Absolutizing the principle “Might is Right”


Like many other members of the wealty youth in France in the second half of the 19th century, Pierre de Coubertin regarded England as an indisputable model. What made him so enthusiastic was not the English parlamentarism or the emancipatory ideas which originated in England as the cradle of capitalism and the most powerful capitalist country, but its imperialist might. Coubertin went to England to uncover the secret of their colonial expansion and incite them to enter upon new colonial exploits. In his public appearances prior to the Olympic Games Coubertin speaks as a fervent nationalist. His political pamphlets end with a slogan: “Vive la France!”. Coubertin’s fanatism was stirred not only by a complex caused by the humiliating defeat of France in the war with Prussia; it sprang from a desire to enable the ruling “elite” to increase its material wealth in which Coubertin saw the foundations of the social power and stability of the ruling order. Wandering through England in an attempt to find the source of the colonial power of the British Empire, Coubertin came across a book entitled “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” in which Thomas Hughes, the disciple of the English reformer and Headmaster of the school in Rugby Thomas Arnold, outlined in his own way the pedagogical doctrine of his teacher. Coubertin concluded not only that Thomas Arnold, with his pedagogical reform that spread throughout England, “laid the foundations of the British Empire”, (1) but also that he was the founder of a new philosophy that fully embodied the spirit of Social Darwinism and expansionism, which, according to Coubertin, dominated the English society and, as the integral spiritual power of the British imperialist “elite”, presented a challenge to the ruling “elite” of the European colonial states. Coubertin: “If we begin to study the history of our century we are struck by the moral disorder produced by the discoveries of industrial science. Life suffers an upheaval; people feel the ground tremble continually under their feet. They have nothing to hold on to, because everything around them is shifting and changing: and in their confusion, as though seeking some counterpoise to the material powers which rise like Cyclopean ramparts about them, they grope for whatever elements of moral strength lie scattered about the world. I think this is the philosophic origin of the striking physical renaissance in the 19th century. (…) Then came Thomas Arnold, the greatest educator of modern times, who more than any other is responsible for the present prosperity and the prodigious expansion of his country. With him athletics penetrated a great public school and transformed it; and from the day on which the first generation fashioned by his hands was launched on the world, the British Empire had a new look. There is perhaps no other equally striking example of the truth that a handful of good men can transform a whole society.” (2)

Coubertin departs from the view that Modern Age has deprived life of meaning. However, he does not search for a solution of the “moral confusion” and for the “counterbalance to material forces” in the sphere of mind, but in the sphere of a mindless imperialist and opressive activism, which also includes industry and science, and removes the very need for raising the question on the purpose of life. By building a myth about Arnold, Coubertin seeks to establish a spiritual movement which should reject the emancipatory heritage of the European culture and modern society and mark a “new” beginning in the development of European society and civilisation in general. Coubertin’s Procrustean relation to Arnold suggests that he was not interested in the whole of Arnold’s thought, but in the points that could help establish a new ruling ideology in accordance with the progressivistic spirit of the New Age and the expansionist aspirations of European capitalism which does not tolerate any (reasonable or moral) constraints. He takes Arnold’s pedagogy, according to which the strong have the right to submit the weak by means of sheer force, to the extreme, and turns it into the universal principle of social life. Coubertin is not interested in the ultimate goal of Arnold’s pedagogy, which is to create “muscular Christians”, but in how sport, which embodies the unbridled effects of Social Darwinist laws, can be used to create a new “master race”. That race he entrusts with the assignment to create a “new (positive) society” in which a totalitarian domination of the rich over the working “masses”, “lower races” and women will be established.

Talking about Coubertin’s relation to Arnold, Yves-Pierre Boulongne comes to the following conclusion: “Coubertin so openly accepted Arnold’s theories because at that time his social environment was striving to stir within itself the aspirations to power. To strengthen one’s muscles, to be able to will, to be daring, to expose oneself to danger – those were the main topics in French political and military circles, but partly it was the expression of a desire, an aspiration to carry out a patrician reform of nature. It was precisely this atmosphere of rigidity and exertion of muscles and will that  Coubertin found at Rugby, Cambridge and Eton, and that elitism he adopted completely.” (3) According to Boulongne, Arnold’s view that “it is not necessary to have three hundred, one hundred, not even fifty students, but it is necessary for them to be Christian-gentlemen”, Coubertin interpreted in the following way: “You always have in mind the elite, the contribution of an excellent and small phalanx being uncomparably greater that that of a multitude of people with avarage abilities; thus, all institutions seek to provide for those who already possess, as is written in the New Testament.” (4) Boulongne proceeds as follows: “This utilitarian philosophy tends to build self-centred individuals, and about that Coubertin had no illusions, since he himself said that “practical sense of an English student often verges on egoism”. (5) However, Coubertin “accepts the responsibility for adopting this philosophy”, expressing it in the following way: “For a shy, weak, apathetic man, life proves to be unbearable… Never is a selection so ruthless as it is in school. There exist two different kinds of people: those who look other people straight in the eyes, people with strong muscles, their bearing conveying self-confidence, and the kind of sickly people with a resigned and humble expression on the face, who bear themselves as defeated soldiers. Well, in the college it is the same as in the world: the weak are eliminated; this type of education benefits only those who are strong.” (6)

