Coubertin’s “utilitarian Pedagogy” and ancient paideia


Trying to build a positive man, Coubertin rejected the basic principles of the ancient paideia – which was the highest expression of the humanist heritage of Hellenic civilization and is one of the main sources of modern man’s self-conscious. The ancient paideia has a religious nature. The cosmos, which is ruled by the gods, and the myth about man’s divine nature, represent the basis of human self-recognition and the spiritual framework of the existing world that must not be overstepped even in thoughts. Hence a demand for “self-control” is the essence of the principle gnothi seauton, from which follow the general postulates of the ancient paideia: “nothing too much” (meden agan); “measure is best” (metron ariston); “keep to the limit” (peras epitelei); “bow to the divinity” (proskynei to theion); “control ambition” (thymou kratei). (20) Speaking of the philosophy of Aristotle, Mihailo Đurić says: “It is quite understandable that this demand for the development of self-conscious, this demand for conceiving one’s own existence by way of self-control, has a more profound religious sense. Within the religion of Apollo, the question of the relation to oneself was firmly linked to the question of the relation to the one higher than oneself.” (21) Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine represents the rejection of the religious foundation of the ancient paideia. His “utilitarian pedagogy” is the highest form in which the ideology of the expansionist and progressistic spirit of capitalism appears. In the principle of the ancient gnothi seauton Coubertin rightly sees the (normative) boundaries of the practice of the bourgeois, who is moved forward by an insatiable greed for acquiring wealth, and thus the boundaries of “progress”. “Conceiving one’s own existence by way of self-control” is the worst blasphemy for Coubertin’s positive bourgeois.

The conception of the cosmos as a harmonious, geometrically constructed whole in which a complete unity of parts with the whole is established, is the basis of the ancient conception of man’s place in the cosmos and of his being, to which corresponds a pedagogical model as the image of man from a cosmic perspective, which is thus the highest religious and life challenge. A spiritual and physical connection between man and cosmos is the basic assumption for bringing man into a complete harmony with the cosmos, i.e. for reaching his nature that reflects his worthlessness and gods’ omnipotency. To the ancient conception of the cosmos and the cosmic essence of man corresponds a holistic approach to man as a unique physical, ethical and aesthetical being, from which follows the principle of harmonious development of the human powers that represents one of the foundations of ancient eurhythmics (eurhythmos). At the same time, physical exercising becomes a peculiar divine service, and Coubertin himself refers to that claiming that the athlete of antiquity “by chiseling his body with exercise as a sculptor chisels a statue” – “was honoring the gods”.(22) The spirituality of the bodily movement is dominant and it derives from a “religious feeling” that pervades the entire life. Instead of insisting on a muscular body, as is the case in Coubertin, the highest challenge for a physical drill is a geometrically constructed proportion of the body that corresponds to the ideal of a close and finite world and represents the basis of racial self-recognition of the Hellenes. The ruling model of the physical and the spiritual, as well as the very principle of harmonious development of the physical and the spiritual, are derived from the dominant world view that arose from the very essence of Hellenic society and the strivings to preserve the established order: the ancient physical culture had a conservative character. The imperialist bourgeois is not an incarnation of the ancient cosmos dominated by the gods that symbolize the internal richness and conflicting character of the human nature, but represents the incarnation of the spirit of capitalism, which cripples man and reduces him to the properties that enable the expansion of capitalism. The body is in unity with a conquering and repressive character: man is “purified” from all the properties that can stop him from pushing forward and establishing a critical detachment to the present world and thus from creating the idea of a better world. Sport and physical drill become the means with which man pins himself down to the existing world.

To understand the ancient idea of the human being it is of primary importance to know that “the man whose image is revealed in the works of great Greeks is a political man. (…) The greatest works of the Hellenic world are the monuments of a uniquely magnificent state-creating ability, which is struggled for through all the stages of development, from the heroism of the Homeric epics to Plato’s authoritarian state of the philosopher-king, in which, on the field of philosophy, the individual and social community fight their last battle. Future humanism must essentially be oriented according to that basic fact in the character of the widespread Greek teaching, that the Greeks associated humanism and the idea of man with the property of man as a political being.” (23) Coubertin rejects Aristotle’s concept of humanitas in which man is separated from the animal by his ability to create a state (polis). (24) The starting point of his doctrine is not a divinely constructed cosmos, nor is it a polis governed by human laws, but society as an animal herd in which the place under the sun is insured by a constant and ruthless struggle for survival. Coubertin’s man (the bourgeois) is not a political being; he is a higher form of animal, an animal above all animals, which embodies the expansionist power of monopolistic capitalism. The look in his eyes, as in the Nazi “overman”, is the look of a “magnificent beast” (Hitler) ready to grab his victim at the first sign of its masters.

