Coubertin and the ”Philanthropic Movement”


The modern Olympic doctrine deals with the cultural heritage of the philanthropic movement which, inspired by the enlightening pedagogical ideals developed in Germany on the eve and after the French Revolution. The first step in its development was taken by Johann Bernhardt Basedow, who in 1774 in Dessau founded a public school in which, along with the ordinary scientific subjects, he introduced physical education. He inspired Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths to write a book “Gymnastics for Young People” (”Gymnastik für die Jugend”, 1793), which was the first comprehensive theoretical conception of physical education in Germany and was to become the basis of the philanthropic pedagogical thought and practice. Guts Muths departs from the view that for hundreds of years the starting point in education has been the maxim “a sound mind in a sound body” and bases on it his gymnastics: the basic aims of his “system of exercises” are physical stamina, strength, health and beauty. (21) In addition to these challenges, Guts Muths regards physical education as a means for raising young people’s spiritual and moral level and developing their patriotic spirit, which was supposed to overcome the feudal disintegration and contribute to the national integration of the Germans. (22)

Drawing on Rousseau, Guts Muths comes to the conclusion that civilization brought about a degeneration of man’s original physical and spiritual being: the more man approaches the state of nature, the more physically superior he is to civilized man. Hence in “primitive man” he sees the ideal of “physical perfectioning” modern man should strive for. Keeping to the Social Darwinist evolutionism, Coubertin “concluded” that as man goes further and further away from his “lazy” animal nature he becomes more perfect, while in the struggle for survival and domination the white race managed to preserve the “pureness” of its racial blood and become the “master race”, which is the highest and final stage in the development of human race. Guts Muths’ gymnastics tends to bring man closer to nature and consequently to his human being; Coubertin’s pedagogy seeks to move man away from nature and thus from the human. In Coubertin, there do not exist any natural obstacles that appear in man’s everyday activity, but there is a fight between people for survival and domination mediated by quantitative criteria, which means by the endeavours of the parasitic “elite” to insure the exploitation of the working ”masses”. In that struggle man is not alienated only from his human, but also from his natural being. Coubertin’s “civilized” menagerie is not a copy of the animal world, but serves to provide a naturalistic legitimacy to society governed by the spirit of monopolistic capitalism.

Guts Muths tends to turn gymnastics into the means for building the national character of the Germans and for their spiritual and political integration. Just as in Rousseau nature is an ally in the fight against ancien régime, so in Guts Muths nature is an ally in the fight against the feudal disintegration and in the creation of the national state of the Germans. He sees in national emancipation the basic condition of civil and human emancipation of his compatriots. Instead of Coubertin’s “immortal spirit of antiquity”, which is reincarnated in the modern Olympic Games, in Guts Muths, the “sound mind” of the citizen, acquired by physical drill, becomes a reincarnation of the libertarian spirit of the “old Germans”. It is no longer Rousseau’s “savage”, but a romanticized picture of ancestors, and it is not only a libertarian and healthy but, above all, a national challenge. In that context, Guts Muths insists on their personal qualities such as, in addition to “health” and “strength”, “loyalty” and “courage”. A return to nature does not mean a return to man’s animal nature, but a return to the original national essentiality, while a return to the natural movement becomes a return to the original national strength. Gymnastics becomes the means for restoring the Germans to natural life, which means to the living conditions of their ancestors, and for their physical and spiritual (character) strengthening according to the principle mens sana in corpore sano. Nature appears as an organic link with ancestors by means of which the continuity of national existence and unity of national being are achieved. The overcoming of natural obstacles should enable man to become fit and to restore his original national being. The original natural movement is the basis of the creation of the original national body and spirit (character) and is thus the integrative active power as opposed to the spiritual disintegration of the German national being. Naturality is equated with vitality, independence, incorruption… Instead of developing in the fight for life or death, as is the case in Coubertin, a “sound mind” develops through the overcoming of natural obstacles in the way that develops natural qualities and skill. (23) Instead of martial sports – hiking, running, jumping, throwing and other similar physical exercises become the most important segments of his gymnastic education. They are not dominated by the conquering and plundering spirit of the bourgeois, but by the spirit of the original natural independence of an emancipated citizen who wants to get rid of the bonds of feudal civilization, create a civil society and achieve national integration. Like Rousseau, Guts Muths associates the acquisition of health with the observance of natural laws (not with natural selection and the principle “might is right”) and man’s natural being. The life force is based on a harmonious development of the human faculties that enable man an independent life: physical drills should develop the body in the way that enables him to acquire the skill with which he can insure survival. For Coubertin, health is for the “weak”; what his bourgeois should acquire is a conquering (oppressive) character and a corresponding body.

