East to Olympia: recentering Olympic philosophy between East and West.
By going to Beijing in the summer of 2008, the Olympic Games may seem to have ventured farther than ever from their cultural origin in ancient Olympia, Greece. (1) This can be viewed as a triumph--but a triumph of what? Some may see it as a victory for Western cultural imperialism; others as a victory for Olympic multiculturalism. But it is best seen as a unique opportunity--an opportunity for the Eurocentric Olympic Movement to counterbalance its Western values and ideals with those of China and the East, (2) thereby re-centering its philosophy between East and West, and redirecting Olympism back toward its origins in ancient Greece. This process does not require changes in the language of the "Fundamental Principles of Olympism"--the Olympic Charter's official declaration of the Movement's foundational philosophy--but rather an expanded understanding of how that language may be understood from diverse cultural perspectives. The effort by Easterners and Westerners alike to "re-center" our understanding of Olympic philosophy will serve the Movement well as it tries to find common ethical and philosophical ground among diverse cultures in this age of globalization.
Olympism's stated goal, "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity," (3) can hardly be called Eurocentric or even distinctively Western. However, the pursuit of that goal is hampered by the tradition of interpreting Olympic philosophy exclusively from a modern European perspective. The ancient Hellenic philosophy from which modern Olympism is supposed to derive is not a characteristically Western product, as is often assumed. Rather, it is a "centrist" perspective that resulted from a need to mediate among diverse Hellenic cultures in the ancient Mediterranean world. This philosophy contained, in its original form, many more characteristics which are now associated with the East. (4) By examining the language of Olympism through the divergent lenses of modern European, ancient Chinese, and finally ancient Hellenic ideas about metaphysics, ethics, and politics, I hope to recast Olympic philosophy in a new and ecumenical light. This more flexible and cosmopolitan understanding of Olympism not only better reflects the Movement's ancient Hellenic heritage, but also better serves its current multicultural goals. In honor of the first visit of the Olympic Games to China, let us learn from our experience and take this opportunity to move Olympic ideology East toward Olympia.
Philosophy: The Way Is Not the Only Way
"Olympism is a philosophy of life." So begins the Olympic Charter's statement of fundamental principles. (5) In the attempt to consider Olympic philosophy from both Eastern and Western perspectives, we must first reflect upon the meaning of philosophy itself. What does it mean to have a "philosophy of life?" Is everyone in the Olympic Movement expected to have the same philosophy of life? Can philosophy transcend cultural differences? (6)
Rene Descartes, the "father" of modern Western philosophy, thought of himself as a "citizen of the world" (7) and regarded his work as culturally transcendent because it used what he thought were the culturally unbiased tools of reason and logic to uncover universally-valid truths. For him, "the power of judging well and distinguishing true from false--which we properly call 'good sense' or 'reason'--is naturally equal in all men." (8) Despite the gender exclusion implied by his language, he seems at least to have meant that reason was universal across cultures. Descartes' method, which he called scientia, was to reject everything he previously believed because it might be prejudiced by unreliable sense-data, and then to rebuild knowledge by solely rational means from the cornerstone of one logically irrefutable truth. Because modern Western philosophy traditionally viewed its project as objective and universal, it tended to regard its conclusions as correct, certain, and paradigmatic examples for all to follow. Conflicting theories would be methodically tested according to rational standards in a competitive "marketplace of ideas" and the last one standing would be the truth--or at least the closest thing to truth that we can muster. From the perspective of modern Western philosophy, then, Olympism articulates a monolithic truth to be understood in only one correct way through the universal tool of reason. Western philosophy's impartial and competitive methods of truth-seeking reflect the structure of Olympic sports themselves. (9) But is pure rationality the only way to think about Olympic philosophy?