Arnold’s conception represents the “taming” of Social Darwinism by way of Christian moralism; for Christianity Coubertin substitutes Olympism, which becomes the deification of Social Darwinism: modern Olympic agon lacks both the struggle between the good and the evil and the struggle for freedom. However, Coubertin destorted even so reduced Social Darwinism, and adjusted it to fit his political concept. He “overlooked” that natural selection, namely, the evolution of the living world to which he was constantly appealing, involves the struggle of animals to survive and consequently the opposition of the weaker to the stronger – which constitutes the foundation of a “cosmic justice” consisting in the right of every being to fight for its survival. It is precisely the opposition of the weak that Coubertin, with his “utilitarian pedagogy”, seeks to eliminate. Coubertin’s progressistic evolutionism is not opposed only to the dialectic of history, but also to the dialectic of nature. The basic reason for Coubertin’s contradictory stand, as assessed according to the criteria of his own conception, lies in a new quality of the “oppressed”: the ability and willingness to unite and thus become a power capable not only of opposing the ruling “elite”, but also of creating a new world. By eliminating from society the fight for freedom, Coubertin eliminated from nature the struggle of the weak to survive. The indisputable submission of the weak to the strong, which stands in direct contradiction to the logic of bellum omnium contra omnes predominant in the “state of nature”, is the alpha and omega of Coubertin’s Olympic “pacifism”. On account of this, Coubertin is against any forms of trade-unions or political organising of the workers. This fear of the unified forces of the oppressed is the original source of his fanatism and the basis of his political strategy. Coubertin uses the Social Darwinist doctrine as a means of justifying the tyranny of the strong over the weak, and at the same time tries to protect the unudisputable supremacy of the aristocratic and bourgeois “elite” from the effects of Social Darwinist laws. Coubertin actually strives to ensure a privileged position of the rich oligarhy relative to the “natural laws” on which its power is founded. Struggle for freedom can no longer jeopardize the dominant position of the ruling class (race), it can only affirm it. To put it more precisely, the power of the bourgeois “elite” is a “fact” representing the final result of Social Darwinist laws. Accordingly, Olympism is not an instrument for globalizing the principle bellum omnium contra omnes, but an instrument of the ruling “elite” for “teaching” the subjects how to conform to the order based on the principle “might is right”. The Olympic “enlightenment” proves to be the creation of a submissive character and a racially inferior conscious. At the same time, the competition between the “natives” and their masters on the sports field is meant to compensate for the ”natives” renouncement of the struggle for freedom.

Coubertin manipulats with two anthropological models based on the position of man relative to the means of production, and on the race and gender, respectively: the anthropological features of the white rich bourgeois “elite” differ from those of the workers, “coloured races” and women. The highest human virtue – “the passionate desire to rule and possess” (7) is, according to Coubertin, the exclusive anthropological feature of the (white) plutocracy. He emphasises that one of the most important aims of his “utilitarian pedagogy” is to develop the animal nature of the bourgeois, since by his nature he is a “lazy beast”. (8) Therefore, the basic role of sport is to enable the bourgeois to “overcome” the limitations of his originally animalistic nature, to become a super-animal and thus reach the highest stage in the development of the animal world. The highest virtue of workers, women and “lower races” is “goodness”, namely, an indisputable submission to the capitalists, to the pater familias and colonial masters. Unlike Aristotle, who holds that  “opposition” to slavery exists even in people who are “in their nature disposed to submit”, (9) Coubertin removes it from his anthropological conception for practical reasons. Similarly to Comte, Coubertin thinks that the oppressed are endowed with moral “superiority” which enables them to arouse compassion in their masters. “Goodness” of the oppressed takes the role of a “soother” of the ruthless and limitless greed of the ruling “elite”, and their “moral” actions become the chief (compensational) form of their social activity. Coubertin’s preachering is not inspired by Christian moralism, but by practical political motives: it is aimed at allaying the anger of the workers and eliminating them from the political arena in order to establish social peace. The survival of the parasitic classes corresponds to the state of nature which is not subject to any moral reasoning. Just as the devouring a sheep by a wolf is not a moral issue but a “fact” of the state of nature, so is the oppression of “the weak” (poor) by “the strong” (rich) a natural law against which it is “useless to protest”. (10) Hobbes says on this topic: “In the war of all against all nothing can be proclaimed unjust. In such a state the notions of just and unjust are out of place.” (11)

