Mens fervida in corpore lacertoso


Coubertin rejected one of the most important tendencies of the traditional forms of physical culture: that of building a sound body and on that basis a sound mind. According to Coubertin, the principle mens sana in corpore sano is “simply a hygienic instruction, which is based, like all other similar instructions, on the adoration of measure, restraint, the golden mean…”, but, “sport is a passionate activity”. (67) Coubertin opposes the view that the basic purpose of sport is people’s physical and mental health: that area is reserved for physical culture and it involves the “weak”. He rejects the principle of health because he is not interested in man, but in the development of the ruling order and thus in the creation of positive man who is the embodiment of the expansionist power of capitalism. Hence, instead of the maxim mens sana in corpore sano, Coubertin favors the maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso and proclaims it the highest principle of his “utilitarian pedagogy” – which is intended for the “master race”. It does not occur to him to refer to Hippocrates, “Father of Medicine”, who, lake Galen in ancient Rome, was strongly against boxing, considering it not only unworthy of man but also fatal to his mental health. The example of boxing shows that Coubertin subordinated the right to health to the right of the ruling order to survival. Coubertin’s conception is characterized by a political instrumentalization of the body: sport (physical exercises) serves as the means of the ruling “elite” for producing the character and conscious of an ideal citizen (positive man). The body in a “combatant effort” (Coubertin) is the incarnation of the ruling spirit of capitalism and the symbol of its stability. Hence Coubertin rejects the suppleness of limbs, the softness and elegance of movement and proclaims the “iron body”, accompanied by the “iron character”, the highest aim of sport and physical drill. At the same time, by discarding the principle metron ariston, Coubertin, who constantly refers to the “immortal spirit of antiquity”, shows how much he cares for the ancient cultural heritage. Anyway, Coubertin’s maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso is the final renouncement of the view according to which physical and mental health is the basic aim of physical drill and sport. The maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso does not have a narcissist character. The purpose of “chiseling the body” is not to acquire “better looks”, as is the case in modern body-building, but to build an “iron body” with a corresponding “iron will”. The muscular body of a sportsman in a combatant effort has a symbolic character: it embodies the expansionist and merciless nature of the ruling order and is its propaganda.

Coubertin deals with the maxim mens sana in corpore sano, but in his new maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso he preserved its antiemancipatory essence. It is a form in which the members of the ruling order strive to mobilize certain social strata in achieving their ends, and involves the equation of character and conscious after the model of a loyal and for the given ends usable subject. For the ideologues of liberalism, the maxim “a sound mind in a sound body” was a call to the bourgeois nouveau riche to passionately devote them to acquiring an ever bigger profit. It was a war cry with which the ever greedier bourgeois set out to exploit both “his” workers and colonized peoples. “Courage”, “resolve”, “uncompromising attitude”, “readiness to take a risk” – these are the basic features of this basically conquering (oppressive) spirit with genocidal overtones. As far as the “sound mind” of a sportsman is concerned, it involves a fanatical will capable of driving the organism to self-destruction. It is a dehumanized and denaturalized conscious which corresponds to the destructive nature of capitalism in the form of “technical civilization”: to imitate the “perfect work” of machines becomes the highest “pedagogical” challenge. It is obvious that a “healthy body” is not defined according to medical but according to evaluative (ideological) criteria. The “sound body” and the “sound mind” of the Nazis was, for the victims of their terror, the tool for destruction and a barbarous mind. Although the bourgeois theory repeatedly propounds the thesis “a sound mind in a sound body”, a “sound mind” does not derive from a “sound body” but, on the contrary, the aggressive and merciless mind of a petty-bourgeois is what determines physical “soundness”. The basic purpose of sport is not to create a “sound body”, but to produce a positive character and conscious, which means to preserve the established order of domination: “to establish control in the heads” is the basic principle of Coubertin’s Olympic philosophy. At the same time, sport does not only involve the production of a certain conscious but, above all, the production of certain relations between people as the incarnation of Social Darwinism and progressism.

The maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso excludes education and intellectual development, which clearly follows from Coubertin’s view that “the character is not created by the spirit, but by the body”. This view acquired its full meaning in Nazi pedagogy, whose essence is formulated in Hitler’s postulate that “a physically healthy man with a good, strong character, full of boldness and strong will, is more valuable for the folk community then an intellectual whimp”. (68) Anti-intellectualism is one of the corner stones of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”. Dealing with the spiritual heritage of the old Greek civilization in order to use it as a means for verifying his conception, Coubertin claims that the old Greeks “were little given to contemplation, even less bookish”. At the same time, the “healthy” spirit of a bourgeois is beyond good and evil and thus is “the fact” which cannot be questioned. In that way the basic postulates of the old Greek paideia are discarded, as well as Plato’s conception of education according to which “the soul cannot become good and virtuous by virtue of a trained body, while, on the contrary, a virtuous spirit can help the body to become better”. (69) However, man’s character and conscious, which means his relation to other people and to himself, are not conditioned by the body but by the nature of a concrete physical activism. For Coubertin, “muscles become teachers” only in so far as their development is based on a fight between people and on a physical drill with which man’s playful nature is suppressed and degenerated. It is no accident that, for Coubertin, man’s character and body are not to be developed through work, art, folklore, mountaineering and other activities involving physical effort and cooperation between people as reasonable and creative beings, but through (French) boxing as the embodiment of a mindless and murderous agonal physical activism.

