gradually affected the quality of that blood.” The acculturated modern reader’s deep-blue warning lights would no doubt begin flashing, and her sirens wailing, on encountering that sentence.
The unprejudiced reader must take a deep breath. The acculturated modern reader obsesses about the distinctness of peoples, while at the same time asserting with Rousseau that, at a moral level, those distinctions stand to no account, so that one people functionally can interchange itself with another. The unprejudiced reader, contrarily, regards that opinion with skepticism, seeing in it a distortion of the Christian commendation to love one’s neighbor. A neighbor is not a stranger. The neighbor resides in nearness, as nigh, the first element of the word, signifies. The neighbor speaks the same tongue, and he observes the same customs, as the one to whom the commendation speaks. The commendation speaks to the neighbor also, just as volubly. Even so, invocations of blood and of the quality of that blood strike a disquieting note. One thinks immediately of the Blut und Bode motif of German National Socialism or of the Blutrausch that magically justifies revolutionary violence according to Karl Marx, who reveals himself therein as the inheritor of Rousseau’s self-justifying call to bloody rebellion. This is an important point. Gobineau proposes no violence against any party; he proposes no revolution, but at most, he makes a plausible argument by his lights on the basis of which, just possibly, benevolent policy might be constituted. The unprejudiced reader will ask, whether the concept of a distinct people is real? With some qualifications, Gobineau answers in the affirmative. If a distinct people were real, would not blood also be real, insofar as the two terms are exchangeable for one another? Gobineau uses blood the way the ancients used it, as designating simultaneously a material fluid and an immaterial life-principle. Seen in this way, Gobineau’s vocabulary sheds some, although perhaps not all, of its shocking quality. Gobineau merely invokes a phenomenon that every tribe recognizes intuitively, a phenomenon to which no a priori evil attaches itself.
If it were fair, furthermore, for Rousseau to propose a theory of degeneration, which in the Discourse he does, why should Gobineau not exercise the same intellectual liberty? Gobineau regarded the Enlightenment thinkers as pernicious instigators of La révolution, with its sacrificial bloodletting. With assured reference to Rousseau, Gobineau describes the Enlightenment’s sociological analyses as “monstrous abortions.” In a statement that encompasses both Rousseau and Voltaire, Gobineau opines that “their theory has furnished them with arms against all principles of government, which they have reproached in turn with tyranny, fanaticism, and corruption.” He adds that “the Voltairean way of ‘preventing the ruin of society’ is to destroy religion, law, industry, commerce, under the pretext that religion is another name for fanaticism, law for despotism, industry and commerce for luxury and corruption.” Gobineau omits to state, because he knows that his readers will supply the thought on their own, that the sequel of Rousseau and Voltaire’s rabid deconstruction of the civic realm took the form, between 1789 and 1854, of no less than three revolutionary spasms, not including the catastrophic effects of Napoleon’s return. In 1854, when Inequality appeared, there was a coup-d’état. Where Rousseau reviled civilization and Voltaire submitted its institutions to mockery for the sake of mockery, Gobineau commits himself to honor and to uphold civilization, a human achievement of the highest order that retains its value even under “bad government.” He measures things against the civilized standard. He is not afraid to rank things in a hierarchy.
Gobineau’s review of history, archaeology, ethnography, and geography has convinced him (Chapter IV) that “for a very large number of human beings it has been, and always will be, impossible to take even the first step towards civilization.” This generalization would include the majority of people currently living in the civilized societies. By “first step,” Gobineau means “a crossing of blood.” Once a tribe, in “yielding to a definite vital instinct,” has equipped itself with its code of laws and once, acting on its vitality, it begins to reconnoiter and exploit its surroundings, it invariably comes into contact with other tribes. “By war,” Gobineau writes, “or peaceful measures [the tribe – the noun is implied] succeeds in incorporating them in itself.” Intermarriage naturally follows such absorption, but not only in the lowest sense that the conquering men espouse the women of the conquered; the absorption takes place also as the fusion of two societies under the administration of the dominant society, which edits out, so to speak, the foreign traits that strike it as disadvantageous, incorporating only those that it adjudicates as advantageous. No fantasy involves itself in this argument. Gobineau assumes the literacy of his readers, who can quickly supply as an example the synoikism of the Greek villages to make of themselves poleis in the Archaic Period of the Hellenic continuum. Gobineau’s description applies with equal validity to the early history of Rome. The reader of Gobineau nevertheless confronts something of a paradox. If the adulteration of the blood — solely — brought about of the fall of civilizations, the “crossing,” which is perhaps somewhat different from the adulteration, but not altogether different, would nevertheless be a necessary, if not a sufficient ingredient, as the ascent towards civilization commences. The populus becomes itself through an initial compounding of the dominant tribe with the subordinate tribes.