In the Eastern philosophical tradition, truth need not have one exclusive expression. In fact, the attempt to nail down certainty by articulating or "naming" things is believed to lead one further away from the truth. It would seem from the Eastern perspective that truth itself is intrinsically mysterious; hence the opening of the Daodejing,
A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way. A name that can be named is not a constant name. Nameless, it is the beginning of Heaven and earth; Named, it is the mother of myriad creatures And so, Always eliminate desires in order to observe its mysteries; Always have desires in order to observe its manifestations. These two come forth in unity but diverge in name, Their unity is known as an enigma. Within this enigma is yet a deeper enigma. The gate of all mysteries. (10)
It is often pointed out that Laozi's Daodejing is the text most translated into English from Chinese. It is arguably the most famous and influential work in Asian philosophy, but the best explanation for its great number of translations is more likely the fact that the original Chinese is so richly ambiguous that it accommodates an enormous variety of interpretations. (11) From the Western perspective, truth can be reliably analyzed and clarified without variation, but from the Eastern perspective, dissected truth risks losing its veracity.
Much of ancient Chinese philosophy takes the form of poetry, parable, or aphorism rather than exposition. The traditional method of study was to take a bit of text and discuss its various meanings in a small group. All interpretations were not equal; the Master had authority, and some understandings were deemed better than others. Authoritative commentaries are still used to navigate the texts. But the object of traditional Chinese philosophy was not to win the argument, or even to articulate a universally valid interpretation; divergent understandings of a common text were accepted (within limits) and even encouraged. Consider the later Chinese thinker Zhuangzi's hypothesis:
Suppose I am arguing with you, and you get the better of me. Does the fact that I am not a match for you mean that you are really right and I am really wrong? Or if I get the better of you, does the fact that you are not a match for me mean that I am really right and you are really wrong? Must one of us necessarily be right and the other wrong, or may we not both be right or both be wrong?" (12)
Unlike the zero-sum game that is Western philosophy, Eastern ways of thought allow for multiple divergent understandings of a single truth to be correct.
Given the multicultural ambitions of the modern Olympic movement, a philosophical model that accommodates diverse interpretations without collapsing to relativism may be very attractive indeed. (13) The Olympic Movement is expected to serve common goals and values in this age of globalization, but at the same time it seeks to affirm and celebrate cultural diversity. Accordingly, its philosophy must establish common ground without demanding a perfectly uniform articulation. This sort of philosophical model would better reflect Olympism's ancient Hellenic heritage (which also communicated ideas through such ambiguous media as poetry, parable, and aphorism). Laozi's resistance to "naming" the Dao and his characterization of it as "enigma" and the "gate of mysteries," reflect the foundational principles of Hellenic philosophy: uncertainty and wonder. (14) The paradigmatic Hellenic philosopher, Socrates, claimed that his wisdom was simply awareness of his ignorance, expressing an attitude that goes back at least as far as Pythagoras and gives the Greek word 'philosophia' its meaning. (15) Philosophy means "love of learning," and in its ancient expression reflects a disposition or spirit rather than a crusade for universal truths. (16)
The emphasis in the ancient Chinese and Hellenic traditions is upon process and dispositions rather than results. Socrates did not articulate universal truths, and he did not write at all. Plato's Socratic dialogues aim to show readers their ignorance rather than to communicate knowledge. At Apology 23b, Apollo's oracular proclamation that no one is wiser than Socrates is interpreted by the philosopher to mean that "the wisest of you men is the one who realizes, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless." This Hellenic spirit fits perfectly well with Laozi's description of the Daoist sage in Daodejing:
To know that one does not know is best; Not to know but to believe that one knows is a disease. Only by seeing this disease as a disease can one be free of it. Sages are free of this disease; Because they see this disease as a disease, they are free of it. (17)
Likewise Confucius identifies "love of learning" as his own characteristic virtue. (18) "Love of learning" is the disposition that prevents such important qualities as trustworthiness from becoming vices--in this case "harmful rigidity." (19) Furthermore, it is a virtue that promotes engagement with others. As Confucius said, "Do I regard myself as a possessor of wisdom? Far from it. But if even a simple peasant comes in all sincerity and asks me a question, I am ready to thrash the matter out, with all its pros and cons, to the very end." (20) The desire for learning based on an awareness of one's ignorance is common to Eastern and Hellenic philosophy and crucial to an Olympic attitude of welcoming diverse ideas.
