The Body and the Mind


According to Coubertin, there was something in Greek “sport” which did not exist either in the Middle Ages or in the Modern Age – and which has a paramount social and scientific importance. It is the following postulate: “Man is not made up of two parts – the body and the soul: he is made up of three (parts) – the body, the mind and the character; the character is not formed by the mind, but primarily by the body.” (66) This is one of the most disastrous instructions of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” – on which the bourgeois theory and the practice of the so called “physical culture” of the 20th century and sport are based – for it singles out physical exercising from the cultural sphere and reduces it to an instrument for developing a fanatical combatant character.  Coubertin deprives the body of its basic natural properties and reduces it to the object of manipulation and exploitation; the soul loses its divine character and becomes the tool with which the dominant order controls man’s body, while the mind becomes another name for the character.

In antiquity there existed two spheres: the realm of the eternal, in which abode the gods, and the realm of the temporary earthly life, in which resided the humans. Human souls, after the death of the body, which is the “grave of the soul” (Rebac), go to the underworld of darkness and horror. To take out the souls in the sun and, in that context, to try, with “honour” acquired by victory at the Olympic Games, to insure eternity in the aureole of divine immortality – that is the highest challenge for the mortals. The fight for victory, as the supreme cosmic (existential) law, is the basic way to attract gods’ attention and win their favor. Similarly to fanatical Christians, who compete in suffering in order to win the best place in Heaven, the Hellenes fight for primacy in order to insure a place in eternity. The whole life becomes a peculiar service to gods, and it is one of the reasons for Coubertin’s claim that the “ancient religion was a religion without books”. Hence such an abundance and intensity of agonal activities. Performing “good (godlily) deeds” in Christianity is the same as performing “heroic deeds” in antiquity – including the victory at the Olympic Games which is one of the ways of insuring “immortality in glory and in the mystical existence of the soul” – eternity. (67) “Honour” becomes the echo of a heroic life which for ever resounds among the Olympic heights, insuring immortality to the mortal man – and thus the resurrection of the soul in eternity. For Coubertin, the earthly life is not the starting point on the road to Olympus; it is the beginning and the end of the road. As we have seen, Coubertin, like antiquity and Christianity, distinguishes between the death of man and his perishing. Death does not mean perishing if man contributed to “progress” – which becomes the way of man’s being connected with the eternal. Instead in gods, man realizes eternity through “progress”. By insisting on the significance of “great people”, Coubertin suggests that even according to him “honour” is the incarnation of (“great”) man’s eternal existence. Basically, modern Olympic paganism does not seek to insure eternity to man, but to the existing world. The Olympic Games are not the place where individuals gain “honour” that insures them access to Olympus, but the place for celebrating the present world. That is why Coubertin does not heroicize sportsmen nor does he glorify their results. They are but the means with which the modern Olympic priests (IOC) perform the highest religious ritual dedicated to the cult of the present world.

The ancient Olympic Games were the fight between polises dedicated to Zeus, the supreme authority among the gods on whose decisions (grace) the fate of a polis depended. It is no accident that the citizens used to destroy the walls around their city so that the winners of the Games could enter it: the winners were a symbolic incarnation of Zeus’s will and thus the envoys carrying to the polis the proof of his grace (the olive wreath). It can be said that Pindar’s assertion that ”the gods are friends of the Games” contains the key to understanding the character of the ancient Olympic Games. In their original sense they were the post-mortal ritual games organized in the honour of the fallen hero, like the ones which, after the death of Patrocles, were organized below the walls of Troy in order to attract gods’ attention and ask them to accept the soul of the deceased. The tempting of the gods remained a constant feature of the Olympic Games: victory was a sign that divine mercy went to the winner, and it was an additional motive to continue the fights. At the same time, the Olympic Games were the road leading man to his divine origin. The basic purpose of Pindar’s Olympic poems is to weave a mythological strand which will connect the winner with the divine past and thus insure him eternity.