Gobineau insists, however, on the rarity of that causative event. “The transition to a more complex state is made only by those groups of tribes that are eminently gifted.” Gobineau finds, scattered around the world, “backward tribes” that typify the stagnant condition at any moment of most human communities. He cites, for example, “the Polynesian negroes, the Samoyedes and others in the far north, and the majority of African races,” who “live side by side in complete independence of each other.” It is worth noting that the modern mentality goes quite askew when it praises the tribes whose self-denominations, such as Cherokee or Alleman, might slip through translation as “The People.” Those self-denominations operate not by the principle of universality but by the principle of rigorous racial exclusion. The Cherokee or the Alleman implies through his name that other people fail to qualify, in fact, as people, and he regards them as something less dignified than he himself – subhuman. In Gobineau’s term, such societies strand themselves in a state of “paralysis.” Gobineau, who never uses the word racism, nevertheless identifies it in the range of social phenomena and gives it alternate, rather more useful names than the modern denunciatory epithet, most trenchantly (Chapter IV), as the “secret repulsion from the crossing of blood.” Gobineau adds: “Even those who most completely shake off the yoke of this idea cannot get rid of the few last traces of it; yet such peoples are the only members of our species who can be civilized at all.” Once the “crossing” has occurred, a familiar chain of events follows. Gobineau is repeating the deductions of Herodotus, Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, concerning the developmental stages that intervene between synoikism and Imperium; and his deductions remain plausible. At the stage of Imperium, “a distinction of castes takes the place of the original distinction of races.” This observation incidentally anticipates Oswald Spengler’s description of the decadent world-city of the late imperial phase of any society.
It is with Imperium, however, that a reversal occurs. The consolidated new populus of the original phase, in extending itself by geographical expansion, also disperses, or de-consolidates, itself. One might think of the nominally Greek kingdoms of Bactria and Northern India in the wake of Alexander’s campaigns, with their culturally isolated elite classes governing by force, or governing perhaps hardly at all, their native subjects. Gobineau cites (Chapter IV) the case of the English in India: “The English are the masters of India, and yet their moral hold over their subjects is almost non-existent.” Gobineau remarks that whereas “Hyderabad, Lahore, and Delhi are no longer capital cities, Hindu society none the less persists.” In a remarkable instance of foresight, Gobineau invokes a future moment “when India will live again publicly, as she already does privately, under her own laws.” Another phenomenon accompanies dispersal. From the outlying satrapies of any Imperium, a backwash of peoples will gravitate towards the imperial center. Ancient Rome and modern-day London or Berlin speak to this centripetal Völkerwanderung. With this foreign thickening of the center, civilization passes its acme and begins its descent into degeneration. “If the Romans of the later Empire had had a senate and an army of the same stock as that which existed at the time of the Fabii, their dominion would never have come to an end.” By the time of Constantine the Great, however, the Legions consisted of federates – German, Thracian, and Dalmatian mercenary-soldiers who directed their loyalty to the Field Marshal, perceived by them as a tribal leader, not to the sophisticated notion of a constitutional polity.