Speaking about the origin of the “doctrine of might is right” in ancient Greece, Miloš Đurić indirectly refers to the nature of de Coubertin’s doctrine: “That doctrine had two roots: philosophical theory and political practice as an aristocratic, reactionary revolution from above. An extensive philosophical argument of that doctrine was given by Callicles from Aharna, Georgia’s disciple, who is known to us from Plato’s Republic. While Protagoras held that justice was necessary to maintain social life, Callicles, together with the sophist and orator Trasymachus in Plato’s Republic, defends with radical pathos the conceptions according to which justice is unworhy of a free man, while  injustice appears as a sign of strength and power. Individual self-willingness, strength and power, to put it shortly, the ethics of power, unscroupulous energy – these things correspond to the morality of the master, while justice and moral laws in general belong to the morality of slaves, invented by the weak as their weapon to frighten the masters, the strong and the powerful.” He proceeds as follows: “The consequences of such teachings in the historical life of Athens are obvious. From it, the vain and ambitious demagogues obtained food for their imperialist policy, which is best reflected in their cruel destruction of the city of Melos and  the fatal invasion of Syracuse. With the voluntarism of a lion, but also with the hedonism of a swine, Callicles appears as the earliest precursor of Machiavelli’s The ‘Prince’ and Nietzsche’s ‘Overman’.” (12) In spite of giving exceptional importance to material wealth, Coubertin is not in favour of hedonism. Not to relish the acquired wealth, but to fight to acquire it, and in particular, to defend the established (looting) order – that is the main task of the ruling class. Starting from the painful historical experiences of the rich “elite”, Coubertin attacks its members for their aspirations to leasure. He regards sport primarily as a means of developing their conquering spirit and of improving the combat readiness of the bourgeoisie at the time of the expansion of the liberating working movement. The affirmation of the status of the ”master race”, in the guise of a “fight for freedom”, should be the basic source of content of the rich and the limit of their egoism.

Coubertin is congenial to Machiavelli’s doctrine, yet their conceptions show considerable differences. Thus, Machiavelli claims that “there are two ways of contending, one in accordance with the laws, the other by force; the first of which  is proper of man, the second to beasts. But since the first method is often ineffectual, it becomes necessary to resort to the second. A Prince should, therefore, understand how to use well both the man and the beast.” (13) Starting from rigid Social Darwinism, Coubertin repudiates social norms and declares the “right of the strong” to be the indisputable basis of social integration. Coubertin comes close to Machiavelli’s view that “all armed prophets have been victorious, while those unarmed have failed”. (14) However, in addition to “courage”, “destiny” and “fortune” are also important for a ruler’s success. At the same time, in laws that apply to natural phenomena Machiavelli finds an analogy that confirms the inevitability of social events, which is contrary to Coubertin’s class voluntarism. (15) Speaking of a “criminal or unscrupulous road” to power, Machiavelli concludes: “Indeed, we cannot regard as a virtue murdering your citizens, betraying a friend, failing to keep a promise, an absence of compassion and faith. All these can bring man to power, but cannot bring him honour.” “Humanity”, which is eliminated from Coubertin’s Olympism, is for Machiavelli one of the most important conditions to “count the Prince among excellent men”. (17) Concluding in his “Appeal to Italy to wake up and set itself free from foreigners” that “everybody is fed up with foreign domination”, (18) Machiavelli calles on Lorenco de Medichi to carry the banner of freedom “with the same enthusiasm and  hope with which man goes to just wars”, (19) and this is in opposition to Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine, which absolutizes the principle “might is right” and denies the oppressed the right to freedom.

