Coubertin and Schiller


If we compare Schiller’s conception of play with Coubertin’s conception of sport, we shall see that it is one of the “negative” starting points of Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine. According to Schiller, “man can be in contradiction with himself in two ways; either as a savage, if his feelings control his principles, or as a barbarian – if his principles destroy his feelings.” (1) Coubertin’s positive man is below the level both of Schiller’s savage and of his barbarian. He has neither feelings nor reason: there are only swollen muscles and a combatant character. Coubertin’s deals with Schillers “playing instinct” which seeks to “annihilate time in time, to connect existence with absolute being, change with identity”. (2) “The playing instinct” becomes an impulse for freedom based on the unity of the sensual and the intellectual. To be free within oneself, to temper extremities, to achieve internal peace – this is the basis for interhuman relations and a good life. Coubertin abolished both Schiller’s “sensual instinct”, which “departs from man’s physical existence or from his sensual nature”, as well as “the instinct for form”, which “departs from man’s absolute being or from his reasonable nature and seeks to set him free…” (3) In that context, Schiller’s picture of ancient Greece is in opposition to the picture of antiquity offered by Coubertin. Schiller: “We see the Greeks unifying in the fine human nature the youth of fantasy with the masculinity of reason; they are full of form and at the same time full of plenitude, they philosophize and at the same time educate, they are both tender and energetic.” (4) “Fantasy”, “reason”, and “tenderness” are what Coubertin tries to deal with at all costs. He uses sport in order to turn people into enemies; Schiller uses play to turn people into brothers. Schiller’s conception is opposed to Coubertin’s “will to power”: instead of Schiller’s “aesthetic instinct for play”, (5) Coubertin’s dominant instinct is that for conquering and acquiring. He, like the Nazis, deals with “peaceloving aestheticians” (Hitler) who want to develop their sensual and spiritual nature, and tries to create colonial phalanges imbued with fanatical racism. The pacifistic and philanthropic intention of Schiller’s philosophy is what creates an unbridgeable gap between his and Coubertin’s doctrines.

Unlike the theorists in whom play (the normative) dominates over man’s playing nature, Schiller gives priority to the playing being, but he does not differentiate between the false play, libertarian play and free (true) play. In Schiller, there does not exist a normative project of play nor a concrete play; what he insists on is the definition of man’s playing being and an imaginary space where it can be “realized”. Schiller’s conception is not a form expressing faith in man as a libertarian and creative being, capable of creating a new world in his human image, but a romantic cry for an unrealized humanity. In the “aesthetic state” it is possible to realize what is impossible to realize in everyday life: man can reach his whole humanity. It is an illusionary world which, on the basis of emotional enthusiasm, is built in people’s heads and is experienced with the whole “playing” being. Schiller’s “aesthetic state” is a parallel world floating on the clouds of imagination without any hope of descending on the ground. It is a space where the creative spirit goes to a voluntary exile. Hence Schiller speaks of “aesthetic appearance” – “which neither wants to stand for reality, nor does it need it to represent it”. (6) And he continues: “A pursuit of an independent appearance requires more ability for abstraction, more freedom of the heart, more energy of the will than man needs to confine him to reality, and the latter he must overcome if he is to reach the former.” (7) Unlike Schiller, who by way of play seeks to overcome the spiritual horizons of the existing world, Coubertin deals with imagination in order to pin man down to the existing world and deal with the idea of future. Schiller strives to the sphere of pure spirit realized in the “aesthetic state”; Coubertin strives to take spirit away from man and establish positive society. For Schiller, the “ability for abstraction” is the bridge leading man to the “aesthetic state”; for Coubertin, a ruthless combatant spirit is the bridge leading man to his “sports republic”. Schiller seeks “more energy” in order to overcome reality by way of “independent appearance” embodied in his “aesthetic state”; Coubertin insists on the development of the will with which not only the “aesthetic state” should be abolished but also man’s very need for an illusory world. Schiller seeks to create “flying” people who will soar towards new worlds; Coubertin seeks to cut man’s wings and for ever enclose him within the existing world. In Schiller, the human is realized in man by developing the fullness of his being – outside society; in Coubertin, all essential things happen outside man – through the abolishment of society as a human community. At the same time, for Schiller, unlike Coubertin, what connects the “flying” people is not the material wealth, but the spiritual wealth, and it turns them into a flock. Instead of giving priority to art, Coubertin gives priority to positive science: the principle savoir pour prevoir, prevoir pour agir replaces a romantic ”day-dreaming” about the future. Man is at the same level with Huizinga’s “banal” man: instead of trying to create a reasonable alternative to the existing (anti-human) world, man returns to the patronage of superhuman powers, which in Coubertin appear in the form of “progress”.