Gobineau’s discourse corresponds to a more candid age than the early Twenty-First Century, with its neo-Puritanical codes of speech and behavior. The people whom Gobineau regards as physically ugly – for example, the Australian aborigines – he calls ugly without apology. The politically correct mentality must find in this ascription an insurmountable offense, not to the aborigines so much, about whom it cares not at all, but to its own signature sensitivity, so-called, that through its regime it would impose dictatorially and universally. Political correctness would be nothing, however, if it were not the rankest hypocrisy. Political correctness and multiculturalism not only recognize but they also celebrate ugliness, usually of the bodily, elective, and self-mutilating type; and they broadcast the demand that everyone else should fawn over that same ugliness, too. Artistic insipidity, in which there is always a measure of ugliness, attracts the multiculturalist, especially. She commends everyone to give heed to the droning monody of the Turkmen’s oud, for example, and then wants everyone to praise it as superior to the polyphony of Bach’s well-tempered clavier. Like blood, “ugliness” need not confine itself within a narrow and purely physiological definition. Ugliness might refer to conventions, or the lack of them, or to behavior, in a positive way. The rites of the death-god, as practiced by the Aztecs, qualify as ugly; the sexual exploitation of young girls by “Asian” groomers in Rotherham, England, qualifies as ugly; and the depredations of General Sherman’s March to the Sea qualify as ugly. Ugliness is as real as beauty. It is well within the horizon of possibility that what Gobineau calls paralysis participates in ugliness. It certainly never participates in the opposite quality – beauty.
So much for Gobineau’s impolitic frankness – for it amounts to no more and to no less than that. Turning from phenotype to capacity, Gobineau asks tough questions that remain as valid today as they were a century and a half in the past. Gobineau turns his skepticism (Chapter V) on the notion that “all men are brothers.” He remarks that the phrase has another formulation that expresses itself in pseudo-scientific terms: “‘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.’” The formula has hardly altered itself at all with the passage of time; it might well be spoken at any moment today by any representative of the prevailing ideology, and it serves as a kind of shibboleth of the neo-Rousseauvian creed. Gobineau has the audacity to notice differences. “So the brain of the Huron Indian contains,” he writes, “in an undeveloped form an intellect which is absolutely the same as that of the Englishman or Frenchman!” Gobineau would like to know, if the shibboleth were true, why the Huron, for example, never innovated, say, the printing press or the steam engine. “I should be quite justified in asking the Huron why, if he is equal to our European peoples, his tribe has never produced a Caesar or a Charlemagne among its warriors, and why his bards and sorcerers have, in some inexplicable way, neglected to become Homers and Galens.” He had time enough, after all. In respect of material and intellectual achievement, then, the leveling hypothesis of the egalitarians falls wildly below the level of plausibility. Nevertheless, Gobineau never denies that the Huron’s innovations suit him fully and properly; it is only that having innovated them, he has remained in paralysis.
Whereas the Huron’s laws suit the Huron, they suit no one else. Indeed, to the Huron’s neighbors the ethos of the self-proclaimed ontologically superior humanity will be anathema because its practice represents a constant existential threat. Gobineau points out that the Romans, who would countenance a good many practices, would countenance neither the Carthaginian Moloch Cult nor its parallel in the sacrifices of the Druids, both of which the Romans brutally and justifiably suppressed. The fitment of the culture to its people implies other principles. The adoption of Western conventions by the Sandwich Islanders under King Kamehameha and by the Haitians under their serial and often contending kings, emperors, generalissimos, and prime ministers never took hold and must be assessed as thorough failures. Gobineau, whose family at one time had a branch in Saint-Domingue, and who probably heard first-hand reports of the black rebellion there, also notes that the mestizos of the island’s Spanish half in the polity of San Domingo actually have been able to adapt themselves to Western forms and have reached a level of prosperity and normality in striking contrast to the perpetual profound dysfunction of their western neighbors. That was the case in 1854 – and it remains the case today in 2018. Such facts lend a hefty measure of plausibility to Inequality.