Guts Muths poses the following question: “Can a cultivated man approach the physical perfection of primitive man without becoming a savage?” (24) – and concludes that “the ideal cannot and must not be the primitive German savageness”, but that “the German physical stamina and strength, courage and masculinity are connected with the culture of the heart and the spirit”. (25) Referring to Rousseau, Guts Muths concludes that even the highest spiritual development without the development of the body represents only half of man, (26) and drawing on Democritus, says that an unsound body has an unsound mind. (27) Physical weakness results in nervousness, frailty and illness: “The weaker the body, the more it commands…” – Guts Muths cites Rousseau. (28) In Guts Muths, the dominant relation is that between body and spirit and not that between body and character; however, for him, the spirit includes man’s personal qualities, such as courage. He puts an emphasis on “health with the male strength and agility, with stamina, courage and unwavering spirit all combined in the male character”. (29) Gymnastic exercises are “the most important part in the education of young people; physical strength, agility, a well built body, courage, presence of mind in danger and love of homeland built on it is their aim”. (30) According to Guts Muths, “the only real and primary aim of gymnastics is a harmony between spirit (Geist) and body (Leib). (31) Departing from the ancient model, Guts Muths sees in a “well built body” an expression of “spiritual beauty”, (32) which is alien to Coubertin’s doctrine. Guts Muths here again sticks to the pattern mens sana in corpore sano: in a beautiful body – beautiful spirit. Coubertin discarded the maxim mens sana in corpore sano and proclaimed the maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso the guiding principle of his pedagogical doctrine: the more muscular the body is – the more combatant the spirit. For Guts Muths gymnastics is also the means for dealing with boredom. (33) Drawing on Rousseau’s ”Emile”, Guts Muths sees in physical exercises, as the form of cultivating the powers that control him, a means for cultivating intelligence (34): the body is “a machine on which we weave the merry threads of thought…” (35)

The nature of Guts Muths’ conception is also seen from his critical commentaries on ancient gymnastics, above all from Euripides’ fragment in which he says: “Among thousands of evils in Greece the race of athletes is the worst.” (36) Guts Muths also cites an ancient saying, so relevant today: “Man does gymnastics in order to live, but he does not live in order to do gymnastics”. (37) At the same time, he reminds us that Galen was explicitly against athletic gymnastics and that he divided gymnastics in “military”, “harmful” and “real medical athletics”, (38) and that Plato differentiated between “dancing gymnastics” (Tanzgymnastik) and “martial gymnastics” (Kampfgymnastik). (39) However, Guts Muths, like Coubertin, sees in gymnastics not only a means for strengthening the body, but above all the means for creating “future defenders of the country”. He contrasts male strength with female “weakness” (40) and rejects music as an educational means for he sees in it something “feminine”. At the same time, Guts Muths reduces the body to a “machine” and thus deals with man’s playing nature. His “gymnastic skill” (Turnkunst), like Coubertin’s physical drill, becomes a peculiar military drill: the militarization of the spirit is achieved by the militarization of the body. Turners are symbolical representatives of nation, and the result (victory) they achieve is not the expression of their personal achievement but of national strength. While Coubertin, with his “utilitarian pedagogy”, seeks to create from the bourgeois European youth a “master race” that will conquer the world, Guts Muths seeks to create a “young citizen of the world” (Junge Weltbürger) who will be “so physically educated that he can stay moral”. (41) When martial forms of physical education are concerned, Guts Muths recommends wrestling considering it a means for building the combatant national character of the “defenders of the country”, not the conquering (oppressive) one favored by Coubertin, but defending and libertarian. In his study from 1817 “Tourner’s Book for the Sons of the Homeland” (“Turnbuch für die Sohne des Vaterlandes”) Guts Muths discusses in detail the skill of wrestling (42) and explains that its main purpose is to “train the defenders of the homeland”. Guts Muths’ social theory sheds special light on his concept of physical culture and indicates an unbridgeable gap between his and Coubertin’s doctrines. While Coubertin supports an order based on the criminal exploitation of children, Guts Muths argues for social justice and objects to children from the “working people’s class” at the age of 10 earning their own bread, leaving school and being subjected to “slavery labour”. (43)