Schiller’s “aesthetic state” becomes an illusionary world and thus deals with man’s critical-changing spirit, but, unlike Huizinga’s illusionary world which is reduced to an idealization of the Middle Ages, it is open for visions of the future. Schiller: “On the wings of imagination leaves man the narrow boundaries of the present, which involves only the animalistic, in order to strive forward, towards an infinite future…” (8) Man’s spiritual cultivation is independent of his real life and social position. Instead of striving to liberate man from tyranny, Schiller seeks to release imagination from the bonds of everyday life. Man does not reach freedom by fighting to break his chains, but with his romantic enthusiasm in which he does not feel the burden of the chains, whereas “beauty” is an abstract and instrumentalized concept creating the appearance of man’s libertarian practice. “Day-dreaming” replaces the political struggle for a new world. Schiller’s conception expresses a specific spiritual state in which romantic enthusiasm suppresses all that can jeopardize a free flight of imagination to the “aesthetic state” – where all that is impossible in the existing life becomes possible. At the same time, relations between people, as well as the flight of spirit to the “future”, are not mediated by a progressistic logic and in that context by science and technique, nor by a trade spirit: man’s faith in future is unconditional and unlimited. In spite of a romantic intonation (“more freedom of the heart”), Schiller offers a rationally based normative project intended to form the ideals of the human that become man’s highest challenge and are a possible starting point for a critical attitude to the existing world.

For Schiller, aesthetic inspiration is the essence of movement, and nature appears as aesthetic inspiration, and not as an object of exploitation. In him, the dominant principle is that of taking pleasure in a free movement in nature, which is totally opposed to Coubertin’s principle of “greater effort”, which cripples the body and destroys man’s playing nature. Instead of an instrumentalized and technicized movement directed against man and nature, the dominant movement is that towards man and nature. What he tries to achieve is the unity between nature, the body and the spirit: a liberated spirit moves the body and cultivates man’s nature by way of symbols that inspire him and strengthen his faith in life. The skill of movement becomes the liberation, and not the restraint of the body and the spirit, which means an aesthetic challenge. Perfection is not reduced to a mere development of the body and of a combatant character, as is the case in Coubertin, but to the development of the spirit. Skill is not only a “technical” presupposition for articulating the spiritual, but is a way of self-realization, self-affirmation and self-cognition and is thus a bridge to nature and to man. Bodily movement becomes a romantic flight of man’s spirit, which is inspired by faith in man and which offers a possibility of overcoming the horizons of the existing world. It does not thwart, but fires imagination which gives to everything surrounding man a fantastic and symbolic character. Play is not an escape from reality, but is the expression of the aspiration to freedom and has a visionary character. Bodily movement is not an animal or technical act, but is the expression of spiritual movement: skating becomes a “fine art” (Fait) realized in nature which becomes a scene for a performance created by a “dreamy spirit”. Movement does not “conquer” space and time; it is a way of opening a new infinite and timeless spiritual space in man, which reflects a romantic optimism. Instead of having an effect with a quantitative dimension, in which man becomes alienated from his human powers, the main effect of skating becomes aesthetic inspiration: intensity of experience (“exaltation”, “amazement”) becomes the measure of its “endurance”. Movement has an expressive and symbolic function. The sun ray is not only light, but is a symbol of enlightenment; ice skates are not only a technical device, but are “the wings on the legs” (Klopstock) which carry man to future; there is no dualism between the body and the spirit; there is no manipulation with the body in order to achieve certain political ends; there are no physical exercises as a means for creating the character of a loyal and usable citizen; there is no fight between people for victory, nor is there Coubertin’s principle of “greater effort” which was to become the basis for developing a sado-masochistic character of a positive bourgeois. Instead of Coubertin’s Social Darwinist agon, there is a liberated spirit confronting the existing world and the unity of (abstract) humanity in spontaneous movement in nature, creating a synthesis between man’s aesthetical and ethical being. In Schiller everything lies in unity: beauty, truth, freedom… In that context Schiller clearly differentiates between onesided and whole developments of the body: “Gymnastic exercises create the athletes, but beauty is created only by a free and coordinate exercising of all parts of the body.” (9) This contains the basic principle of Schiller’s physical culture which is a mirror reflecting the true, dehumanized and denaturalized nature of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”.