III. Gobineau’s Critique of Modernity. Gobineau has ironically in common with Rousseau that he mounts, in Inequality, a critique of modernity, just as Rousseau had done in his Discourse. Both deplore modernity, Rousseau – it is true – more sweepingly than Gobineau, but Gobineau more reflectively, and by diametrically opposite criteria, than Rousseau. That Gobineau sees in Rousseau and his work symptoms of an incipient modern degeneration of the European high civilization radically differentiates his critique from Rousseau’s. And yet they put forward what, formula-wise if not in content, appears to be the same thesis: That the present is degenerate, health and vitality belonging to the past. Rousseau believes that civilization is, in itself, a sickness. Gobineau believes that, while civilization is man’s highest achievement, in the West at any rate it has passed its acme, and he sees it as plummeting in a destructive spiral. But what is Gobineau’s definition of the optimally civilized condition, against which any decline might be measured? That definition, which has to do with the unexpected crossing-of-the-blood theme, offers itself in quasi-Darwinian guise. No society qualifies itself as a civilization, as Gobineau reasons (Chapter VIII), which “is not strong enough to impose itself over a large population, even after a fusion of blood.” To justify the label of civilization a society must be sufficiently strong in its “racial elements” that it can “grip fast everything that comes within… reach.” The hybrid people will, by its balance of those elements, “found over immense tracts of territory a supreme dominion resting on a basis of ideas and actions that are more or less perfectly coordinated.” The juxtaposition of “racial elements” with “ideas” demands attention. Civilization flourishes by bringing together in a dynamic relation the qualities of vitality and intellectuality. In an elaboration, Gobineau, borrowing from Hindu symbolism, identifies intellectuality (Prakriti) with “the female principle” and vitality (Purusha) with “the male principle.”
The dominance of one or the other principle permits Gobineau to divide nations into two large categories, although that division is, as he admits, “in no way absolute.” Paradigmatically male or vital in Gobineau’s view are the Chinese people; paradigmatically female or intellectual, are the Hindu people. The Romans, especially the Latins “of the Early Republic,” and the Germanic tribes were also male; the Egyptians and the Assyrians were female. No civilization arises, however, before the initial crossing of the blood; and once it has arisen, no civilization can transcend itself either on vitality, or maleness, alone, or on intellectuality, or femaleness, alone. (Perhaps spirituality or sentimentality would be a better word than intellectuality.) Whatever its strengths, then, Chinese civilization furnishes Gobineau with his exemplar of what he calls an “arrested” civilization. According to Gobineau, “The reason why [China’s] development has been arrested… is because the ‘male’ constituents of the population are far greater in quantity than the ‘female’ element in its blood.” The inverted commas might well imply that readers should not take the two categories, male and female, too seriously, or that the ascriptions are somewhat arbitrary and might be exchanged without damaging the genuine issue, which is the balance of propensities. Gobineau derives “the feeling of the supernatural” and the preference for contemplation over action from the female part of his dichotomy; and a material-active orientation from the male part. Summing up his argument, Gobineau declares that, “only the races which have one of these elements” – that is to say, the male or the female – “in abundance (without, of course, being quite destitute of the other), can reach, in their social life, a satisfactory stage of culture and so attain to civilization.”
Gobineau anticipates Oswald Spengler in postulating (Chapter IX) that civilization tends to follow a two-phase sequence: An early vivacious period creates its profusion of spontaneous forms (analogous to Spengler’s culture) only to make way for a purely imitative denouement that lacks all creativity (analogous to Spengler’s civilization), and that splutters away into oblivion. Gobineau also anticipates Spengler in his conviction that civilization takes life from something like an apocalypse, what he calls “a living and active force,” that, to effectuate its sequel, “must suit the particular ways of thought and feeling current among those to whom it is offered.” Gobineau has in mind the sacred inspiration of King Numa in the context of early Roman society and the genius of Manu the lawgiver in the context of early Indian society. Gobineau writes, “As soon as the multitudes enroll themselves under a banner, or – to speak more exactly – as soon as a particular form of administration is accepted, a civilization is born.” The characteristics of civilization belong to the definition. A civilization finds ways to compromise individual with communal ambition and necessity. It dignifies the individual as much as it exalts the state. The cult finds its adherents readily; they join it eagerly. Concerning skepticism, civilization as such remains skeptical. It never doubts itself. A civilization invests faith in itself, disdaining to annihilate itself in subversive rhetoric. In its living, plastic phase, civilization adapts to circumstance, rather than holding itself rigid against changes in its environment, natural or ideological. Civilization, for Gobineau, is supple. Civilization might compel, but it prefers to persuade.
