Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (1816-1882), was a French diplomat, man of letters, and racial theorist. He was the first to propound the idea of Aryan superiority as a scientific theory.
Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was born on July 14, 1816, at Ville d'Avray near Paris, the scion of a noble family that remained loyal to the Bourbons. He attended school at the College of Bienne in Switzerland. From 1835 until his diplomatic sojourns he lived in Paris, where he occupied himself with literary work and a wide range of studies.
The Comte de Gobineau's aristocratic connections led to a meeting with Alexis de Tocqueville. When Tocqueville became foreign minister for a brief time in 1849, he made Gobineau his private secretary and, soon after, chief of his Cabinet. Later, Gobineau was made first secretary in the embassy at Berne, and later he held posts at Hanover and Frankfurt.
Gobineau's most important work, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853-1855), partly translated into English in 1856, was an expression of his basic understanding of the meaning of his own life and of the events of his times. He was a royalist who despised democracy. He believed he was a descendant of a noble race of men, and he saw the French Revolution as a direct result of the bastardization of the race to which he belonged.
Gobineau sought to create a science of history by explaining the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of race. There were three races—the blacks, who were stupid and frivolous, but in whom the senses were well developed; the yellows, who craved mediocrity; and the whites, who were strong, intelligent, and handsome. Of the whites, the Aryans were superior, with the Germans being the purest of the Aryans. "German" did not refer to the entire German nation, die Deutschen, but rather to a tribe of Aryans, die Germanen, or Teutons, who had invaded Europe and set themselves up as an aristocracy to rule over the indigenous Celts and Slavs, who were inferior.
Gobineau did not believe that there are any modern pure races, nor was he set against all race mixing. He believed that civilization arose as the result of conquest by a superior race, virtually always Aryan, over inferior races. While Aryans were brave, strong, and intelligent, nevertheless they were a bit unimaginative and weak in sense perception. A small amount of infusion of black blood would heighten the senses and improve the imagination. Such an infusion, by way of Semites, explains the flowering of art and philosophy in ancient Greece.
However, Gobineau held that while some race mixing is good, too much is very bad, as it leads to the stagnation of civilization. Because Aryans have an appetite for race mixing, which made civilization possible in the first place, race mixing will eventually go too far, leading to the eventual destruction of civilization.
Gobineau was no nationalist. He associated nationalism with democracy and believed that both promoted excessive mixing of Aryan with inferior bloods. The disturbances of 1848 and 1871 increasingly convinced him that race mixing already had gone too far and European civilization was doomed. Today one can only wonder at this French count's fantastic version of the Germanic concept of the twilight of the gods!
Diplomatic and Literary Career
In 1854 Gobineau went to Teheran as first secretary, becoming minister to Persia in 1861. Several works on Persian society resulted, as well as a number of stories with a Persian setting.
In 1864 Gobineau represented France at Athens and in 1868 at Rio de Janeiro, where he became a friend of the Brazilian emperor, Dom Pedro II. Gobineau's last post was at Stockholm in 1872. He was forced to retire from the diplomatic corps in 1876 and spent most of his remaining years in Italy.
Gobineau continued his literary career. The Pleiads (1874) is considered his finest novel. Many of his literary writings were published posthumously. He met Richard Wagner in Rome in 1876 and subsequently made several trips to his home in Bayreuth. Gobineau's racial theories had not been well received in France, but Wagner was very much impressed by Gobineau's views. Partly through the influence of the Bayreuth circle, Gobineau's racial ideas became popular in Germany in the decades after his death in Turin on Oct. 13, 1882.
Further Reading on Comte de Gobineau
A recent work on Gobineau is Michael D. Biddiss, Father of Racist Ideology (1970). Two older works are Arnold H. Rowbotham, The Literary Works of Count de Gobineau (1929), and Gerald M. Spring, The Vitalism of Count de Gobineau (1932). See also Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937).