Coubertin and Rousseau

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Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine rejects the emancipatory heritage of Rousseau’s philosophy which is one of the most important origins of modern physical culture. Unlike Rousseau, who departs from man as a free and reasonable human being who – guided by his original human nature and “without corruption in his heart” – is capable of creating a world in which people will be free, Coubertin seeks to abolish civil society and establish a “civilized” menagerie where the parasitic classes exercise tyranny over the working people. In Rousseau’s natural order people are born free; in Coubertin’s social order people are born as masters or slaves, depending on their class, race and gender. While Rousseau regards nature as a space that cultivates man, Coubertin sees society as a space where man’s “animal” nature is most brought to light. Rousseau’s “savage” is the embodiment of human virtues; Coubertin’s “new man” is a super-beast deprived of all human properties. In Rousseau’s “natural order”, in which “all people are equal”, “people’s calling” is “above all to be human”; (10) In Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine “people’s calling” is to destroy everything that makes man human. Unlike Coubertin’s man, who can be either the master or the slave, Rousseau’s Emile “does not exhibit a creeping and slavery obedience of a slave, nor does he speak in the commanding voice of a master” for “he is well aware that he is always his own master”. (11) Hence Rousseau wants to exclude from children’s vocabulary the expressions “to obey and to command”, (12) which represent conditio sine qua non of Coubertin’s pedagogical practice. To be “one’s own master” by living on one’s own labour and to be in unity with one’s natural being – this is the highest principle of Rousseau’s pedagogy and the basic condition of freedom. It is on this basis that Rousseau attains “his” man who is neither a master nor a slave, but is an independent individual. At the same time, in the light of Rousseau’s philosophy the origin and true nature of Coubertin’s “elitist” conception is revealed. While Coubertin departs from collectivity, which appears in the form of race (nation) and class, in order to create a “master race” which by fire and sward will conquer the world, Rousseau departs from the individual who appears in the form of an emancipated citizen, who, on the basis of his own labour and “social contract” (contrat social), seeks to create civil society. This is for Coubertin the least acceptable part of Rousseau’s theory: not the rights of man and citizen, but the principle of “might is right” and the preservation of the order of privileges of the strong – this is the indisputable basis of social integration. Furthermore, Coubertin’s “new man” is not his own master because he is an extended hand of the process of evolution which reached its climax in capitalist “progress” that uses man as a means for removing all the obstacles on its way.

Rousseau is close to the spirit of the newly-born citizens who want to start a new life based on a productivistic activism of individuals, and not on conquering and plundering. Instead of arguing for a fight reduced to the tyranny of the strong over the weak, Rousseau argues for a fight by way of working activity with which the obstacles arising before man in his endeavour to ensure survival are removed. Rousseau’s Emile is capable of performing any kind of work since his organs are “precisely and well trained; all the mechanics of skills is already familiar to him”. (13) Rousseau wants us to “keep our bodies in activity and our limbs in their suppleness and to form our hands constantly for labour and for the uses which are beneficial to man.” (14) While Rousseau tries to teach man how to be an independent personality capable of ensuring his existence with his own hands, Coubertin tries to cripple man and create from him a parasite capable of surviving only by exploiting other people. Rousseau teaches Emile to make a tool with which he will ensure his existence and thus become a free man; Coubertin arms the bourgeois from his childhood with a combatant (killing) technique with which he will subject the others and thus ensure his own survival: sport should prepare the bourgeois youth for plundering and killing the workers and the “lower races”. Since Coubertin reduced the human community to a menagerie, it is logical that for him the martial (“bloody”) sports are the most important means in the upbringing of young people. In Rousseau, a working movement produces a working body which is characterized by flexibility and adaptability; in Coubertin, a combatant movement produces the body of a warrior characterized by physical strength and explosive force. Instead of developing the body which will be capable of developing universal creative powers of man as an individual, Coubertin seeks to militarize the body of the bourgeois which then becomes the tool of the monopolistic capital for conquering the world and is thus a symbolic incarnation of its expansionist power. That is why military parades and industrial exhibitions represent the highest challenges for Coubertin’s aesthetics.