The elitist spirit of Coubertin’s Olympism conditions his implacably hostile attitude to Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s doctrine. Unlike Pestalozzi, who argues for “people’s education (Volkserziehung) and the development of the corresponding “fundamental principles” (Grundsätze), (44) Coubertin insists on a class approach: his “utilitarian pedagogy” tends to create a “master race”, on the one hand, and “masses” of the oppressed, on the other. Pestalozzi insists on “the reestablishment of the national spirit of gymnastics”. (45) For Pestalozzi, man is not an animal, but a free playing being. He refers to the wealth of the original human playful nature and demands that a child from an early age be provided with a “free versatile playing ground” for his physical activity and his need for movement, (46) holding that the body of a child is the “temple of the holy spirit”, and not the “prison of the soul”. (47) Instead of a physical drill reduced to a (pre)military training, Pestalozzi insists on “natural gymnastics” (Naturgymnastik), which is only the basis for the development of “artistic gymnastics” (Kunstgymnastik). (48) He wants to develop a harmoniously built man, and insists on his physical, intellectual, aesthetical, moral and professional education. (49) In that context, instead of boxing – which is for Coubertin the most important means of education, Pestalozzi emphasizes a “permanent disposition to movement” in children and their need to “play with their bodies”. (50) Similarly to Rousseau, Pestalozzi opposes the parasitic mentality of the ruling class and seeks to educate the child for a life in which he will be able to do anything that could make him an independent personality. Independence resulting from existential activism and characterized by man’s ability to earn his livelihood through work, represents the highest challenge for physical culture. Hence in Pestalozzi the “popular spirit of gymnastics” is not affirmed only at folk festivities, but also in school and work in the field. (51) Pestalozzi insists on an “inseparable whole” that man acquired from nature, the heart, the spirit and the body being only the manifestations of that whole. It follows that the development of one part is closely connected with the development of all other parts of the body: “an organic unity” is the basis of independence and freedom. (52) Coubertin develops his pedagogy for the parasitic classes and therefore needs to develop a combatant character and a muscular body at the expense of working abilities and of the development of intellect, spirit, emotions, Eros… Instead of a harmoniously developed (human) organism, Coubertin’s man is characterized by the hypertrophy of one and atrophy of the other “part”, which corresponds to the social (class) position and (conquering-oppressive) “duties” of the bourgeoisie. In Coubertin, man is instrumentalized for the purpose of capitalist expansion – these are the underlying principles of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”. Preventing the bourgeois youth from developing their productivistic-creative abilities, Coubertin creates crippled parasites who can survive only by exploiting the working “masses”. Like Nietzsche’s “overman”, Coubertin’s bourgeois is the slave of his incapability to ensure his own livelihood. Hence a “revolt of the masses” does not mean only a loss of the bourgeois’ privileged social position, but also a loss of his livelihood.

Like Rousseau, Guts Muths and Pestalozzi, Gerhard Ulrich Anton Vieth also holds that physical exercises do not affect only the body, but also the spirit. (53) Vieth insists on a simultaneous building of the body and the spirit and advocates the maxim mens sana in corpore sano. (54) He favors physical health acquired through movement and physical exercises and discusses the effects of physical drills on organism and on the development of limbs and muscles, as well as the functioning of joints. According to him, physical drills should develop a proper bearing and prompt the “masculinity” of movements, but also a well-built body modeled after the looks of a soldier. (55) Hence, instead of insisting on suppleness and a creative body, Vieth insists on physical stamina and favors the maxim mens sana in corpore sano. In Vieth, also, the physical has priority over the spiritual, although it is not superior to the spiritual. He departs from the fact that physical exercises do not decrease the need for spiritual and intellectual activities but increases it and refers to Rousseau: by strengthening a child’s body we strengthen his reason. (56) By rejecting the maxim mens sana in corpore sano, and introducing the maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso, Coubertin abolishes the relation between the body and the spirit which contains the possibility of establishing a relation between the body and the mind. He reduces the body to muscles and establishes a relation between muscle development and combatant character, resulting in an explosive muscular strength which symbolically expresses the expansionist power of monopolistic capitalism. In addition, instead in the Olympic Games like Coubertin, Vieth finds in ancient gymnasia the model for a system of physical exercises suitable to the Modern Age. (57) Unlike Coubertin, Vieth differentiates between “chivalrous exercises” (dancing, riding, fencing…), which are the privilege of the aristocracy, and “gymnastic exercises” (wrestling, running, jumping, throwing, balancing, swimming…), which are the right of the citizens, and thus differentiates the aristocratic from the bourgeois physical culture. Unlike Coubertin’s “mondialistic” Olympic spirit which deals with peoples’ cultural tradition, Vieth seeks to turn gymnastic performances into a “folk festivity” (Volksfest), with music and appropriate decorations creating a solemn atmosphere. In that context, Vieth, like Guts Muths, proposes the organization of performances similar to the ancient Olympic Games and the Roman games in amphitheatres, but “smaller in size”. (58)