Unlike those bourgeois theorists who seek to present the existing games, which are but the incarnation of the ruling relations and values in a “pure” form, as the “oasis of happiness” (Fink) contrary to the existing world of unhappiness, in his romantic enthusiasm Schiller seeks to create a convincing illusory world, where it is possible to realize the fullness of human playing being. In Schiller there is no space outside man in which he is to find his lost humanity; everything occurs in the heart and imagination of the “flying people”. Hence he does not insist on a strict observance of the existing rules of a game, but absolutizes the subjective. Schiller’s romantic enthusiasm is a reflection of the French Revolution in the heart of free citizenship, while his “aesthetic state” is an attempt to build an illusionary castle of freedom on its ruins. In Schiller’s “aesthetic state every one, even the one who serves, is a free citizen, whose rights are equal to those of the most noble man, while the reason, which forces the oppressed masses to serve its ends, must ask them for permission. So, here, in the realm of the aesthetic appearance, the ideal of equality is fulfilled, the same ideal that an enthusiast would so much like to realize in reality…” (10) Schiller is close to Coubertin’s “sports republic” in which the oppressed are given the same formal rights as their oppressors, on the condition that they renounce the fight for changing their slavery social status: freedom in the “aesthetic state” involves the obedient acceptance of tyranny in society. “The aesthetic state” becomes an exclusive community of “flying people” and not of free and equal people. However, the very right of a “free citizen” to appear in the “aesthetic state” is formal, since it can be done only by those who have a developed aesthetic sense. Schiller does not hide that: “But, is there a state of aesthetic appearance, and where can it be found? According to the needs, it exists in every fine soul; in fact, we could find it, as a pure church and pure republic, only in a few carefully chosen circles in which the behavior is not determined by an empty conformation to strange customs but by one’s own beautiful nature, in which man, with his bold simplicity and calm innocence, passes through most intricate relations and has no need either to impinge on other people’s freedom in order to keep his own, or to renounce his dignity in order to show gracefulness.” (11) In spite of insisting on an “aesthetic state”, Schiller finds in the existing world mimetic impulses which crucially determine the formation of the aesthetic being. Schiller refers to that speaking of the “form”, which is but a reflection of the existing world, spontaneously controlling man: “Just as the form slowly approaches him in his flat, his furniture, his outfit, so it slowly begins to control him, and transform not only the external, but also the internal man. A simple jump turns into a play, an ugly gesture into a lovable harmonious speech of movements…” (12) In Schiller, form enters man by way of the already existing cultural sphere, while man does not have an active critical-creative relation to it, but a passive-receptive one. Practically, to live the life of the chosen is the basic presupposition for entering the “aesthetic state”. Unlike Schiller, Coubertin seeks to open the door of his “sports republic” for the oppressed, especially at the critical moments for capitalism, in order to “teach” them to respect the order ruled by the stronger and thus integrate them into the existing world. Coubertin’s “sports republic” is not an illusory world which is reached by imagination, but a real world which is “reached” by living a life based on the principles bellum omnium contra omnes and citius, altius, fortius. Instead of Schiller’s postulate that “man is man only when he plays”, (13) in Coubertin man is man only when he oppresses the weak and conquers the world.

Schiller is not concerned with an (critical) analysis of the nature of concrete plays, since romantic enthusiasm is a force that enables man to experience the most illuminated freedom in the darkest of slaveries – and this freedom consists in the right to participate in the creation of the world of illusions. The freedom given back to man through the “aesthetic mood” is, according to Schiller, “the greatest of all gifts” – “the gift of human nature”. (14) “Namely, the moment the two conflicting basic impulses start acting in him, both of them lose the coercive moment, and from the confrontation of two necessities results freedom.” (15) Freedom “starts only when man and his two basic instincts are fully developed; it, therefore, must be lacking until he is complete and until he acquires one of the two impulses, and it must be capable of being established by means of all those things that give man back his fullness.” (16) Speaking of his “aesthetic state” Schiller concludes: “To give freedom to the one who is free is the basic law of this realm”. (17) According to Benno von Wiese, Schiller’s true love “is not so much a moral freedom of the human kind, but much more an aesthetic freedom of a man who plays, since it is only by way of it that man can fully be man, not only as a kind, but also as an individual”. (18) Through his romantic enthusiasm and aesthetic inspiration, man can be “free” within himself in spite of being a slave in society: slavery turns through play into “aesthetic freedom”. Schiller’s instincts are united and realized at the expense of man as a social being. He does not realize that human freedom in society is the basic precondition of a free play. Through the aesthetic appearance man does not acquire freedom, but creates a false feeling of freedom. “The flight of imagination” is not “the expression of freedom”, but a day-dreaming of a slave. Freedom in art presupposes reconciliation to tyranny in society. Gadamer: “A reconciliation between the ideal and life by way of art is but a partial reconciliation. The beautiful and art give to reality only a superficial and false glow. The freedom of the soul, to which they ascend us, is the freedom only in an aesthetic state, and not in reality.” (19) At the same time, in Schiller’s “aesthetic state” man’s hope and faith in a just world are exhausted. In his “fine souls” there is a space for “beauty”, but not for the suffering of the oppressed. For Coubertin, to claim freedom is absurd. He despises the guiding principles of the French Revolution, and the rights of man and citizen based on it, and proclaims “might is right” the indisputable basis of social structuring. Instead of Schiller’s principle “freedom is reached through beauty”, (20) Coubertin argues for the principle according to which a ruthless struggle for survival creates a “master race”, on the one hand, and slaves, on the other. Instead of arguing for the “freedom” of the individual, Coubertin argues for the “perfectioning” of mankind under the patronage of the white “master race”. He does not seek to “reconcile the ideal and life through art”, but to reconcile man to the existing world of injustice by destroying his faith in a just world.

