Modern and ancient Olympic Paganism


Ancient Olympism was the center of a spiritual cosmos within which the entire life of polis was lived and in which the religious and secular lives could not be distinguished. Fustel de Coulanges says on that: “And so, in times of peace as well as in times of war, religion interfered in all human affairs. It was omnipresent, it enveloped man. The spirit, the body, the private and public lives, the rituals, the festivities, the assembly, the courts of law and the battles – everything was dominated by the city religion. It controlled all man’s affairs, all the moments of his life, and set up his customs. It controlled the human being with such an absolute power that there was nothing outside it.” (10) Modern Olympism appeared and developed in the period in which man was emancipated from religion and in which the religious and secular lives were separated. Coubertin tries to return to religion the status of the dominant spiritual power, not Christian but pagan. That is why he seeks to reaffirm the myth and the cult, which, together with man’s agonal activities, represented the “essential elements of the Hellenic spiritual existence” and were the “central determinant in the Hellenic people’s education and in the appearance of all forms of its spiritual expression”. (11) Modern Olympism involves: the myth about the ancient Olympic Games, the cult of the existing world and the agonal activity in the form of sport. As the cult of the existing world, modern Olympism seeks to become its all-embracing and impenetrable spiritual firmament. Under its wing appears the cult of a muscular body in combatant effort as a symbolic expression of the existing world.

In antiquity, the Olympic Games were one of the central pivots of religion as the unique and indisputable spiritual power; in the Modern Age they are a way of imposing the bourgeois world view as opposed to the movements (ideas) that strive to step out of the existing world and to the emancipatory heritage of modern society that provides the objective possibilities of performing that step. Modern Olympism becomes the corner stone of a new “positive” religion that “overcomes” Christianity by dealing with its humane ideas, particularly with the idea of a better world. It is in that light that we can speak of the “renovation of the immortal spirit of antiquity” which, with the reorganization of the Olympic Games, came again in the forefront to eliminate from the historical scene all the emancipatory things created in the meantime and enable a new beginning in the development of civilization. Coubertin’s Olympism becomes a channel through which a distorted Hellenic culture “flows” into the Modern Age only to drown the idea of future. Here again we should bear in mind that Olympism is one of the answers of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie to the possibilities offered to the workers, in their struggle against capitalism, by the emancipatory heritage of mankind and the development of democratic institutions. Olympism is an exceptional political means for the spiritual integration of the oppressed into the established order. Regardless of the changes, people should for ever remain in the spiritual horizon of capitalist society. It is no accident that the principle of “control in heads” represents the “categorical imperative” of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”. By means of Olympism the spirit that governs the world should be inculcated not only in man’s conscious but also in his being and he should be turned into a loyal and usable subject.

The spiritual unity of the ancient world was based on the unity of the state and religion. In antiquity the worship of gods is at the same time the worship of the state as the only possible and indisputable form that insures a communal life. Coulange: “Neither the Greeks nor the Romans knew of those sad conflicts, so common in other societies, between the Church and the State. It was because in Rome, as well as in Sparta and Athens, the State was subordinated to religion. It does not mean that there ever existed an ecclesiastical body to impose its lordship. The old state was not subjected to any clergy; it was subjected to its own religion. This State and this religion were fused to such an extent that it was impossible not only to think of any conflict between them, but even to distinguish one from the other”. (12) Coubertin “resolved” the conflict between the state and the Church by dethroning them as the ruling integrative forces in society and replacing them by laws that dominate the animal world – proclaiming the bourgeoisie its bearers, IOC the holy guardian of their cult, while his works became the peculiar “holy scriptures” showing the path humanity should follow. In antiquity the animal world is opposed to the human community and thus is the negative basis of polis. Coubertin proclaims the laws that apply in the animal world the highest and indisputable. Not a human, but an animal community, in which an unrestrained domination of the stronger (the bourgeoisie) over the weaker is established, represents the basis of social integration. Hence Coubertin, speaking of antiquity, has in mind the period in which the institutional structure of polis had not yet been established and in which the tribal aristocracy had a limitless power over demos. Instead of a political constitution of society, based on the shared existential interest and reason of the citizens, Coubertin wants to establish a natural-laws constitution based on the biological-reproductive connections (family, race) and tyrannical power of the ruling rich “elite”.

