Origins of Racism: the Case of the Count de Gobineau

arthur de gobineauWhen we see racism still at work in our world it is important not only to know its current manifestations but also to understand something of how it arose. This article concerns, Count Arthur de Gobineau, a man who is often labelled a “father of racism”. Of course, no one individual is solely responsible – but he was clearly one of those whose influence contributed to the strengthening of racist ideology.

Curiously enough he also appears as the European historian who wrote the first extensive account of the birth of the Babi religion, as we have seen in the article on E.G Browne. Regrettably, it appears, Gobineau did not pursue his investigations of the Bab sufficiently to be able to learn about Bahá’u’lláh or his teachings.

But let us learn more about Gobineau’s life story and influence. He was from an aristocratic French family and was born in 1816 and died in 1882. He lived, accordingly, in the same era as Baha’u’llah (1817-1892).

Central to de Gobineau’s life were the revolutions of France. His father was a trenchant royalist and was imprisoned during Napoleon’s era. Not even the Orleanist monarchical regime which replaced the Bourbons was sufficiently traditionalist for the Gobineaus. He was even more out of place after the restoration of democracy in the second half of the 19th century. He had a contempt for democracy – believing profoundly in the inequality of human beings – an inequality which was marked by the boundaries of both race and class. Believing he was living in a declining age he created a mythical “Aryan” racial identity that represented a superior human.  He regarded racial mixing as a form of “degeneracy”.  Among the Aryans, he included Germanic, Celtic, Iranian and Hindu people. In his vain imaginings, the best of civilization arose primarily if not solely from “Aryans”. The upper classes were to his mind the most “Aryan”.

Apart from its illusory character, we may note the essentially materialistic conception of human nature.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the noted 19th-century political philosopher, who was Gobineau’s friend, nonetheless was scathing of the implications of his work:

Do you not see that from your doctrine spring naturally all the evils which permanent inequality begets, pride, violence, the scorn of one’s fellow men, tyranny and subjection in all its forms?[cited in Gobineau and the Origins of European Racism]

In the course of time, his ideas about an “Aryan” super race and racial purity were to contribute to the horrors of Nazism as well as providing theoretical buttresses for the perpetuation of slavery and segregation in the United States.

Gobineau was a French diplomatic for most of his life, and this took him to Persia. Gobineau was posted to Persia twice. Both were not long after the events associated with the life of the Bab, some of which are briefly told in the articles about the birth of the Babi Faith, the execution of the Bab, the persecution of the Babis, and the secret mission of Sulayman Khan.

Gobineau’s 1865 Religions et Philosophies Dans L’Asie Centrale is the earliest extensive account in a European language of the birth of the Babi religion. The lively account inspired other scholars to continue or improve on his work. As it turned out, Gobineau’s account was not entirely accurate, but he was a good (and prolific) writer. There is no indication, that Gobineau ever met a single follower of the Bab. In fairness, when Gobineau was in Persia, it would have been extremely challenging to do so. The community had been virtually liquidated in Persia itself and by then Bahá’u’lláh had already been sent to Constantinople and Adrianople.

Clearly, the Bab’s tragic fate and that of his community inspired Gobineau to devote significant labour to recording the story. The result was a book length treatment of the subject.

Gobineau also sought to dabble in orientalism – propounding interpretations of cuneiform writing and Iranian history. These efforts were held in contempt by European scholars to whom he presented his work.

Whatever his merits as a writer or his inadequacies as a student of the Middle East, Gobineau’s racist theory and work is a much darker side of his character. His work was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic and he had enormous influence.

The tragic consequences were to unfold over time. Among them the terrible “race” war that World War 2 constituted.

We have seen of course, that Bahá’u’lláh’s thought proceeds in exactly the opposite direction. Human beings are primarily spiritual rather than material.  Moreover, all human beings are decidedly equal:

Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other.[1]

And the oneness of humanity is the pivot his teachings:

Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.[2]

We have also seen how clearly and energetically Abdu’l Baha arose to foster racial equality and work against racism.

Bahá’u’lláh’s opponents sought to bury him alive and to hinder his teachings. So much so that Bahá’u’lláh was to lament:

how can the Celestial Bird soar into the atmosphere of divine mysteries when its wings have been battered with the stones of idle fancy and bitter hatred, and it is cast into a prison built of unyielding stone? By the righteousness of God! The people have perpetrated a grievous injustice.[3]

Bahá’u’lláh also warns of the consequences of the impediments placed in the way of his teachings.

We can well perceive how the whole human race is encompassed with great, with incalculable afflictions. We see it languishing on its bed of sickness, sore-tried and disillusioned. They that are intoxicated by self-conceit have interposed themselves between it and the Divine and infallible Physician. Witness how they have entangled all men, themselves included, in the mesh of their devices. They can neither discover the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy. They have conceived the straight to be crooked, and have imagined their friend an enemy. Incline your ears to the sweet melody of this Prisoner. Arise, and lift up your voices, that haply they that are fast asleep may be awakened.[4]

 


Michael D Biddiss, Gobineau and the Origins of European Racism

Arnold H Rowbotham, Gobineau and the Aryan Terror

Stephen Kale, Gobineau, Racism and Legitimism: A Royalist Heretic in Nineteenth-Century France

Robert Irwin, Gobineau, Would-be Orientalist

(This article is the 131st in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)

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