Antiemancipatory nature of Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine can also be seen if we compare his doctrine with the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, on which Coubertin appearantly relies. Hobbes claims that man is an egoistical being that struggles to survive and consequently to submit the others. It follows that the lust for power is a constant feature of human nature. The identical conceptions are found in Coubertin. However, Hobbes claims that nature created men equal in terms of their bodily and spiritual abilities. From the assumed natural equality of people Hobbes derives their natural animosity: being equal, people strive for the same things which they cannot share. The creation of the state ends the  “state of nature” in which “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) rules and social peace is established through “state sovereignty”. To the “state of nature” Hobbes opposes the “civil state” in which the state keeps its citizens in constant fear from sanctions and thus compels them to obey “natural laws”. In addition to that, there are moral postulates: justice, modesty, charity. They do not derive from human nature, but from reason which discovers them as the necessary conditions of communal life. The establishment of a state is based on a particular agreement or contract between citizens, by which they partly renounce their rights for the sake of the common good consisting in a peaceful and safe life of everybody. The state appears as an institutionalized protection of the basic interests of citizens from self-willingness of groups and individuals, and thus as the “sword of justice”. In Hobbes, the “common interest” is the form in which the emerging citizens are confronted with the self-willingness of the aristocracy as the ruling class. It is oppossed to the principle “might is right” since it gives a “natural” legitimacy to the authority, making it independent of human will and eternal. However, his ideas belong to a political concept which is not struggling to abolish class domination as such, but to abolish the privileged superiority of the aristocracy. Coubertin does not depart from the conflicting interests of egoistical individuals, but from the class (and racial) interest. For him, it is not the citizen who is the constituent part of society, but the power of the ruling (bourgeois) class to hold the working ”masses” in submission by force. For Coubertin, egoism of an individual in the period of the formation of  bourgeois society and liberalism becomes in monopolistic capitalism the ruling egoism of the ruling class. Hence he does not need reason, from which the “common will” is derived, nor the institutions of compulsion (“state sovereignty”) which are supposed to prevent the conflicting egoistical interests of groups and individuals from jeopardizing social existence. Not only does Coubertin’s man not abandon the “state of nature”, he does his best to preserve it. The constant oppression that the strong exert on the weak is, at the same time, the basic means of preserving the combat power of the bourgeoisie – and this is the basic assumption for preserving the established (oppressive) order. While Hobbes seeks to create an institutional framework so as to protect society from disastrous effects of the ruthless struggle between the citizens due to their private interests, Coubertin tries to integrate the bourgeoise as a class and militarize it so as to enable it to efficiently deal with the workers’ movement and realize its “colonial mission”. The principle “might is right”, having a class, racial and patriarchal character, becomes the supreme principle of social “integration” and the foundation of “social peace”. For Coubertin, the matter is settled by the bourgeoisie taking power in its own hands and acquiring the monopoly of power. What he wants to do is to make that power efficient, indisputable and eternal. Therefore, Coubertin abolishes civil society and “rule of law” and proclaims the bourgeoisie the direct carrier of the absolutized authority. In this way, Coubertin abolishes the private and public spheres and raises the partial (class) interest of the bourgeoisie to the level of an indisputable “interest of society”. Hence the ideas and political movements that, according to Coubertin, restrain and threaten the legitimate egoistical interests of the bourgeoisie, at the same time threaten the “interests of society”. The free development of the need of the rich to get richer represents the driving force of social “progress”: greed (of the rich) is the highest human virtue.

The extent to which Coubertin deviates from the original emancipatory ideas of Hobbes’ doctrine can be seen if we compare his Olympism with Hobbes’ conception of man’s freedom as the basic “natural law”, involving the right of every man to use “every means” and “every way” to defend himself. (20) According to Hobbes, “every citizen has the right to decide for himself what is a good and what is a bad action”, and “it is allowed to kill a tyrant”, (21) meaning that every man has the right to oppose injustice. For Coubertin, the Hobbes’ ninth “natural law”, stating that “all men are equal by nature”, (22) represents the worst blasphemy. Besides, Hobbes tries to supress egoism, with its disastrous effects on social organism, by way of Christian “humanism”. “Love thy neighbours like yourself” (23) becomes one of the most important principles of his “Leviathan”, which is a peculiar Christian state. God is not merely the “creator of the whole nature”, he “acts in the hearts of people”. (24) Scriptures become the origin of divine wisdom as the highest truth. (25) What suggests the congeniality of Coubertin and Hobbes are not Hobbes’ maxims bellum omnium contra omnes and homo homini lupus, which apply in the “state of nature”, but the maxim auctoritas, non veritas facit legem which subordinates the pursuit of truth to the preservation of the existing order. However, this principle should be considered with respect to Hobbes’ conception that the “welfare of people” is the ultimate goal of the establishment of the state, (26) based on Cicero’s maxim salus populi suprema lex, which is totally opposed to Coubertin’s plutocratic conception. (27)

Coubertin’s philosophy is also oppossed to the emancipatory heritage of the philosophy of John Lock, who not only insists on  “freedom, equality and independence” of man who, following his inalienable “natural right”, (28) agrees with others to create a “Civil Society”, namely, unite in the “Community” or “Government”, (29) but also that “he who attempts to get another Man into his Absolute Power, does thereby put himself into the State of War with him”. (30) The right to freedom and the right to defend it are the basis of man’s inalienable right – as oppossed to Coubertin’s “might is right” and “social peace” based on it. Considering the socio-economic and political situation in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, Lock’s appeal to defend freedom could be interpreted as an appeal to workers to stand up to the tyranny of the ruling plutocratic “elite”.

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