Humanism is, according to Jäger, even in ancient times regarded as the “determinant of the idea of human upbringing”. As for the New Age, “the concept of humanism rests on a conscious connection of our upbringing with classical antiquity. And that connection is, in turn, based on the fact that our idea of a ‘universal’ human upbringing derives precisely from ancient civilization”. (25) Trying to point out the specific features of the Greeks in relation to the Orient, Jäger concludes: “Their discovery of man is not the discovery of a subjective I, but the acquiring of conscious of the universal essential human laws. The spiritual principle of the Greeks is not individualism but “humanism”, if this term can consciously be used in its original ancient sense. Humanism comes from humanitas. That word acquired later, since the times of Var and Cicero, another, higher and stricter meaning, in addition to the older and more vulgar meaning of humanism, which is here excluded: it means to educate man for his true form, for a true human being. It is the true Greek paideia, the one that a Roman statesman took as his model. It does not start from the individual but from the idea. Above the man as the being of herd, as well as above the man as an apparently autonomous I, stands the man as an idea, and that is how the Greeks regarded him constantly as educators, but also as poets, artist and scholars. However, man as an idea means: man as a universal and binding image of a race. In the Greeks, stamping the individual by the form of the community, which we have understood as the essential part of upbringing, starts ever more consciously from that image of man and, in the ever-lasting struggle, eventually leads to such philosophical founding and deepening of the issue of upbringing that, in terms of principality and certainty of end, has never been achieved.” (26) Coubertin does not depart from an “autonomous I” nor from an evaluative model of man, but from the class features of the bourgeoisie and the workers acquired in the process of evolution: the bourgeois has the qualities of a beast, while the worker has the qualities of a ruminant – the structure of the animal world is the basis of the structure of society. Modern Olympism as the “cult of humanism” (of the present world) is not based on the faith in certain superhuman or universal values, but on the living in the present world which comes down to a constant struggle for domination and survival. It does not involve “the upbringing of man for his true form, for a true human being”, but seeks to destroy in man everything that gives him the possibility of creating the image of himself as man and acquire a human dignity. Coubertin rejects the “idea of human nature” that was first conceived by the sophists, (27) and thus the theory of upbringing which was to derive from that idea. According to Coubertin, man does not have a specific nature. He departs from nature, but associates the notion of fysis with the animal world, and not with man, as was the case with sophistry. Man’s “animal” nature does not give rules that should be observed, but contains constraints that are to be overcome. Man is indeed a “lazy animal”, and this suggests the limitation of man’s original (animal) character. The main task of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” is not the cultivation of man’s animal nature, but its development by means of physical drill (the principle of “greater effort”) with which man’s instinctive nature is repressed and degenerated and a merciless tyrannical character is developed.