In Rousseau, as well as in Coubertin, upbringing does not involve a normative apriorism, but spontaneously follows from a life activism dominated by a fight against “obstacles” (Starobinski): the experience of the world is realized through a productivistic activism which becomes the basic way of knowing the world and of the relation to it. Rousseau’s “savage” is not a fanatic, like Coubertin’s positive man, but a reasonable being guided by his enlightening mind that involves self-initiative, curiosity, exactness, perceptiveness, practicality, spontaneity…. Similarly to Rousseau, Coubertin does not argue for a pedagogy which is adopted through “learning”, but insists on the circumstances, which means on the environment which directly and “spontaneously” influences the formation of a child’s personality though his life activism. While in Rousseau the perfectioning of the human nature based on respect for a child’s individual dispositions is achieved through a “return to nature”, Coubertin seeks to turn human society into an animal realm and the bourgeois into a “civilized” beast. In Coubertin, physical exercises and sport do not serve to cultivate man, but to develop in him an aggressive and insatiable egoism and arm him for a merciless struggle for survival. While Rousseau emphasizes the perfectioning of physical properties and individual dispositions, and on that basis of man’s personality, Coubertin emphasizes the “disciplining” of man, which means the suppression of his individual dispositions, repression of the body and man’s submission to the model of a loyal and usable subject. In Rousseau, all essential elements of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” are present – courage, endurance, self-initiative – but the way of their realization does not turn people into enemies and does not turn man against nature (body), as is the case in Coubertin, but turns people into friends and teaches man to respect nature and his natural being. Rousseau is a firm opponent of competition and gives priority to the love of man over ambition: “Let all vanity stay far away, all competition, all ambition and all the feeling that leads us to compare with others. For such comparisons always produce in us a hatred of those who deny us priority…” (15) In this context, man cannot “compete” with nature, nor can he “control” it, from which follows Rousseau’s relation to the body. The basis of “happiness” is not a combat with one’s natural being (body); it is a spontaneous and free development of the body, the spirit, the senses, of reason and skills…Nature, life and freedom are given in unity.

For Rousseau, “a return to nature” involves the rejection of the aristocratic and Christian heritage that hinders man: natural movement becomes a synonym for free movement. “A return to nature” is not an escape, but a preparation for living in society: nature becomes man’s ally in his fight against ancien régime. It is an endeavour to liberate man from his patterned behavior which kills his vitality, and that means to make him independent from an early age and develop his personality through his own life activism and the experience he thus acquires. A liberation from spiritual patronage and acquiring the character of an independent and free personality – this is the basic aim of Rousseau’s “return to nature”. Rousseau was aware that liberating the body from the repressive rules of behavior, as well as from a limited space, is one of the basic presuppositions of liberating and developing the human spirit and of creating a free personality. By way of a free movement man unites himself with nature and becomes cultivated as a cultural and natural being, since for him nature is not only his immediate existential space, as it is for the animal, but is a space in which he realizes his working skill and spiritual powers. Most importantly, “a return to nature” means a reestablishment of man’s unity with his natural being which was interrupted by the development of civilization: nature is man’s natural habitat. In Coubertin, nature is a space of an unrestrained struggle for a place under the sun and thus is the basis of social structuring. Similarly to Rousseau, he does not rely on institutions, but his “state of nature” corresponds to a menagerie, while Rousseau’s “return to nature” involves ancorrupted humanism (a humane “savage”) based on man’s existential unity with nature. Rousseau seeks to release man from the bonds of feudal civilization and develop his noble qualities; Coubertin seeks to “release” his “new man” from the emancipatory heritage of humanity and create a “civilized” barbarism. Instead of a free bodily movement, which spontaneously follows the mimetic impulses that man encounters in nature, Coubertin insist on a repressive model of movement, the nature of which is conditioned by the Social Darwinist and progressistic spirit of the ruling order. Coubertin relates to nature via the alienated technical sphere as the controlled natural forces which in the hands of the bourgeoisie become not only a means for submitting man but also for exploiting nature. Rousseau’s conception is based on farm production and manual labour, which means that there do not exist technical and scientific spheres which mediate between man and nature. The skill that man acquires does not become the power with which he tends to control and exploit nature, but with which he tends to attain a complete unity with it. Emile does not seek to become the “master and owner” of nature, but to live in nature using his natural properties. Skill becomes the most important form of a life activism which involves a unity between natural environment and man’s natural being. The dominant unity is that between man and skill which enables the cultivation of his natural being… Man and nature are not mediated by civilization: nature itself produces mimetic impulses which man spontaneously perceives by his senses and which condition his (natural) behavior. It is not an a priori knowledge and in that context a learned skill that represent a direct challenge, but it is the natural circumstances, and by meeting that challenge man gains experience and develops his human powers in the form of a skill which enables him to act freely. Human movement is a natural movement with which man unites with and develops his natural being.

