The Study of Man: A Debate on Race
Both Arthur de Gobineau and Alexis de Tocqueville must be numbered among the most original thinkers of the 19th century. Although their ideas were quite incompatible, coincidence made them friends, and friendship produced a sustained correspondence. To readers a century later, the most provocative passages in their letters are those that argue Gobineau’s racial theories. But these ideas, like Tocqueville’s criticism of them, are incomprehensible except when viewed in the context of the great controversy that has not yet lost its power to divide and embitter Frenchmen: the controversy over the French Revolution.
In Paris governments can still fall, or fail to come into being, over issues and ideas that date back to the 18th century. Since 1789 French politicians and thinkers have always had to take a stand toward the Revolution and the beliefs of the Enlightenment philosophers who prepared its way. The extreme right has of course opposed the Revolution and all its works in furious invective. The center in French politics has never found any ideals it preferred to the secular rationalism of the 18th century, nor offered any political settlement to replace that of the Revolution. The French left, although less enthusiastic than the center, has criticized, not the essential principles of 1789, but only their insufficiently radical application.
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