In the Hellenic world there appeared the first contours of a pedagogical model which in the Modern Age developed in the form of “physical culture”, and it, of course, has its true meaning only in the context of the totality of Hellenic culture, i.e. the concrete totality of Hellenic society. In ancient paideia upbringing and education form an inseparable whole. The starting point is the ideal of man according to which the correctness of human action is assessed – as a symbolic incarnation of the ruling social relations and values that are the source of ancient religion and the basis of racial self recognition of the Hellenes. Man as a being in which gods inspired their diverse divine powers and an endeavour to establish their harmonious interaction, is the source of universal pedagogical principles, which are the means for a character, spiritual, intellectual and physical building of man as a complete personality. That was the basis on which were developed both the aristocratic pedagogical model, which prevailed in the Hellenic “Middle Ages”, and the civil model of education, introduced by the sophists, which, with the appearance of demos on the political scene of polis, was to become the dominant form of upbringing and acquire its highest and most systematic form in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Speaking of the ancient paideia Coubertin says: “The muscles are made to do the work of a moral educator. It is the application to modern requirements of one of the most characteristic principles of Greek civilization: To make the muscles the chief factor in the work of moral education.” (28) Never in Hellas “were the muscles educators”, as Coubertin claims. That thesis is supposed to create the illusion of a non-normative character of the ancient paideia, and this should give a “Hellenistic” legitimacy to his “utilitarian pedagogy” – which insists on an upbringing without education. Even in the model of upbringing of the ancient tribal aristocracy, in spite of the physical power being the main feature of their arete, the observance of the given evaluative (religious) morality, as well as of the customs, represents the highest imperative. In short, a physical development involves a spiritual and a personal development, i.e. it becomes the way of educating man. In his analysis of the Hellenic culture Moses Hadas emphasizes the important distinction between paideia as “upbringing” (Bildung) and “training” as its counterpart. Homer’s heroes were aware that noblesse oblige and that they had to master a knightly bearing and knightly perfection which did not only involve being good in action (battle), but also with words. Hadas gives the example of the upbringing of Odyssey’s son Telemachus, who he seeks to turn into an “aristocrat who is aware of his responsibility”. In that sense, Homer’s work can be regarded as the “Bible of the Greeks”. (29) As for the civil upbringing, Plato’s view that “a physically fit body cannot in virtue of its excellence make the soul good and excellent while, on the other hand, an excellent spirit can help the body to become perfect”, (30) in a most concise form expresses the basis of the civil arete. Coubertin’s cult of humanism involves an upbringing (character building) without education, which clearly suggests that he rejects the humanist heritage of antiquity. In Coubertin, there does not exist a normative mediation between man and the world. The main means in a child’s upbringing are the “circumstances”: man is from his childhood plunged into the existing world ruled by a merciless struggle for survival. Not the development of man as a cultural being, but the development of a ruthless combatant character by the destruction of human self-conscious – that is the basic aim of Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy”. Hence in the original Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” there is no place for gymnastics, while (“French”) boxing receives primary importance in the upbringing of the French youth. Coubertin constantly distorted the ancient spirituality in order to reach a man, like the Nazis, who is not “burdened” by the mind and the spirit – which can be obstacles to the establishment of a complete domination of the ruling order over man. “The immortal spirit of antiquity” does not represent a cultural bridge that connects modern and Hellenic societies, but the means for establishing a direct link between the conquering and tyrannical practice of the ancient tribal aristocracy and the imperialistically oriented bourgeoisie.

The principle of “beautiful and good” (kalokagathia) represented in Hellenic society the highest challenge both for the aristocratic and for the civil model of upbringing. Speaking of kalokagathia, Miloš Đurić says that it is a “specific Hellenic notion of the slave-owning class” which involves “physical beauty combined with moral health”. And he continues: “This notion shows that the Hellenes were neither ethically nor aesthetically one-sided: the beautiful and the good coincide in the highest instance, and they thus appear as a people which is in its aesthetics at the same time ethical, and in being ethical it is aesthetical”. (31) A kalokagathos was at the same time endowed with a well-built body, intelligence, education, spirituality, the sense of responsibility for the community, as well as an active participation in public life. (32) It is the Athenian model of upbringing in which the physical and the aesthetical intermingle with the intellectual and the moral. Criticizing the Lacedaemonians for their one-sided physical upbringing Aristotle concludes: “So, in the first place there should stand the noble heroism, and not savageness. For neither the wolf nor any other beast is capable of offering a more beautiful fight. That is something only a good man can do. Those who allow the boys to develop too much in that direction, neglecting the necessary education, create from them ordinary workers capable only of one civil duty, and they are thus, as we have said, worse then others.” (33) The ancient conception of the world and man’s position in it is a speculative and spiritual basis of the ancient relation to the human body. Not a mindless and spiritless agonal physical activism, as Coubertin would have it, but a physical culture – that is the basis of the ancient physical agonistics. The Athenian kalokagathos, the embodiment of the Athenian educational ideal, is totally opposed to Coubertin’s positive man, embodied in the greedy and muscular bourgeois.