The official “father” (“Der Turnvater”) of the gymnastic movement (Turnbewegung) in Germany, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, was one of the pedagogs who tried to create the Germans’ national character by way of physical drill. With regard to the exceptionally nationalistic and militaristic spirit in Jahn’s works, it could be said that Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” is closely akin to Jahn’s “turner” pedagogy. However, there is a crucial difference: Jahn’s doctrine does not have a conquering-oppressive, but a national-liberating character. Drawing on Guts Muths’ book “Turner’s Book for the Sons of the Homeland”, Jahn writes his work “The German Folk Turnership” (”Deutschen Volksturnens”) and in 1811 in Hasenheide near Berlin builds the first drill field (Turnplatz) where the young practiced running, throwing, jumping and climbing. Those were “folk exercises” (volkstümliche Übungen), a peculiar pre-military training for a “national war” against the French domination and for the unification of Germany into one country. (59) “The spirit of the basic rules” of turners is contained in the principle: “Fresh, free, cheerful and pious.” (“Frisch, frey, fröhlich, und fromm“). It is, according to Jahn, the symbol of the “kingdom of turners”. (60) Instead of “freshness”, Coubertin argues for a “muscular body”; instead of “freedom”, for a limitless exploitation of the oppressed; instead of “cheerfulness”, for a fanatical focusing on the given colonial ends; instead of “piousness”, for an oppressive “will to power” based on insatiable greediness. Jahn’s thesis from 1815, that “the spirit of the turners’ being is folk life, and it is possible only in the open, in the air and light”, (61) clearly suggests that Jahn developed a libertarian national-populist movement, which is totally opposed to Coubertin’s plutocratic elitism and colonial fanatism.

Coubertin, the aristocrat, guided by capitalist “progress” and insatiable lust of the bourgeois “elite”, discarded the basic principles of the aristocratic physical culture. Speaking of the forms of physical culture in the Modern Age that preceded sport, Hopf cites Eichberg’s analysis of aristocratic training, which involved “a special bearing of the body, refined movement and decency” as opposed to “uncourtly customs and peasant clumsiness” and “anyone who excessively practiced only one physical activity was viewed askance”. “Positive values, measure and form, are contrasted with negative values, non-measure, and non-form”. “Order and measure had to be retained, considered but not exceeded”. (62) According to MacAloon, “Whether or not Coubertin had rejected ordre et mesure in his aristocratic patrimony, he had certainly retained the value of prouesse, and he saw no prouesse in gymnastics, only in sport.”(63) If we consider the change in the canon of exercises, we can see that philanthropists “first took over the traditional canons of aristocratic exercises, which involved dancing, riding, jumping and fencing, and tried to fit them in their “new systems of gymnastic exercises”. In addition, they introduced new exercises following the Greek model and folk training”. Hopf goes on to say that “the aristocratic and philanthropic physical drill – however traditional it may be – radically differs from what we call sport. It is based on a “geometric-formal notion of beauty, oriented to dancing”. Hopf refers to Eichberg’s conclusion that Fait tried to turn skating, which was then becoming popular, “into a truly fine art” (Fait) adds that “here, the bourgeois moment made it felt – the discovery of natural beauty”. It is quite clear from Klopstock’s ode to skating. “The experience of skating” is tightly connected with “a deep sense of the beauty of winter landscapes, in the morning as well as in moonlight”. Philanthropists inspired the notion of beauty with a new spirit. They contrast the “static ideal of perfection” with a “dynamic” one, which is expressed in the “use of the word perfectioning”. (64) As far as measuring of results in today’s sport is concerned, “in philanthropists, it is introduced gradually”. There are only “individual measures of efficiency, which in the beginning, following the aristocratic tradition, were considered an oddity”. Philanthropists are “even closer to measurement in the old sense of the word – as a measure that should be retained”. According to Eichberg, philanthropists mark “only the beginning of the transformation of physical exercises into sport”. The road to sport in Germany was “relatively long and finished only with the victory of sport over exercising (Turnbewegung), namely, in the beginning of this century”. As far as competition is concerned, philanthropists used contests “as a means of upbringing – and that was something new”, but “another one hundred years were needed for the idea of competition to completely prevail over exercising and thus become sport”. Hopf cites the view of Krockow that philanthropists represent the “historical beginning” of the transformation of physical culture into sport in Germany. According to Eichberg, it is the “process of a growing quantification of efficiency, connected with the idea of a limitless increase in efficiency. (65) It should be added that Klopstock refers to ice skates as “feet wings”, thus poetically suggesting a way of overcoming the existing world and a road to future. (66)

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