Unlike the sophists, who by human nature mean the “unity of the body and the soul, but above all man’s internal disposition, his spiritual nature”, (68) Coubertin departs from a dualism of the body and the soul, claiming that the “soul has a need to torture the body in order to make it more submissive”. In antiquity, gymnastics appeared as the “ennobling of the soul”; (69) In Coubertin, sport, as a merciless fight with the bodies, appears as the basic way of creating a (sado-masochistic) character. In antiquity, “the unity” of physical and spiritual movements appears as the subordination of the mortal body to the immortal divine spirit – and not to the human soul. The divine spirit is the power that inspires the body with life, while “honour”, acquired through a “good deed”, insures man a place on the Olympus. Physical appearance and movement are the expressions of spiritual movement, namely, the incarnation of an endeavour to be united with the cosmos. Geometry, proportionality, harmony – these are the bases of an artistic representation and a mimetic impulse. It is a given evaluative and aesthetical paradigm (which gained its metaphorical expression in the Olympic cosmos) which seeks to preserve the established order. It is in that sense that we can speak of the “unity” of the body and the spirit in Coubertin’s conception. In antiquity, the dominant ideal is that of a harmonious unity of the body with the cosmos expressing man’s complete submission to the established order. The ancient physical culture involved a geometrically shaped body that became a symbolic expression of the divine construction of the cosmos. It is most clearly manifested in art, which is dominated by the “artist’s faith that in the perfect shape lies the prototype of everything that is human, of the divinity itself”. (70) The body on the ancient pottery illustrates Hellenic conception of the cosmos and man’s position in it. Hence it is not dominated by a muscular strength but by proportionality and graciousness. The “chiseling of the body” becomes a ritual expression of man’s submission to gods and the ascending of man’s whole being to them, similarly to Christianity, in which the prayers are a ritual way of the soul’s ascending to God. At the same time, the ancient physical culture is the means for a spiritual and racial integration of the Helens and thus the expression of their “superiority” to “barbarians”. Racial exclusivity is not expressed through physical (muscular) strength, but through a sense of measure (metron ariston): crude strength and a disproportional muscular body are the characteristics of the slave. The medieval aristocratic criteria are similar: a sense of measure and grace (ordre et mesure) is the exclusive feature of the aristocracy – as opposed to immoderation and gracelessness of the serfs. Pointing out that the “western art has never overcome” – “the dualism between the body and the soul”, Schefold adds that “in the Greek body, on the other hand, each nerve, each movement, reflects the movement of the soul in a way that today is seen only in children and animals.”(71) Is that the quality which makes the ancient art an “unequaled model” (Marx) of modern art?

Coubertin is close to Plato’s philosophy, according to which the body is not an integral part of the individual, and the spirit, as a transcendental entity, appears as its ruler. Man is a manifest form of the relation between the two spheres which are independent of him: spiritual and material. It is a mechanistic, and not a dialectical relation. The immortal “soul” has precedence over the mortal body, as it is said in the ”Timaeus”, and the body must be subordinated to it. (72) The soul appears as a symbol of the established world, which in the form of the cosmic order obtains the legitimacy of the eternal – as opposed to its material manifestations which are temporary. In other words, the established superhuman order, independent of the human practice, is eternal, while man is transient. The cosmic (divine) order is the basis of this-worldly order: man is literarily chained to the celestial firmament. In Coubertin, instead of the divine dominates the spirit of capitalism embodied in the muscular body of the sportsman, who is in his combatant strain, but instead of the soul, character appears as the incarnation of the dominant spirit in man. Coubertin sees in the “immortal spirit of antiquity”, which has a superhuman and supertemporal dimension, the conquering (oppressive) spirit of the tribal aristocracy of the Homeric time, which in the Middle Ages was to appear in the form of the “chivalrous spirit”, and in the Modern Age in the form of the “sports spirit”. The modern Olympic Games become the renovation and preservation of the cult of the tribal aristocracy as the “master race”, this time in the form of the bourgeois who strives to conquer the whole world. However, for Coubertin, the “immortal spirit of antiquity” does not have a transcendental character, but is the manifesta- tion of the process of evolution that constantly produces the living surroundings (“circumstances”) on which the “master race” is repeatedly reborn. In that sense, sport, as the embodiment of the dominant social relations in a “pure” form, beco- mes a means for inseminating man by the Social Darwinist and “progressive” spirit of capitalism – from which Coubertin’s “new man” will appear.