As far as music is concerned, it had in the ancient paideia a significant role. Speaking of the ancient music, Jäger says that “the word and tone and, if they act with the word or tone or with both of them, rhythm and harmony are for the Greeks simply the forces that form the soul, since what is crucial in paideia is the active element, which in the formation of the soul becomes even more important than in the agon of physical abilities.” (34) In order to illustrate the importance that the Hellenes attached to music, Miloš Đurić relates the myth of Orpheus “who with the magic of sounds transforms the cosmic order, tames the beasts, moves trees and stones and, finally rescues his dear wife Eurydice from the claws of death. Given the fact that they penetrated so deep into the secrets of the art of music, it is no wonder that music, in the wider meaning of that word, marked the whole development of their spiritual life, and that the expression “the musical man” (…), in contrast to the ‘non-musical man’ (…) meant an educated man in general, and that it, in the narrower meaning of that word as a tone art, occupied the central position and, not only because of its aesthetical, but also because of its physical and ethical function, was connected with all the noble expressions of their internal life and exerted a strong moral and educational influence.” (35) Music in Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” does not only serve to “form the soul”, but also to contribute to the creation of a “cultural” decoration of the Olympic Games as a cult manifestation and create a “solemn” atmosphere which should arouse “religious excitement” in the spectators. As far as the formation of character is concerned, it is not achieved by mastering the artistic skill nor by developing the musical sense, but exclusively through a combatant bodily activism and physical drill which involves the repression and distortion of instincts, emotions, senses and spirit… and which tends to deal with everything that can weaken the ruthless character of the bourgeois and shatter his fanatical conscious. Coubertin rejects the Dionysian and Orphic, as well as the ancient poiesis. He, like Hitler, does not want to make “peaceful aestheticians”, but “new people” characterized by an “iron body” and the look of a “magnificent beast”. Coubertin wants to take over the political and reject the cultural heritage of the ancient aristocratic education.

The fact that ancient society was an erotic community par excellence dominated by a “homosexual Eros” (Foucault) is of primary importance, and we shall return to it later. It is the reason why taking care of one’s physical appearance and bodily movements was extremely important. Unlike Coubertin’s “muscular body”, antiquity is dominated by the ideal of a harmoniously developed body; instead of an “iron” stamina and explosive muscular strength, the highest challenge in antiquity was to acquire suppleness of the extremities, as well as softness and harmony of movements. Guided by “progress”, Coubertin rejects the ancient principle metron ariston, as well as the aristocratic principle ordre et mesure; he absolutizes the principle of “greater effort” and insists on the dualism of the body and the spirit, as well as on the building of the cult of a muscular body, which is a symbolic incarnation of the expansionist power of capitalism. He does not seek to “chisel the body” by physical exercise in order to bring man into a spiritual and physical harmony with the cosmos, as in ancient gymnasion and palaestra, but to create a combatant and spiritless character of the bourgeois, who is to conquer the world. Unlike antiquity, in which self-control as the basic condition of control over others involves the observance of natural needs, namely, bringing physical needs in harmony with natural needs, in Coubertin, self-control is reduced to a repression and distortion of natural needs. “The cult of physical exercises” comes down to torturing one’s own body and thus represses man’s erotic being and transforms the sexual energy into a conquering (repressive) activism. Coubertin’s relation to the body is mediated by a Christian (Jesuit) fanatism, which is clearly indicated in his concept of the pedagogy of “physical education” for 20th century. (36)

In antiquity, physical health was the most important preoccupation of man and the most important aim of physical training. Speaking of the ranking of the highest values in the Hellenes, Karl Schefold states an “old song” from antiquity: “For a mortal, health is the most important thing/ then comes his physical built, /the third place goes to material wealth, acquired legally, and the fourth is youth enjoyed with friends.” (37) Coubertin rejects the principle of physical health, which he leaves to the “weaker”. He deals with the maxim mens sana in corpore sano and proclaims the principle mens fervida in corpore lacertoso the starting point of his “utilitarian pedagogy”. His relation to health illustrates the real character of Coubertin’s “naturalistic” conception. Instead of a healthy body, which is man’s direct nature and the most direct form of man’s existence as a natural being, Coubertin insists on a “combatant” and “strong” character, which is acquired through the principle of “greater effort” and is reduced to a ruthless combat with man’s natural being. Even Aristotle, speaking about children’s upbringing, warned about the fatal consequences of excessive physical exertions: “We have agreed, then, that gymnastics should be applied, and how it should be applied. Until the period of adolescence, only easy exercises should be done, a compulsive diet and efforts should be avoided lest the development be hindered. There is reliable evidence that it can easily happen: among the Olympic winners we can find only two or three who won both as young boys and as adults, due to the difficult exercises in their childhood which exhausted their strength.”(38) And he continues: “Namely, for good physical qualities the citizens should have, as well as for health and childbearing, the athletic built is not useful, nor is the one that requires an excessive care or is too weak, but such as is in between these two. The body should be built, but not with excessive efforts and not only in one direction as the body of the athletes, but for all the jobs that free people engage in. This should apply equally to both men and women.” (39) That already in Hellas physical culture was created in which the aspect of health, which became the foundation for a critique of the Olympic Games, was greatly important, can be seen from Hippocrates’ critique of boxing (as an Olympic discipline) because of its fatal effect on the mental health of boxers. Coubertin’s enthusiasm about boxing, as the most authentic expression of the spirit of capitalism, shows just how much his pedagogical doctrine is retrogressive as regards the relation to the humanistic heritage of antiquity.

