Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Pierre De Coubertin's Ideology of Beauty from the Perspective of the History of Ideas

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Pierre De Coubertin's Ideology of Beauty from the Perspective of the History of Ideas

Article excerpt

Coubertin's lexicon is littered with the term, or derivatives of the term, beauty. He talks of the "radiant beauty" of the Empress Eudoxia, (1) the "beauty" of gymnastics, (2) the "beauty" of a World's Fair, (3) and of course, the "beauty" of sport itself. (4) Places are similarly described--the "majestic beauty of the Parthenon," (5) the "beauty" of Antwerp, (6) and the "beauty of a facility:" (7) he even talks of the "beauty of great spaces." (8) The idea of beauty is also linked with other concepts in provocative and instructive ways: he talks of "beauty and moral strength," (9) "physical beauty and health," (10) "moral beauty," (11) "beauty and perfection," (12) describing the Olympics as "festivals of youth, beauty, and strength." (13) So widespread is Coubertin's application of the word beauty that it is applied equally to the descriptive and evocative--to the purely adjectival--as it is to the metaphysical and ontological. Ultimately, Coubertin's multifarious conceptualization of beauty serves as the cornerstone of a cultural aesthetic of sport grounded in the Enlightenment promise of rational social progress and the imagined perfectibility of the individual and of society.

The purpose of this paper is both to interrogate Coubertin's concept of beauty as well as to identify and elucidate some of the philosophical ideas that served as historical precedents to this highly idiosyncratic formulation. In so doing, we hope to further analyze and dissect Coubertin's particular aesthetic Olympic imperative, an axiology well understood to have stemmed from Coubertin's reverence for the aesthetic vision of ancient Hellenism, but one that also ran through the idealist thinking of a wide variety of philosophers ranging from Shaftsbury to Goethe, from Leibniz to Humboldt, and from Weiland to Schiller. Of particular significance were the ideas of British theoretician of aesthetics John Ruskin, whose ideology inspired Coubertin to seek to beautify the entire Olympic edifice, to accomplish what Kruger calls "a noble Gesamtkunstwerk." (14) Grounded in the history of ideas, we argue that despite Coubertin's attempt to develop a cultural theory of sport which would complement his ideology of the Olympic Games, ultimately his moral reform agenda floundered not only because it was, as Brown rightly notes, "masculinist, paternalistic and conservative ... a bourgeois discourse of art and culture where the pleasure of physical activity was necessarily abstracted to the level of the intellectual perception of beauty," (15) but also because the very notions of 'moral beauty,' or 'moral progress,' or the 'beautiful soul,' lost favor in European thought because they tended toward exclusivity, elitism, and the atomization of self, what Hegel called an "empty nothingness." (16)

Beauty and Olympism

From the very beginning of his Olympic odyssey, Coubertin waxed lyrical about the beauty of ancient Greece, the "majestic beauty" and "tranquil serenity" of the Parthenon, (17) and most especially the beauty of Olympia, "the cradle of a view of life strictly Hellenic in form." (18) Profoundly enamored by the "holy city of ancient athletics," "the capital of ancient sport," (19) he dwelt on Olympia's Edenic qualities, its "serene beauty and its tranquil majesty," (20) on "the beauty of the surrounding countryside," (21) "the beauty" of the "giant plane trees, olive trees and silver poplars," (22) and on the beauty of the entire environment: "Cool, pure air, fragrant with the scent of the fields, wafted from the banks of the Alpheus," he wrote during his visit to the site in 1927. "For a moment the moon lit up a vaporous landscape, then the starry night fell on the two thousand years I had come to recapture." (23) Olympia, as a literary topos, served as Coubertin's secular locus amoenus.

Inevitably, given Coubertin's trenchant romanticism and Hellenic zealotry, Olympia assumed a thematic significance well beyond a matter of simple geography and climate. …

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