In its denouement, on the other hand, civilization becomes both skeptical and rigid because its skepticism becomes dogmatic and mandatory and ossifies into an ideology – not that Gobineau employs that word. And yet he intends the same phenomenon. Skepticism reflects fragmentation, which next finds its cause in the centripetal Völkerwanderung mentioned earlier. Foreign infiltration saps the homogeneity of the founding populace, not only biologically, but also ethnically by its importation of mores and folkways incompatible with the native ones. As the cities swell demographically, the proverbial elbow-room grows ever scarcer until the rubbing of elbows becomes all but unavoidable. When conflict ensues, the governors from cynical prudence refuse to take sides and apply chastisement promiscuously on the guilty and innocent alike. Gobineau takes his prime example in the empires antiquity. Of both the Hellenic kingdoms after Alexander the Great and Rome, Gobineau writes (Chapter IX) that while the campaigns of imperial conquest brought about “a mixture of civilizations,” and while this mixture from the distance of millennia looks exotic and attractive, it nevertheless entailed “a striking disadvantage,” in that “it existed merely for the upper classes.” It came about then that “below what we might call the social classes, lived innumerable multitudes who had a different civilization from that of the official world, or were not civilized at all.”
Even the modern French state of his time, as Gobineau argues, exercises the glamour of its civilization scarcely beyond the city-limits of Paris. The peasantry despises civilization and adheres to its own regional and rural notions. “We cannot doubt it,” Gobineau writes, but “the lower strata of the French people have very little in common with the surface.” The lower layers, as Gobineau puts it in a tense metaphor, “form an abyss over which civilization is suspended, and the deep, stagnant waters, sleeping at the bottom of the gulf, will one day show their power of dissolving all that comes their way.” In an epigram, “modern civilization includes far more than it absorbs.” The commonly held view, however, is that a nation, it might be France, is civilized from bottom to top, homogeneously, but the commonplace is none other than a grave error. Listing the obvious achievements of modern Western European civilization, Gobineau nevertheless concludes that that civilization cannot claim to be superior to those that have preceded it. It has refined the physical sciences and is adept at applying them – hence steam locomotion, the new industries, the telegraph, and advancements in public sanitation. Gobineau asserts that these particular achievements are largely due to the dominance of the Germanic strain in the Western European nations because of their innately practical disposition. “We are certainly more learned than the ancients,” Gobineau concedes; but “this is because we have profited by their discoveries.” In art and poetry, modern Westerners implicitly acknowledge the superiority of the ancients. Gobineau asks, “What are our poets, by the side of Valmiki, Kalidasa, Homer, and Pindar?”
Western science and industry have their own limitations: “All this does not lead us to infinity,” Gobineau writes (Chapter XIII), but rather “even if we counted all the planetary systems that move through space, should we be any nearer?” No – of course not. Gobineau is moved to speculate that “at the time of Abraham,” as opposed to the present, “far more was known about primeval history than we know today.” Many contemporary discoveries in science might be but “rediscoveries of forgotten knowledge.” The weakness of progress, that essentially modern cult, is to overestimate itself; it is a cult of hubris, stretched, as Gobineau has already put it, over an abyss. Modern science has “lost its visionary gleam,” the élan that it displayed in, say, Plato’s cosmological dialogue Timaeus, or in the astronomy of Johannes Kepler. Gobineau proposes for the modern Western intellect the motto: “I seek and do not find.” It is so much “circling in the cave.” Gobineau anticipates Spengler, and so too he anticipates early Twentieth Century Traditionalism, as in the case of René Guénon. Consider the implications of the “Abraham” comment. Gobineau implies precisely what Guénon asserts everywhere in his oeuvre: That a rich lore of human self-knowledge, present to the ancients, has gradually withdrawn itself from cognition; or, rather, modern people, finding such lore to be at variance with their convenience, have suppressed it, and now conduct their affairs in hobbling ignorance of it.