Bearing in mind that Coubertin abolishes the divine firmament and reduces Olympism to the “cult of the present world”, he could be expected, like Nietzsche, to have a higher esteem for the body. However, sharing the Jesuit fanatism, Coubertin defends the medieval custom of torturing one town’s body and proclaims it one of the most important principles of his “utilitarian pedagogy”. In the article on physical education in the 20th century, published in November 1902, Coubertin concludes that medieval torturing of the body has a more “humane” and “nobler” cause then certain literary works would have it. It results from the “need of the soul to torture the body in order to make it more submissive”. As a model for the pedagogy of the 20th century Coubertin offers the example of “saint” Colomban who “at midnight comes down to a frozen lake” and “flogs himself with a nettle”, not because he wants to “insure place in Heaven”, but “to preserve within himself that wonderful energy from which his work sprang and gave him an encouraging performance.” (70) Coubertin is close to the Christian teaching: the body is not an integral part of a person, but is the source of evil which should be dealt with. By way of physical drill sexual energy turns into aggression against oneself (the principle of “bigger effort” and building of a masochistic character) and by way of sport into aggression against other people (the building of a combative-sadistic character). However, the Olympic physical drill is essentially different from Christian asceticism. To suffer physical torture (“disciplining the body”) is not a form of repenting the “sinful thoughts”, nor is a way of weakening the body as the “prison of the soul”, but is the basic way of creating an “iron body” and “iron character” and obtaining a “surplus” of energy necessary to torture the working “masses” and conquer the world. Instead of a “victory” of the spirit over the body, which expresses the superiority of the divine to this world, the ruling order (“progress”) gains a victory over the spirit and the body. Even when it comes to man’s relation to his own body, Coubertin applies his universal principle of ruling by violence which removes everything that can jeopardize the stability of the ruling order and “progress”. Oppression is the cardinal and universal principle of the life of a “true” bourgeois which he earnestly applies to his own body, and thus develops a sado-masochistic character: violence over one’s own body and destruction of humaneness within oneself are the basic presuppositions for torturing the others. Instead of cultivating man’s natural being by way of cultural activism, on which the ancient paideia was based, Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” deals with culture and man’s natural being in an attempt to create a trained beast. That is why Coubertin rejects physical activism based on national cultures, above all the folk dances in which a bodily movement expresses a spiritual movement and which are dominated by a man’s movement to another man (homo homini homo), instead of a man’s movement against another man (homo homini lupus), which is dominant in sport and which is directly founded on the “combatant character” and deals with man’s creative and libertarian being. In that context, readiness to die becomes the highest form of submission to the ruling order: instead of being the “plaything” of the Olympic gods, man becomes the plaything of capitalism.

Coubertin insists on developing in sportsmen a religious spirit, which existed in the ancient athletes. However, it is not based on a respect for values that transcend the existing world, but on a fanatical submission to the ruling order which ruthlessly deals with the critical reason as well as with spirituality. Coubertin’s religio athletae involves a complete “dedication” of sportsmen, as representatives of their nations and races, to the belligerent and progressistic spirit of capitalism, appearing in sport in a “pure” form. That is why Coubertin proclaims money the “worst enemy” of Olympism and sport in general, calling professional sportsmen “circus gladiators”. A sportsman must accept his symbolic role in this modern pagan spectacle, while humankind is to show its total submission to the ruling spirit, which has an absolutistic character and cannot be negotiated. At the end of his life, fearing that with the inevitable development of professionalism his rigid amateurism could be overcome and his “fame” could wane, Coubertin made a radical turn and gave to professionals the same status which, during his Olympic career, was exclusively reserved for amateurs. (71) If we have in mind the nature of his Olympic doctrine, it is clear that the attempts of modern “Olympic officials” to justify professionalism and commercialization of sport by referring to Coubertin’s original Olympic idea is totally unacceptable.

Coubertin’s principle “to know oneself, to control oneself, to overcome oneself” follows the basic intention of Descartes’ mechanistic conception of the relation between the body and the soul expressed in his “Letter to Arnauld”, according to which “the relation in which soul stands to body” is the same as “the relation in which gravity stands to body”. (72) While in Descartes man, as a “thinking thing” (res cogitans) can exist without the body, (73) in Coubertin man can exist without the mind. The essence of Coubertin’s maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso is such a development of muscles which will repress man’s playful nature, create a combatant character, destroy the cultural conscious and create “pure material” (Hitler) to which a certain (conquering-oppressive) conscious will be attached. Descartes reduces the body to a “machine” but, being created by God, it is “incomparably better made” and has “more excellent movements” then any other man-made machine. (74) Coubertin deprived the body of all those properties that do not belong to the model of the positive world based on “progress”. Instead of the body as a specific machine whose “excellence” reflects the superiority of the divine spirit, Coubertin argues for the model of the body that embodies the progressistic and expansionist nature of capitalism. Coubertin destroyed both the ancient and the medieval spiritual firmament. The dominant model of the body does not correspond to a certain cultural pattern any longer, but is a direct incarnation of the ruling order: positive society corresponds to the positive body. Consequently, the bodily movement is not an authentic expression of man’s natural or divine being, but is a manifestation of the conquering (oppressive) character which is a direct product of the life “circumstances” dominated by the principle “might is right” and quantitative comparison. It is obvious that it is not the muscular body that creates the (submissive) character, as is claimed by Coubertin who tries to hide the manipulation of man, but a merciless physical drill. The body is not man’s integral part and the basic possibility of experiencing his human fullness, but is the tool for attaining inhuman ends. Instead of uniting the physical (natural) and the spiritual, which was the basis of ancient kalokagathia and the basic possibility of the physical movement as a cultural movement, Coubertin “united” the suppression and crippling of man’s natural needs with the destruction of the spiritual. The principle mens fervida in corpore lacertoso is not only a means for man’s dehumanization, but also of his denaturalization.

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