In ancient religion there were two worlds: the human and the divine. According to Mihailo Đurić “there are at least two basic points on which the Greek religion particularly insisted: (…) Above all, the Greek religion was greatly concerned with the distinction between human and divine worlds, indicating the limitations, temporality and worthlessness of the human existence in comparison to that of the divine. The Greek religion regarded man primarily as a mortal being, for mortality was for it the essential determinant of the human nature. That is why it valued moderation so highly, that is why it warned man not to compete with gods, to stick to his own, human level without striving to become Zeus. On the other hand, the Greek religion glorified the sensual and physical reality; it was oriented to this world and affirmed life in this world.” (13) Coubertin does not divide the world in this world and otherworld, and he does not confront the worldly and the otherworldly, the transient and the eternal, falsehood and truth. There is only one world (life) and it is at once the embodiment of the ideal world which should be sought for. Coubertin: “Hellenism is above all the cult of humanity in its present life and its state of balance. And let us make no mistake about it; this was a great novelty in the mental outlook of all peoples and times. Everywhere else cults are based on the aspiration of a better life, the idea of recompense beyond the tomb, and the fear of punishment for the man who has offended the gods. But here it is the present existence which is happiness.”(14) Modern Olympism represents a totalitarian and absolutized cult of the existing world. The Olympic sphere does not affirm the immortality of the celestial, but the immortality of the earthly world; instead of glorifying the divine, it glorifies the present world.

In ancient cosmogony man is the product of the cosmic (divine) powers – which created life on earth. The world (life, cosmos) is possible without the earthly life and man: he is only a temporary inhabitant on this planet created by the evasive god’s will. The eternal and omnipotent god’s will is the source of the earthly life and the basis of the “eternal” existence of man (soul). Man is “God’s toy” (Plato), which means that regardless of his actions the divine will decides what will become of him. It is a cruel game of the gods that expresses their absolute power over man and his worthlessness. The divine firmament demonstrates man’s total subordination to the established order and the destruction of his dignity as a human being and the creator of the (his) world. Coubertin’s conception is based on Social Darwinism: man is an “animal” which is not created by a divine will, but is the product of evolution of the living world dominated by the struggle for survival. Hence for Coubertin every endeavour to raise logos above the existing world and try to treat it from the aspect of entities that are the products of man’s pursuit of truth is absurd. Ancient civilization paved man’s way to a world that rises above this world; Coubertin tries to avert man from that road and enclose him for ever in the existing world.

According to the ancient theory of creation, in the beginning there was a state of disorder and it is characteristic of the animal world. The first task of the gods (Uranus) was to establish order, which created the basic presupposition for the establishment of the ancient cosmos. The cosmic order consisting in a harmonious unity of parts with the whole becomes the highest ideal of the earthly order. Even the human body is a form of the cosmic order. According to Plato, the gods, by “imitating the spherical shape of the universe”, concluded that man’s head corresponds most to the divine and as such is the “lord of all that is in us”. (15) A holistic approach becomes dominant: beauty lies in harmony, which becomes the way of connecting man to the divine. We have seen that in Coubertin the order is also the basic existential principle, but the (geometrically constructed) cosmos is not the origin, framework and ideal of the world man should strive for; it is the animal world ruled by the principle “might is right”. For Coubertin, “harmony is the sister of order”, while aesthetics, which has an instrumental and decorative character, is the form of man’s integration into the dominant spirit. Eurhythmics, as the highest spiritual expression of man’s “reconciliation” to the existing world, becomes the road to blissfulness. However, instead of the statical ancient order, Coubertin insists on a dynamic order that corresponds to the progressistic spirit of capitalism and is based on a constant struggle for survival. In that context appears his maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso: swollen muscles are a symbolic expression of the expansionist power of capitalism.