As far as knowing the world and attaining the idea of space is concerned, Rousseau concludes: “It is only through movement that we learn that outside us there exist other things, and it is only through our own movement that we attain the idea of space.” (16) A joy of life is realized through a free bodily movement. The idea of man’s “own movement” is alien to Coubertin, since his life is submitted to the fatal course of evolution of the living world which reached its highest form in capitalist “progress”. In Coubertin, the dominant movement is not man’s movement in nature, but man’s movement against man, as well as the movement that represents a combat with one’s own natural being – which is the realization of a military physical drill “perfectioned” by the principle of “greater effort” and reduced to man’s (self) crippling and his submission to the model of “positive man”. While in Rousseau space is limitless and time is infinite, in sport, space is limited, and time is “compacted” into hours, minutes, seconds… and is the pulsation of the life pulse of capitalism. In Rousseau’s doctrine, the dominant logic is not progressistic: man’s relation to nature is conditioned by his existential needs, and not by the process of capitalist reproduction. Emil does not pursue a higher result: speed in itself, which does not enhance the certainty of survival, has no importance for him. Unlike Rousseau, Coubertin does not pursue a return to nature, but seeks to create special sports spaces which should become the cult venues celebrating the dominant spirit of the existing world which is embodied in sport. Sports fields are the capitalist forms of a degeneration and destruction of nature, while the “sportsman” is the capitalist form of degeneration and destruction of man.

In spite of insisting on the laws of evolution, Coubertin does not see man in unity with nature, but departs from the contrasts between spirit and matter, soul and body, man and nature. The body becomes an “opponent” whose defense mechanism is to be blocked and he is to be compelled to self-destruction. Rousseau insists on the interdependence of the body and the spirit – the spirit cultivating the body and the body cultivating the spirit: “It is different with a savage: unbound to a place, without a proper job, not submitting to anyone, not obeying any other laws except his own will, he is forced to carefully consider every act in his life. He will not make a move or a step without considering the consequences. Therefore, the more his body does exercises, the more his spirit becomes enlightened; his strength and reason develop parallel and transform mutually.” (17) And he continues: “Being constantly in motion, he is forced to observe many things and get to know many consequences; from his early age he gains great experience, he is educated by nature and not by people ;…(…) thus he parallel exercises his body and his spirit. As he always acts according to his intellect and not according to the intellect of others, he constantly combines his bodily and spiritual exertion. The stronger and mightier he becomes, the more intelligent and reasonable he is. It is the right way to achieve one day that what is considered disparate, and what almost all great men combine, namely, the bodily and spiritual power, the reason of a sage and the strength of an athlete.”(18) Coubertin deprived man both of the soul and of the intellect. While in Rousseau the established relation is: a harmoniously built body – an inquisitive spirit and an independent mind, in Coubertin the relation is: a muscular body – a merciless combatant character. Coubertin prepares the body and the spirit for conquering and not for “using natural tools”. As far as the spirit is concerned, it is not the spirit of man as a free person, but the spirit of the ruling order, which enters man by way of the life “circumstances” that force him to fight for survival. Rousseau seeks to educate man as an independent personality; Coubertin departs from a racial, class and patriarchal model to which he tries to subject man. Coubertin does not seek to create reasonable people who will make judgments independently, but colonial fanatics. Rousseau’s Emile is guided by natural circumstances in the development of his body and intellect; Coubertin’s bourgeois is guided by the circumstances in society, reduced to a menagerie, in the development of a merciless combatant character and a corresponding (positive) conscious. The body is not an integral part of man’s personality, but is the tool of the “spirit” for achieving anti-human ends. If Rousseau’s view that “big and strong limbs bring neither courage nor geniality” (19) is compared with Coubertin’s pedagogical postulate mens fervida in corpore lacertoso, it is clear that Coubertin and Rousseau hold essentially different evaluative standpoints. It is also confirmed by Rousseau’s defining Emile as a “complete man”, a working and thinking being “full of love”, “whose reason is perfected by feelings (20) – who is totally opposed to Coubertin’s “new man”. Unlike the ancient physical culture dominated by a harmonious development of a child’s universal bodily and mental faculties, in sport, a dualism between body and spirit is institutionalized: the body becomes the means for achieving a higher result, while a fanaticized “spirit” is the whip of the order forcing the body to achieve the given end at the price of self-destruction. The “secret” of the ancient physical culture, which makes it superior to Coubertin’s physical culture and sport, is the relation of man to his own body, which is mediated by the idea of cosmos in which all parts are in unity with the whole and man is an integral part of nature: man’s unity with the cosmos is the basis of his unity with his body. Rousseau’s philosophy follows a holistic approach discarding aesthetic apriorism and giving it a natural dimension: Emile’s body develops in accordance with his natural properties and corresponds to the natural environment. The basis of Coubertin’s relation to the body (nature) is a complete submission of man to the expansionist power of monopolistic capitalism and the resulting “progress”, and it is upon this that he basis his “cult of intensive muscular exercises”, the principle of “greater effort”, as well as the absolutized principle of performance expressed in the maxim citius, altius, fortius: in sport, the relation of man to his body is a symbolic expression of the relation of capitalism to nature. Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” fully developed the conception which in the combat between “spirit” and “body” sees the basis of man’s education. Instead of a cultivation of man’s instinctive nature, as is the case in the Hellenic and Rousseau’s pedagogy, a child’s bodily and mental development is subordinated in sport to the creation of a “sportsman”, which is reduced to his systematic crippling and to the achievement of a higher result (record).

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