While in antiquity exists a spontaneous relation of man to his body, which springs from the body being experienced as part of the cosmos and the source of man’s life energy, in Coubertin dominates an instrumental relation of man to his body, which is conditioned by the nature of the capitalist order. Everything is subordinated to a modelling based on the capitalistically (ab) used science and technique: just as in antiquity physical appearance was supposed to be united with the established cosmos, so in Coubertin physical appearance is supposed to be united with the Social Darwinist and progressistic spirit of capitalism. The body becomes the means for creating a positive character and man’s positive conscious, as well as the means for demonstrating the expansionist power of capitalism. It is the power that Coubertin will try to deify and which conditions man’s relation to his own body. Man, in the form of the bourgeois, became the means for realizing “progress”. Instead of the ancient holistic approach to the body, Coubertin insists on the expansionist muscular strength and at the same time deals with both the Apollonian and Dionysian nature of man. He not only beheaded his positive man, he deprived him of Eros, emotions, imagination, creativeness…

In antiquity, there is an organic and spiritual unity of man and nature. The man of antiquity did not have any control over the natural powers but was dominated by their life-giving and destructive forces that acquired a divine form. Winning the favor of gods through sacrifices was the expression of people’s strivings to prevent the fatal effects of the natural powers and is thus a specific attempt to control them. Not to “control” and exploit nature, but to tame it – that is the culmination of man’s activist relation to nature, reflected in the ancient training of animals. Pegasus, as a cult animal, is the symbol of a tamed natural force that enables man to soar, together with it, towards the divine realms. In the modern Olympic religion, nature loses its holy character: it ceases to be the abode of gods and becomes the object of exploitation. No longer does man fear nature or strives to live in harmony with it; he tries to control it and become its “master and owner”. In Coubertin, nature is reduced to an object of exploitation, but it also appears as a source of “pleasure”, which is a form of the aristocratic resistance to the newly formed cities, reigned by poverty and sordidness, and the idealization of the country life symbolizing a peaceful life that should serve as a spiritual refreshment for new conquering and plundering exploits. Hence Coubertin’s philosophy becomes an admixture of nostalgic aristocratic cravings for an idyllic country life and a ruthless exploitational relation to nature, especially to the colonies. Unlike the modern humanist thought which in man’s control over natural laws (science and technique) sees also the development of man’s creative powers – which opens the possibility of “leaping from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom” (Engels) in which the “spiritual wealth will be the measure of the human wealth” (Marx) – Coubertin sees in controlling nature a possibility of accumulating the material wealth of the “elite”, as well as the basis for developing its domineering and oppressive power. The instrumental and exploitational relation to nature is the basis of Coubertin’s relation to the human body. It is not a harmonious part of nature which, as such, is to be respected, but is reduced to an object of manipulation and the means for realizing the dominant interests. In antiquity the cult of a harmoniously developed body is at the same time the cult of nature (cosmic order), while in Coubertin it is the cult of the muscular body, which is a symbolic expression of the developing power of capitalism that appears in the form of “progress” – and becomes analogous to the divine power. It follows a logic which in the quantity of the acquired things sees the basis of man’s self estimation and the basis of social power. The instrumentalization of natural laws, in the form of science and technique, for the purpose of exploiting nature, becomes the instrumentalization of man and of his body for the purpose of realizing “progress”. The ancient relation to the body is the paradigm of the relation to nature. Even in antiquity “nature transcended in man its pure ‘naturalness'”. (73) Interpreting Plutarch’s view on ancient pedagogy, Jäger concludes: “Physical exercise and the training of animals prove that fysis can become noble”. (74) This nobility induces man to a certain behavior, and it is achieved by establishing control over his instinctive nature. Upbringing is reduced to molding man into the model of the citizen that suits the nature of the ruling order. Coubertin’s conception of man’s “perfectioning” deals with the idea of making human nature noble. He uses the term “noble” in the same sense in which the bourgeois pedagogy calls boxing a “noble skill”. It is the form of “humanizing” and aestheticizing the killing skills as the symbols of the ruling social power.