Coubertin’s appealing to antiquity is also problematic because, according to Jacob Burckhardt, in antiquity the character was thought to be “entirely innate, incorruptible in those who were good, and incorrigible in those who were bad, while upbringing by an educator or nurse was only secondary to it, in spite of the fact that upbringing of a great personality was credited to such people, and, for example, not only Achilles but also Jason are held to be the trainees of Heron, who is in the myth represented as the ideal teacher.” (40) Coubertin holds that people differ in their racial characteristics, which were acquired in their struggle for survival, but they have a relative importance, since man is by his nature a “lazy animal”. “Sport is not in the nature of man”, claims Coubertin, because it is opposed to the principle of “lesser effort” that applies to animals. That is why Coubertin attaches primary importance to upbringing: the basic aim of “utilitarian pedagogy” is the “overcoming” of man’s animal nature through the creation of a ruthless and steady combatant character. Since positive man is beyond good and evil, in Coubertin there do not exist any “good” or “bad”, but only “strong” or “weak” characters, the white race, embodied in the bourgeois “elite” being predestined to a “strong” combatant character based on its racial heritage acquired in the struggle for survival. Most importantly, the creation of a combatant character involves, according to Coubertin, a combat with the spirit and the mind, and thereby with the cultural heritage of mankind. He wants to create a “new man” who will correspond to a New (positive) Age and the expansionist interests of the European colonial states.

From Coubertin’s instrumental relation to man stems his conception of “perfection”. In antiquity, perfectioning involves bringing man in harmony with the cosmic order that represents the unattainable ideal of (divine) perfection. Since perfection is the quality of eternity, by pursuing perfection man pursues eternity. As the earthly life is doomed, the strivings for perfection do not involve the fight for the preservation of the existing, particularly not for the creation of a perfect world, but the performance of such acts that will make man approach the cosmic perfection. At the same time, man looks back to the past since, according to the ancient view, men are all the more imperfect as they move further away from their divine origin. “The wish for perfection” in ancient Greece has a conservative, and not a “progressive” character, as is the case with modern Olympism. In spite of referring to “progress”, Coubertin dismisses the idea of future. The orientation to an idealized past becomes the source of the “true” and “eternal” values symbolized in the flame of the ”Olympic torch” that “must never be extinguished” (Hitler). In Coubertin, the ideal of the right conduct is not evaluatively based, but derives from the logic imposed by life itself, which is reduced to the struggle for survival and is beyond good and evil. “Perfectioning”, as “overcoming the animalist in man”, becomes the destruction of human dignity and the reduction of man to a dehumanized crusader of the ruling order. At the same time, the wish for perfection in sport is connected with achieving results that can be “objectively” and quantitatively compared and involve the absolutized principle of performance: “modern” sport deals with man’s erotic, ethical and aesthetical being. It is upon them that the “pyramid of success” (Coubertin) can be established, topped by the victorious “elite”.

Coubertin shows considerable affinities with antiquity, since both pedagogical concepts have a racist character. Coubertin: “Greece was a confederacy of cities in which an idea appeared, the idea of racial superiority and its predestination. It was quite enough for a temporarily united Greece to rise against the aliens; but, those were the fruits of their genius…” (41) Coubertin’s bourgeois is also the incarnation of the racial qualities of the white race, as the “purest, the most intelligent and the strongest” (42) – which makes it “superior” to other races and entitle it to conquer the world. “The pureness of blood” is one of the most important features of the (white) race, and “the fight for the pureness of the white race remains the basic aim of its members” (Coubertin). The strivings for “perfection” become the strivings for attaining racial perfection in relation to the “lower races” that correspond to the “barba- rous” peoples of antiquity. Hence “utilitarian pedagogy” represents the most important segment of Coubertin’s Olympic philosophy, and not the social theory.

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