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Primer: Arthur de Gobineau and the Orient January 8, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer, History of the Human Sciences.
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Arthur de Gobineau (July 14, 1816 — October 13, 1882) was born into a family of lesser nobility and forced to make his living in Paris at nineteen years of age.  In 1843, having some minor successes as a novelist and as a serial author, de Gobineau met Alexis de Tocqueville.  In 1849, when de Tocqueville was named Minister of Foreign Affairs, de Gobineau was introduced to a diplomatic circuit from which he never departed. De Gobineau was successively posted to Persia from 1855-1858 and 1861-1863, Brazil, and finally Stockholm, from 1872-1877.  De Gobineau was well known for his rightist politics and considered it a great irony that he had been born on Bastille Day.  He styled himself the sole remaining descendant of an ancient Norman family.

It was fortuitous that de Gobineau traveled to Paris in the 1840s. As Arthur Herman in his fine The Idea of Decline in Western History notes, “Ever since scholars had accompanied Napoleon on his conquest of Egypt in 1798 and the linguist Jean-Francois Champollion had deciphered the Rosetta stone in 1822, Paris had been one of the leading centers of Orientalist studies….” (48.)  Orientalism in the nineteenth century was an extension, and a significant revision, of the inquiry into comparative linguistics that had begun with the enlightenment inquiry into the foundations of man in the 1760s.   The Royal Asiatic Society, the American Oriental Society, and the Paris Asiatic Society were centers for the translation and dissemination of Eastern texts.  For French and German Romantics, such as de Gobineau, Oriental texts and languages allowed for a revisitation of the now worn conflict between progress and decline and between antiquity and the perils of modern commerce that had raged since the Restoration in England.

For de Gobineau, it was in the Sanskrit and Cuneiform texts of the East and the ancient Assyrian epics that the virtue lost through the advent of Copernican science and the industrialization of bourgeois society could be recovered.  The emphasis on primitive vitality and of the virtues of the barbarous East was a reversal of the enlightenment view of Montesquieu, who emphasized the stagnation of Asiatic civilization and the despotism of its form of government. This difference underscores the novel quality of the anti-civilizational mood in 19th-century France and points towards an understanding of the Orient which required the assumption of a decadent West in order to proceed.    The recovery of primitive vitality in ancient tradition links de Gobineau’s Orientalist work, such as Les religions et les philosophies dans l’Asie centrale (2nd edition, 1866), as well as his Traité des écritures cunéiformes (1864) with his earlier (1853-55) multi-volume Essai sur l’Inegalite de Races Humaine.

All three works critique the enlightenment promise of progress through commerce and civility and instead locate value and virtue in ancient epics and hero’s deeds. The ancient epic was the inversion of the polite society of the salon. For de Gobineau, the peak of civilization was Spartan valor and that found within in the tales of ancient Mesopotamian kings.  For de Gobineau, the irony of the progress of Western civilization was that the same mechanism that allowed empires to expand and to become “modern,” the conquering impulse that allowed for the profusion of commercial virtues and the advancement of science and arts, actually brought about the destruction of civilization by attacking the root of its existence.

Having examined in detail the purported causes of the decline of empires in Essai sur l’Inegalite, much like Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, de Gobineau concluded that territorial expansion, not luxury, was the mechanism, the hereto occult force, behind the collapse of Rome and the universal cause of decline: familial and civilizational. All superior societies possessed a primal urge to conquer their weaker neighbors and to expand their borders.  For a time, this expansion into new territory allowed for the material circumstances, sciences, and arts of the conquerors to improve.  Gradually, the conquered race begins to interbreed with the stronger ruling class.

This intermixture, or hybridization, caused the decline of the Roman Empire and explained the present perils of Europe. Luxuriousness and decadence were merely symptoms of the decay of the primitive “stock.” By locating the decline of the state in the intermixture of the races, a process accelerated by urbanization, de Gobineau believed he had found the key to history, a universal law that could in turn serve as a hermeneutic for the diagnosis of history and present social unrest, particularly the dangerous mass of the urban crowd.


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