The ancient techne does not represent the natural laws controlled by man, but a manifest form of the divine will that symbolizes the active power of the cosmos. By way of techne man does not become free of his dependence of nature and does not control it, but only confirms its hopeless submission to the divine forces. In that sense, techne does not have a productivistic and liberating, but a religious and restricting character. Coubertin does not rely on the ancient techne, but on the modern technique, particularly on its tendency to become a means for exploiting nature and submitting man. This becomes the basis of Coubertin’s relation to man’s body, as his direct nature, and to the sports technique. Coubertin does not insist on the development of man’s skills and his creative powers, but on the development of his combatant character and aggressive muscularity, as well as on the cult of “intensive physical exercise”, which systematically cripples the body and creates a sado-masochistic character. In his “utilitarian pedagogy” there is no place for the principle of measure and optimal effort, which involves specific physical features, health and man’s personal integrity. Instead of a creative body and spirit, what is created are an “iron body” and a murderous spirit, the main characteristics of the “master race”, and only the skill that enables the development of the combatant spirit of the bourgeois, as well as the technique of killing involving the use of arms, are acceptable. Coubertin does not have in mind the technique that appears in the form of mechanical devices, which embody the natural forces controlled by man by way of reason, but an instrumentalized body that acquires a murderous power. The murderous character (readiness to kill) and the murderous skill (ability to kill) make up the murderous power that represents the main characteristic of the “will to power” of the bourgeois. They are interrelated: the development of the murderous character involves the development of the murderous skill and vice versa. The murderous power and the murderous character are not mediated by reason; what appears is a dehumanized and instrumentalized knowledge, as well as the mimetic impulses that should fill in the erotical and spiritual emptiness and contribute to a complete identification of the bourgeois with the murderous technique. Coubertin’s idea of horseback boxing represents the culmination of his view of the “unity” of nature, man and (combatant) skill. Nature and the body become the technical means for achieving inhuman effects.

In antiquity man is in unity with his physical skill: there does not exist a special technical sphere that appears as a mediator in man’s relation to nature and to himself, as is the case in the Modern Age. In that context there is no technical rationality or the progressistic principle of performance. Hence in antiquity, aesthetics, which tends to achieve complete harmony with the cosmos, is the highest challenge. Spiritual unity with the cosmos is achieved through physical harmony: the relation to the body is mediated by the picture of a geometrically constructed cosmos. Coubertin’s positive man also fits in the capitalist cosmos via the body and physical appearance – mens fervida in corpore lacertoso – which corresponds to the dynamic and progressistic spirit of capitalism. Coubertin, like the Nazis, does not insist on the body that corresponds to the animal (beast), but on a “steel body” corresponding to a “steel will”. The body is a symbolic expression of “overcoming” man’s “lazy animal nature”, and at the same time the symbol of the indestructible expansionist power of the ruling order.

In modern society, the relation to the body is mediated by the capitalist cosmos (industrial mimesis, the principle of rationality and efficiency), which appears in the form of technical sphere, alienated from and dominant over man, and which is a direct mimetic impulse and an omnipresent logic of living. It is via this sphere that the capital rules man and nature. Just as in antiquity man was the slave of the dominant order through the sphere of the Olympic gods, so in capitalism he became the slave of the order by means of science and technique. In antiquity, natural phenomena are a direct mimetic impulse and the expression of “spontaneity”. Coubertin’s Olympism relies on Descartes’ mechanicistic philosophy of the body and finds a mimetic impulse in the industrial and militaristic movements. Instead of a natural movement and a natural body, dominates the mechanics of movement, while the body becomes the cage of technical rationality. Most importantly, Coubertin’s Olympism becomes the ruling of a dehumanized and denaturalized reason in people’s heads. The highest “aesthetical” challenge becomes an efficient body which corresponds to a highly specialized machine. Reducing the body to a machine, and movements to the mechanics of movement, involves a technicized reason, a suppressed and crippled Eros, as well as man’s crippled emotional and spiritual being.