The Eastern emphasis on disposition and process rather than results not only serves philosophical projects, but also athletic ones. Modern Olympic sport has suffered from an obsession with quantifiable results that often leaves the values of Olympism behind. Success at the Olympic Games should not be defined narrowly in terms of medals and records, but rather the cultivation of virtues and ideals, such as the "Olympic Spirit ... of friendship, solidarity, and fair play." (21) Confucius identified ritual as the primary means for cultivating appropriate dispositions and the Olympic Games are already rich in meaningful rituals, such as the athletes' and officials' oaths, the lighting of the flame, or even the informal tradition of mixing different nationalities together in the closing ceremony. (22) More important, emphasis on process rather than results allows for multiple interpretations of success. (23) It is this elasticity that serves as the first key distinction between analytic Western philosophy and traditional Eastern and Hellenic philosophy. Confucius' declaration that "The [sage] is true, but not rigidly trustworthy" may seem lax at first glance to Westerners. (24) Nevertheless, it better reflects the intellectual humility characteristic of Olympism's ancient Hellenic heritage and better serves the Olympic movement's modern multicultural goals.
Metaphysics: The Parts and The Whole
After stating that "Olympism is a philosophy of life" the first fundamental principle describes its vision of that life as one "exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind." (25) From the Eastern perspective, the emphasis in this statement rests squarely on the phrase "balanced whole." As reflected in yin-yang, the best-known symbol of Chinese thought, existence is perceived inclusively as a harmonious collection of complementary opposites--the emphasis is on the whole and not on the parts. The Western analytical tradition (just as its name suggests) focuses on analyzing, or to use Descartes' locution, "dividing up into the smallest possible parts." (26) Hence Westerners tend to conceive of humanity in terms of individual persons composed of separate minds and bodies, or, as specified in the first fundamental principle of Olympism: "body, will, and mind." (27) Although Eastern and Western metaphysics do not necessarily contradict one another, they approach the study from deeply contrasting perspectives. The more holistic Eastern understanding of reality might serve the Olympic Movement better than the analytical Western approach has.
The most relevant example of Western analytic attitudes challenging the spirit of Olympism is indeed the view of persons as separate bodies and minds. This view is not uncommon (it is found even among the ancient Hellenes), but modern Western philosophy's epistemological ranking of mind over body hinders the Olympic cause. Descartes' search for an irrefutable cornerstone upon which to build certain knowledge yielded the famous statement, "I think, therefore I exist." (28) Since it is logically impossible to think without at the same time existing, Descartes took the act of thinking, and therefore his mind, to be the one most certain aspect of his existence--infinitely more certain than ideas about his body, which inevitably depended upon unreliable senses. Our bodies might be figments of our imaginations, existing as in a dream. But even if his entire existence is a dream, it would still be true that Descartes was thinking when he had this idea.
So modern Western philosophy tended to view the mind and its characteristic act of thinking as really distinct from--and more important than--the body, other persons, and nature itself. (29) And sport, conventionally associated with the body, suffered accordingly in terms of importance and worth. Olympism's attempt to "exalt" sport by combining body with will and mind may be a reaction to this hierarchy. The attitude persists, however, that athletes are less valuable to society than intellectuals. Professional athletes receive high salaries because they are regarded as entertainers, but they are not considered essential to the community as educators, engineers, and economists are. Meanwhile, the Olympic Games' moral and political ideals remain disassociated from (and somehow subordinated to) the prowess of its athletes. Even the Movement itself occasionally downplays its educational and political ambitions, describing itself simply as a sports festival. Dividing things into parts seems an inevitable prelude to ranking those parts according to value. The Western ranking of mind over body has caused sport to be taken less seriously by outsiders, and even to take itself less seriously as a socially valuable activity.
