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On ‘national degeneracy’

“A people is said to be degenerated, when it is badly governed, abuses its riches, is fanatical, or irreligious; in short, when it has lost the characteristic virtues of its forefathers. This is begging the question. Thus, communities succumb under the burden of social and political evils only when they are degenerate, and they are degenerate only when such evils prevail. This circular argument proves nothing but the small progress hitherto made in the science of national biology. I readily admit that nations perish from degeneracy, and from no other cause; it is when in that wretched condition, that foreign attacks are fatal to them, for then they no longer possess the strength to protect themselves against adverse fortune, or to recover from its blows. They die, because, though exposed to the same perils as their ancestors, they have not the same powers of overcoming them. I repeat it, the term degeneracy is correct; but it is necessary to define it, to give it a real and tangible meaning. It is necessary to say how and why this vigor, this capacity of overcoming surrounding dangers, are lost. Hitherto, we have been satisfied with a mere word, but the thing itself is as little known as ever. The step beyond, I shall attempt to make.

In my opinion, a nation is degenerate, when the blood of its founders no longer flows in its veins, but has been gradually deteriorated by successive foreign admixtures; so that the nation, while retaining its original name, is no longer composed of the same elements. The attenuation of the original blood is attended by a modification of the original instincts, or modes of thinking; the new elements assert their influence, and when they have once gained perfect and entire preponderance, the degeneration may be considered as complete. With the last remnant of the original ethnical principle, expires the life of the society and its civilization. The masses, which composed it, have thenceforth no separate, independent, social and political existence; they are attracted to different centres of civilization, and swell the ranks of new societies having new instincts and new purposes.

In attempting to establish this theorem, I am met by a question which involves the solution of a far more difficult problem than any I have yet approached. This question, so momentous in its bearings, is the following:

Is there, in reality, a serious and palpable difference in the capacity and intrinsic worth of different branches of the human family?

For the sake of clearness, I shall advance, a priori, that this difference exists. It then remains to show how the ethnical character of a nation can undergo such a total change as I designate by the term degeneracy.

Physiologists assert that the human frame is subject to a constant wear and tear, which would soon destroy the whole machine, but for new particles which are continually taking the form and place of the old ones. So rapid is this change said to be, that, in a few years, the whole framework is renovated, and the material identity of the individual changed. The same, to a great extent, may be said of nations, only that, while the individual always preserves a certain similarity of form and features, those of a nation are subject to innumerable and ever-varying changes.”

From Gobineau, The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races

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