In spite of the principal differences, Coubertin’s Olympic ideal resembles the practical and political spirit of the ancient religion. Mihailo Đurić: “So, it is no wonder that the Greek religion attached paramount importance to the practical side of the faith in gods, that the cult played such an important part in it, that it almost identified with the religious rituals. From the point of view of the state, it was the most needed and the most appropriate thing. What else can serve as a more secure sign that the citizens are loyal to the state than the fact that they regularly perform certain ritual acts, that they make sacrifices, read prayers, sing hymns? (…)  It was largely due to the fact that the Greek religion did not know of dogmatic. Although it was backed by the authority of the state, it did not lay claims to the exclusive authority in the questions of faith, nor did it strive to reach human souls. In ancient Greece there were not any sacred books in which everyone could have found an authoritative pattern of religious experience, nor were there any strictly established teachings which anyone could have propounded and  which everybody had to accept unreservedly.”(16) In antiquity the cult acts were the forms of expressing a total submission to the existing order, and in that sense they are suitable for Coubertin’s Olympism as the “cult of the existing life”, which pays respect to the “race” and the “flag”. In one of his last writings on the Olympic idea (“The Philosophic Foundation of Modern Olympism”) he claims: “The first essential characteristic of ancient and of modern Olympism alike is that of being a religion. By chiseling his body with exercise as a sculptor chisels a statue the athlete of antiquity was ‘honoring the gods’. In doing likewise the modern athlete exalts his country, his race, his flag.” (17) Here we do not see any universal values, symbolized by ancient gods, which should spiritually unite the participants at the Olympic Games and to which they should pay due respect, but a spiritless combat of the Olympic contestants, who are reduced to mere physicality, to their country, race and flag. What “unites” them is war, and not a respect for the values that transcend the present world. By fighting for victory at the Olympic Games, the ancient athlete expressed his respect for gods, who were the pivots of the racial, cultural and political integration of the Hellenes as opposed to “barbarians”. In the Modern Age the fight for victory on the playground by achieving a higher result becomes the highest form of a cult act in the honour of the present world. Coubertin follows Comte, according to whom the “theological” and “metaphysical” stages in the development of humanity were over and were followed by a “positive” (and final) stage governed by positive reason which is based on a “respect for facts”. He does not strive to create a religious, but a positive man; not a society dominated by a theological conscious, but a society based on positive one-mindedness. By dealing with the most important intention of Arnold’s pedagogy, to create “muscular Christians”, Coubertin showed that he did not seek to develop a religious conscious in the bourgeois youth but to eliminate it. Like Hitler, he wished to create, through sport and physical drill, “pure material” from which a “new man” would be created, a man who is neither afraid of God nor has any responsibility for people. Not the creation of a religious, but the creation of an activist and fanatical conscious, based on a positive (performative) character – this is the ultimate goal of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” and the basis of his religio athletae. Nothing must stop the conquering (oppressive) power of the bourgeois, who is not guided by the faith in the forces that transcend the existing world or the universal human values, but by insatiable greediness that represents the incarnation of the dominant spirit of this world. Coubertin does not advocate an order based on customary, religious, moral or legal norms, but an order based on the principle “might is right” and natural selection. Olympism becomes not only the greatest religious ceremony dedicated to the cult of the present world, and thus the highest integrative “spiritual” power, but the means for eliminating all other spiritual forms that can constrain the self-willedness of the ruling class: it beco- mes a positivist cult that devours all spirituality. To purify the world from the ve- stiges of the theological and metaphysical, as well as critical reason and from the idea of future – that is one of the most important tasks of Coubertin’s Olympism.