The modern tendency to forget or to misunderstand the past figures elsewhere in Gobineau’s critique. Gobineau remarks the modern hypocrisy about comparisons of its own society with ancient societies, such as Greek society of the Fifth Century BC. Classical Athens possessed “fertility in theorizing, on which we so pride ourselves,” at least in degree equal to but in all likelihood quite surpassing that of modernity. Yet the modern mentality has “always despised such comparisons.” Why? “We persuaded ourselves,” Gobineau remarks with extraordinary pertinacity, “that a fundamental difference between our present social order and the ancient Greek State was created by slavery.” Gobineau proposes to restore the vocabulary in these matters to an original meaning. In the Attic world, “people spoke of slaves in the same way as one speaks today of workmen and the lower classes.” Claims of moral superiority over the ancient world, which typify the modern mentality, can only operate on the prevaricating assumption that no such thing as banausia exists in contemporaneity. Gobineau’s words arrive at their posterity from more than a century and a half in the past, but they are more directly applicable, say, to the California of the present moment than they were to the Paris, Boston, or Charleston of the mid-Nineteenth Century. This will be especially so when one thinks who constitutes the banausic class in Postmodernity’s self-celebrating Golden State, which has recently attained the highest poverty rate in the Union, and whose crime-ridden cities boast indigents by the tens of thousands living on the streets – and making of them a fully fecalized environment. California’s public schools graduate functional illiterates who must undergo dubious remediation in the colleges and universities in courses staffed by underpaid, servile instructors, who are often as well or even better educated than certain members of the tenured professoriate, but who are implicitly banned from promotion to tenure. The adjunct faculty is a novel, but also a burgeoning form of banausia.
Gobineau’s remarks on the freedom of the press, which encompasses a discussion of literacy under democracy, apply to the present-day order of things as relevantly as do his remarks on banausia and the preening hypocritical morality of the cultural elite. The dissemination of written language through the printing press, as Gobineau remarks (Chapter XIII), “is merely a means and not an end.” Applied to the dissemination of “healthy and vigorous ideas,” Gutenberg’s innovation and, as one might add, its more recent offspring, “help to maintain civilization.” On the other hand, “If the degraded press merely serves to multiply the unhealthy and poisonous compilations of enervated minds, if its theology is the work of sectaries, its politics of libelers, its poetry of libertines – then how and why should the printing press be the savior of civilization?” It follows that, “In evil times, when public virtue has left the earth, ancient writings are of little account, and no one cares to disturb the silence of the libraries.” To claim the increasing contemporary pertinence of Gobineau’s assertion that “books are dying today” might invite the objection that there are more books today than ever. That objection, however, would miss the point, as the vast majority of those books are written for and perhaps also by functional illiterates. Most of them are cook-books or self-help books or celebrity biographies. A perusal of the up-front offerings of any chain bookstore will swiftly attest this proposition. In Gobineau’s words, “Printing… is a marvelous tool; but when head and hand fail, a tool cannot work by itself.”
The Inequality of the Human Races incorporates a discussion (Chapter XIV) of the incompatibility of both the West and the East with Islam. Gobineau insists, with great plausibility, on the resentful and avaricious origins of Islam, which he sees as arising from the final stage of dissolution of two or three ossified sub-civilizational currents. At the end of Inequality, Gobineau provides a list of the ten civilizations. Gobineau omits Islam from that list. He refers rather to Arab culture and to “the Mussulman State” in its various branches. Gobineau joins the topic of Islam to the topic of cultural repulsion. Concerning Islam and Western Europe and Islam and the Hindu civilization, Gobineau writes (Chapter XIV), “no one can doubt their mutual repulsion.” Gobineau classifies the Arabs as a “hybrid nation,” a grand métissage of Bedouin tribes with Jews, Syrians, Persians, Egyptians, and Berbers. Islam picked up elements of civilization from Rome and Byzantium and from Syria and Persia, all in their phases of decadence, but originated none of its own. In a startling simile, Islam for Gobineau appears “like a body half-sunk in water, half exposed to the sun, which contain[s] at one and the same time elements of barbarism and an advanced civilization.” Mohammed invented a violent and fanatical cult to be the necessary cultural glue of his hybrid nation. Gobineau credits Mohammed with having fitted his creed well to “the mental state of his people.” That mental state was one of theological agitation tending to fanatical heresies and hostile sectarianism – and it had been for several centuries.