For Schiller, man is man only when he realizes the fullness of his human (playing) being. Like Nietzsche, he seeks to restore the “synthetic” man of antiquity, and beauty represents an integrative ideal in which the unity of human being is realized. However, Schiller regards man as an abstract being who experiences beauty independently of social reality, which means of his concrete social being. According to Schiller, “man is man in the full sense of that word” only when he succeeds in completely separating himself, by way of romantic enthusiasm and imagination, from the gloomy reality and realizes the pureness of his being in the “aesthetic state”. More precisely, it is only in the “aesthetic state” that man can establish a harmony between the instinctive and the reasonable, free from the burden of social existence. Play is not only an escape from society, but is an escape of man from himself as a social being. Schiller insists on the realization of instincts, but he empties man and reduces him to an abstract being in which reality and form are confronted and united – from which springs “the beautiful”. Schiller: “From the mutual interaction of two opposing instincts and from the connection of two opposing principles we have seen how the beautiful appears, whose ideal, indeed, we shall look for in the most perfect connection and balance of reality and form. (21)

Schiller’s “return to nature” is totally opposed to Coubertin’s “naturalistic” conception. Speaking of animals and plants, Schiller concludes: “They are what we are; they are what we should again become. We, like they, used to be nature, and our culture, by way of reason and freedom, should return us to nature. They are, therefore, at the same time the image of our lost childhood, which for ever remains something most dear to us; hence it fills us with certain sadness. At the same time, they are the images of our highest perfection in the ideal; therefore they bring us to a sublime emotion. (22) Schiller insists on establishing the unity between the natural and the intellectual in man; Coubertin insists on a complete integration of man into the existing world by removing man’s natural being and his reason. In the “sports republic” man does not acquire the fullness of his human being, but is completely “emptied” of his humanity so that he can fit into the existing world. For Coubertin, nature is not a peaceful and harmonious whole, but is a space of a merciless struggle for survival. Coubertin’s return to nature is not mediated by “reason and freedom”, but by “might is right” and “progress”, which bring about man’s degeneration as a natural being. While in Schiller man becomes, from being the “slave of nature”, “its lawgiver the moment he starts thinking about it”, in Coubertin, this happens through sport and physical drill based on the absolutized principle of “greater effort” – with which the laws of nature turn into a power which controls nature, and it means also man’s body and his “lazy animal” nature. According to Schiller, “man in his physical condition endures only the power of nature; he sets himself free from this power in the aesthetic state, and controls it in the moral one.” (23) Coubertin does not seek to liberate the “forces of nature” by way of aesthetics, let alone to “control it” by way of morality, but tries to turn it into an indisputable totalizing power. He does not even think of putting before the bourgeoisie Schiller’s “reasonable request” to “turn its natural state into a moral one”, and thus demonstrate its “maturity”. (24) What is “sacred in man”, is not Schiller’s “moral law”, (25) but “the law of the strong”. Instead of “starting to show his independence of nature as a phenomenon” and “freely ascend his dignity to nature as a force and his nobility towards his gods”, (26) Coubertin’s positive man seeks to deal with all that offers man a possibility of establishing relation to nature as an independent (free) being. At the same time, since positive man is the incarnation of “progress” as a fatal power, in which the laws of evolution reached their highest level, there is no duality and conflict in him, and consequently no need for “reconciliation”.

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