In antiquity, natural laws (phenomena) are politically instrumentalized through the Olympic gods; in Coubertin, there is established a political instrumentalization of science and technique via Olympism. Instead of deifying nature (natural production and natural forces), what is deified, through the progressistic principle citius, altius, fortius, is technique, which in the hands of the capital becomes a “mystical” means for enslaving man. It is one more contradiction in Coubertin’s Olympism that “relies” on antiquity. “Technical civilization”, conditioned by the destructive nature of monopolistic capitalism, becomes spiritus movens of modern Olympism. That is why Coubertin insists on the principle citius, altius, fortius, which does not exist in ancient Greece, and departs from Comte’s positivism and Le Play’s “respect for facts” – which is opposed to the metaphysical character of the ancient Olympic Games. Coubertin tries to transcend man’s original naturalness, the one he has as a “lazy animal”, by developing in him, through sport and physical drill, a need for a greater effort – meaning a ruthless character. “The need of the soul to torture the body in order to make it more submisssive” becomes an excuse for dealing with Eros and creating a masochistic character. Control of the body and its instrumentalization correspond to the relation to nature. Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine reflects the contours of a new anthropological model that corresponds to the ecocidal spirit of capitalism and traces the path from a “competitive” to a (self)destructive man.

Ancient cosmogony is dominated by a statically geometrical approach to space. The cosmos is divided in spheres each of which has its distinctive features, purpose and a symbolic value. To such a construction of cosmos corresponds the construction of ancient society, which is most clearly seen in Plato. Already in antiquity special places for gymnastics and contests are built (gymnasion, palaestra, stadion, hippodromos) – which acquire the status of cult venues, peculiar temples where, through physical exercises, they strove to come in harmony with the cosmic order and arise erotic enthusiasm in the gods. Since man is “God’s toy”, the athletic fields become the divine fields where the gods should first be fed by the gifts, and then given a chance to amuse themselves by playing with human destinies. The space of the world is bounded by the divine cosmos and represents its symbolical earthly manifestation. The physical movement in antiquity is the expression of the dramatics of living that has a tragic character since man is constantly faced with the gods’ self-willedness: life is the gods’ stage, and people are their “toys”. The course of human life and society corresponds to the “movement” of Zeno’s arrow: it is always in the same point. Icarus’ fate shows where the flight to freedom leads. To experience one’s cosmic being by moving through space, to soar to the gods and face one’s tragic fate – that is the highest scope of the man of antiquity. For Coubertin, the cosmos does not have a geometric nature: man is not in a given and statical space, but in a dynamic space whose nature is conditioned by the progressistic and expansionistic spirit of capitalism. Unlike the closed ancient cosmos, the capitalist cosmos is open and has an expansive character. It is a unique spherical structure, and the spirit of capitalism is the center of the pulsating power that spreads in all directions. Coubertin’s Icarus does not have by his side the wise Daedalus, nor does he strive to soar to the source of light that symbolizes man’s endeavour to overcome the horizons of the existing and reach those of the new worlds. He is reduced to a vulture that constantly looks for its prey guided by murderous determination and insatiable greediness. Nor does Coubertin have any sympathy for romanticism developed in Germany after the French Revolution, as its spiritual reflex. He deals with Klopstock’s “wings” on the legs of man who strives to get free from the bonds of feudal society, and, guided by imagination and the faith in his human powers, flies to new spaces, where he will attain his true humanity.

As far as time is concerned, in antiquity it was not conceived as a movement forward: the race was not relevant as the speed of movement through space and as its “conquering”, and in that sense as the development of the human powers, but as a fight for victory and “honour”. In antiquity, time was not measured to determine changes; it was the confirmation of perpetuity of this world (but not of eternity). The same applies to the modern Olympic Games, but they, in contrast to the existential pessimism of antiquity, are based on a progressistic optimism. For the Greeks, the passage of time means that they are further and further away from their life source, which is the chief (mythological) spiritual refuge. The unchangeable form in which the Olympic Games appear is one of the ways to defend the “old” through a ritual repetition of the original Olympic liturgy. The strict form becomes a symbolic return to the divine source of life and serves to infuse into the Hellenic race the original life (cosmic) force – which is renovated at the Olympic Games. It is similar in Coubertin: the (idealized) “past” is the source of “real” life under a mythological mask and becomes the means for building the cult of the present life. “The immortal spirit of antiquity” becomes a superhuman (suprarhistorical) force that returns man to the original ancient life spring.

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