Gobineau no doubt has Islam’s Shiite-Sunni or Persian-Arab schism in mind when he writes “how impossible it is that the civilizations belonging to racially distinct groups should ever be fused together.” At most, as in the Hellenistic-Asian states of the Macedonian successor kingdoms, the dominant faction insures the compliance of the subdued faction by the continuous exertion of main force; but usually, as in the case of Islam throughout its history, or of South Africa, or of the Central African States after the colonial departure, mutual hostility prevails in the form of a perpetual simmering civil war that periodically breaks out in spasms of bloody violence. The once-dominant faction might eventually reach exhaustion and either let itself be absorbed by the underclass or withdraw to its native territory. Imposition – exhaustion – and submission or withdrawal: These phases form the pattern of all conquests and colonial projects, as Gobineau’s remarks on the British in India, as quoted in an earlier paragraph, will have suggested. And on the conviction that they form an invariable pattern, Gobineau opposes imperial designs. He prefers that, under a rational regime, the enlightened nations would simply leave everyone else to his home-grown dispensation, seeking cooperation among affined people, while recognizing even regional differences. Indeed, Gobineau makes strongly implicit a division between raw concupiscence and the justifiable amalgamation of complementary nations. The British acquisition of India was raw concupiscence and the British, as Gobineau foresaw, would eventually experience exhaustion and withdraw. It was raw concupiscence for the French aristocrats in Saint-Domingue to kidnap an immense foreign population to labor in its fields – a foundation that conjured its own bloody overthrow in advance.
It was a Parisian-educated Haitian, Anténor Firmin (1850 – 1911), who published the earliest literary riposte to Gobineau’s four-volume study, his own De l’Égalité des Races Humains or Of the Equality of the Human Races (1885). Firmin, defending the dignity of Africans, including their Francophone cousins in the West Indies, writes an elegant academic prose full of confidence, and he invokes the physiological and ethnographic literature of his day with impressive command; in his later chapters, however, he argues speciously for the negritude of the Egyptian civilization, invoking the supposed debt of Greece to Egypt in order to found Classical civilization, at least partly, on an African basis. Tellingly, Firmin spent a great part of his life away from Haiti, living and writing mostly in Paris, but dying in Saint Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. In 1905 Firmin authored an appeal to then President Theodore Roosevelt, inviting him to annex Haiti and assist its people in the restoration of a just and stable government and the repair of its shambled economy. Firmin entitled his pamphlet, M. Roosevelt, Président des États-Unis et de La République de Haïti or Mr. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America and of the Republic of Haiti. Roosevelt wisely refrained from taking any such action, but his successor Woodrow Wilson dispatched American troops to Haiti four years after Firmin’s death to restore order in that perpetually benighted state.
Gobineau never claimed that the inequality of the races, as he saw it, determined the talent or achievement of individuals, the demonstration of which he readied himself to acknowledge. Gobineau accords the prizes of achievement, not to the existing European civilization, but to the ancient Hindu and Greek civilizations, whose spiritual articulations, not only in their language and poetry, but in their architecture and plastic arts, greatly surpass anything achieved in the modern centuries. Here one might rebuke Gobineau, who lacks sensitivity for the High Medieval Period, with its Gothic architecture and grisaille, but that is an aside. Gobineau writes (Chapter XV): “Taken as a whole, we have more energy and greater genius for action than the conquerors of Southern Asia and Hellas. On the other hand we must yield them the first place in the kingdom of beauty.” It is necessary to add that in the century and three quarters that have passed since the publication of Inequality, the modern Western civilization has repeatedly affirmed Gobineau’s description of it as physically active – but that activity has been mainly destructive in a century of endless wars beginning in 1914. The number of casualties has steadily staggered upward into the tens or even hundreds of millions. Gobineau, however, praised the ancient Aryans, admiring their language and poetry and measuring other languages of the Indo-European family according to the rigor and expressiveness of the Vedas and the Mahabharata. Gobineau also went on record in judging Domenica to be a nicer place to live, had one a choice, than Haiti. So it is Gobineau who stands condemned. His contemnor, meanwhile, in full moral smugness, is the modern liberal mentality whose sole employment nowadays is to smell out moral trespass.