The orientation to an idealized past as the source of “true values” and a complete subordination of man to the established order are the most important links between antiquity and Coubertin’s Olympism. In ancient Greece there did not exist the idea of progress or the idea of a new world. The term prokopē denotes a well done job. “Future” is reduced to the oncoming (inevitable) events that linearly follow one another and represent the strengthening of the relations to the past as well as its glorification. What is important happened a long time ago and everyday life is a peculiar copy of those events. To make the copy resemble the original, which means to try to make everyday life resemble the mythologized ideal of the then “true” life as much as it is possible – that is the highest challenge for a citizen. Man does not have any relation to the world, nor does he regard himself as its creator. The world proceeds according to the evasive (self)willedness of the gods, and life is a constant confrontation of man with his own worthlessness and temporality as opposed to the eternal cosmic order, whose active power is embodied in the Olympic gods. The Olympic Games are one of the deified strands that bring order into the chaotical proceedings of the world, and they occur in the shade of Chronos’ hill that symbolizes the endurance in the given and eternal (Olympic) time, in which there is no future. “The sacred rhythm” of the Olympiads does not mark the development of society or the course of time, but an inevitable sequence of events that transcend the cycles of births and deaths of ordinary mortals and represent a rhythm of the immortal divine pulse which animates the world and determines the continuity of the course of life. The strict (ritual) form of the Olympic Games reflects man’s hopeless endeavour to stop the distancing of his human world from its divine source and its approaching the inevitable end. The stability of the form confirms a spiritual continuity and preserves the connection with the cosmic life source, like the “sacred flame” in the temples. “The sacred rhythm” of the Olympic Games appears as a continuous existential and spiritual chain connecting the past and the present – without the future. At the same time, the Games are a form of corrupting the gods in order not only to soothe their anger and ensure their benevolence, but also to keep them interested in the survival of the human world. Plato’s view that man is “God’s toy” means that gods are interested in the survival of the human world as long as people amuse them or as long as it satisfies their vanity. Do not challenge the gods! – That is the essence of the ancient gnothi seauton. To tempt the will of the gods, who have human characteristics among which vanity and revengefulness are the most prominent, means to challenge the survival of the community. The relation of the strong to demos, especially to the slaves, becomes the prism reflecting the relation of the gods to people. At the same time, the fear of disappearing – famine, diseases, natural disasters and the elements having the character of the symbolic phenomena predicting destruction – compels man to constantly express his submission to gods. Coubertin also insists on the maintenance of “the sacred rhythm” of the modern Olympic Games, but it is connected neither to the natural nor to the religious order. Modern Olympism is the “cult of the existing world” and is thus deprived of any naturality and sanctity. It is without any content and thus is the abstract rhythm of the existential pulse of capitalism in people’s heads, which means a forced attempt to introduce order in the spiritual chaos created by the capitalist constant dealing with reason and the emancipatory heritage of modern society. In that context, “the sacred Olympic rhythm” is the bearer of the continuity of one-mindedness and the means for creating a uniform character – instead of traditional religions. The Olympic Games are the “festivity of spring” and “youth”, which means a revival of the life force of capitalism, and their “sacred rhythm” is a symbolic expression of the unbreakable chain of births and deaths: the death of man becomes the basic condition of the survival of order. Coubertin suggests this dialectic in his (broadcast) speech at the closing ceremony of the Nazi Olympic Games, when he speaks of the Olympic Games as the “understandings” that are “stronger than death itself”.(18) The order is eternal – man is transient and his life has meaning only if it contributed to inevitable “progress”. That is why Coubertin attaches such importance to man’s dedication to the work that glorifies the governing spirit: it is the way in which man becomes connected with the “divine”. As for the myth of the past, it has an instrumental character and Coubertin uses it to deal with the idea of future.

According to the Hellenic conception of the world, the very existence of society has a temporary character: society resembles a biological organism that develops and decays. Man’s mortality and transience of mankind is the basic condition of gods’ immortality and the eternity of the cosmic order. Man is fatally submitted to the divine (cosmic) laws and that produces existential pessimism. Heraclites’ panta rei is a peculiar predicament, since future is uncertain. It refers to transience and its tragical character, since what is gone can be no more and what has been missed is lost for ever. It is the course of events in which man finds himself and to which he is submitted. Growing old, as a loss of the life force, which leads to death, is the most important empirical ground for conceiving the change. Relying on the “indestructible” spirit of capitalism and on Comte’s philosophy, Coubertin liberates man from ancient tragicalness and offers him unstoppable “progress” in which he is to find the purpose of life and insure eternity – which results in existential optimism. In Coubertin also we can find fatalism, though not cataclysmic (as in Christianity), but progressistic: man is hopelessly submitted to the course of “progress” deriving from the expansionist and indestructible essence of the capitalist order – which is the incarnation of the natural order in the most direct form and whose course is measured by quantitative shifts in which disappears quality and consequently the human. The ancient tragedy and the Christian curse are replaced by the “curse of progress” (Horkheimer/Adorno).

In the ancient cosmogony man is a born sinner. He does not bear responsibility for his (miss)deeds, but because he is human – a mortal being. His whole life becomes a peculiar ritual of repenting the original sin and of redemption according to the principles of cosmic rightness: sin, justice, purification (hybris, Dike, katarsis). For Coubertin, man is not a sinner, but the highest form in the development of the living world. He deprived man of hybris, and thereby of purification and the possibility of achieving spiritual unity with gods (ekstasis), and thus dealt with the ethical (religious) being of the Hellenes and the tragicalness of their ethics. (19) Striving to remove the barriers that hamper the ruling self-willedness, Coubertin abolishes the ancient normative firmament and absolutizes the principle of utility. He absolves man (the bourgeois) from his “sin” only to absolve him from the responsibility for his (miss) deeds, and thus deals with the idea of personal responsibility born in the period of thriving of ancient democracy. Instead of the struggle between good and evil, dominates the struggle for the interests of the ruling class, which is beyond good and evil: the efficiency in preserving the established order is the most important criterion for determining the “right” action. There is nothing that restricts sheer force, since it is based on the principle “might is right”, as the basis of natural selection, which in turn is the basis of racial “perfectioning” and social “progress”. “The ethics of force” becomes the indisputable source of the Olympic morality.

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