Eastern thought does not overturn this hierarchy; neither ancient nor modern China grants athletes much prestige. But the reason is not a separation of mind and body, nor a separation of the physical from the spiritual. (30) What Eastern philosophy offers is a holistic picture of the human being that emphasizes internal harmony over external muscularity. Westerners tend to think of the body structurally, in terms of flesh and bones, muscles and levers, whereas Easterners focus on the internal flow of blood xue and energy, qi. (31) Westerners tend to associate thought with the brain, while the ancient Chinese located thought in the middle of a body, associating it with the "heartmind" and sensations experienced in the belly. (32) In philosophical terms, the root or seed of virtue (de), intimately connected with the Way (Dao) resides within a person and is cultivated partly through physical movement. Confucians perform ritual (li) in order to "remember" the Dao, (33) while Daoist martial artists use movement to cultivate qi, the "floodlike energy" Zhuangzi takes to be the source of virtue. (34)
Ancient Hellenic philosophy generally shares the Western distinction between the spiritual mind or soul (the word psyche designates both), and a less important material body. What is different is that ancient Hellenes thought of bodily movement as a product of the psyche (mind/soul), (35) and in Plato's case at least, sought to train the psyche for virtue--as the Chinese did--partly through bodily movement. In the Republic, an educational program in gymnastics is established "chiefly for the sake of the soul" (410bc) and athletic contests are used to help determine worthiness for advanced study. (36) The related Platonic doctrine that the knowledge sufficient for virtue is "recollected" rather than acquired also reflects Chinese holism. By emphasizing a strong metaphysical connection between mind and body, Olympism can downplay the Western tendency toward analysis and hierarchy in favor of the Eastern tendency toward combination and harmony. In this way it may achieve the "balanced whole" that best reflects its Hellenic heritage and serves Olympic goals.
Ethics: Rules and Virtue
The second sentence of the first fundamental principle of Olympism explains its ethical vision: "Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." (37) From the Western point of view, the key phrase here is "universal fundamental ethical principles." The discovery and articulation of such principles was the focus of modern (especially 19th century) European ethical philosophy. Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, by definition a statement that articulates a universal obligation, is an excellent example. In its first formulation Kant's categorical imperative was expressed as a rule: "Act only according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (38) Kant took his imperative to be infallible, unavoidable and applicable to all humanity because it was derived from the goodness of the will and ultimately from reason. (39) In effect, it was an attempt to raise individuals above personal feelings and particular concerns that could not be justified in a universal (and hence ethical) way.
As a theory, Kant's universal rationalism fits well with Olympic ideology. The vision of world peace seems to demand the articulation of principles and implementation of rules that transcend cultural differences by deriving their authority from reason. In practice, however, unbiased application of any rule is difficult. For example, Kant made a strong theoretical case that lying could never be justified on his system, but his defense of telling the truth to a murderer about the location of a potential victim was unconvincing even to the most sympathetic. (40) Nevertheless, a typical Western interpretation of Olympism is that there are universal fundamental ethical principles such as fairness, which can be expressed in concrete rules such as the common starting line. Just as Descartes began from his cogito, (41) modern Western ethical thought tries to begin with an irrefutable ethical principle and then apply it to individual cases by developing specific rules.
The danger is when those in power impose their paradigm upon the "uncivilized" by punishing or excluding those who don't follow the rules. Arguably the very founding of the IOC was the invention of a bureaucracy to exemplify and enforce these universal principles. Conveniently it was an aristocratic bureaucracy who could back up their principles with worldly power. Inconveniently, however, the group tended to confuse the values of their particular culture and social class with the universal principles they were supposed to be promoting. Consistent with the Western spirit of modernism and colonialism, the wealthy Europeans at the IOC interpreted Olympism as a successful, civilized ideology to be disseminated for the benefit of a largely uncivilized world. The "educational value of a good example" would be understood here as setting up a paradigm of European aristocracy to which youth around the world would aspire to conform.
A more specific example of Western philosophical universalism collapsing into social imperialism is the sad history of Olympic amateurism. The worthy idea that sports participation should be voluntary and intrinsically rewarding was instantiated into increasingly complex sets of rules that had the effect of excluding all but the wealthy or well-connected. The virtuous ideal of autonomous athletes playing for the love of the game devolved into a rules-culture that rewarded those who found loopholes and financially exploited those who did not. The phenomenon of "shamateurism" is a legacy of Western ethics that might have been foreseen by Eastern philosophy. Says Laozi,
The more prohibitions and rules, The poorer people become ... The more elaborate the laws, The more they commit crimes. (42)
Confucius agrees that those lacking virtue respond to legislation by thinking only about exemptions." (43) Excessive rules and regulations, like those that enforced the amateur Olympic code, inspire the search for loopholes and exceptions rather than aspiration toward whatever noble spirit inspires them.
The traditional Eastern focus on virtue rather than rules in ethics may better serve Olympic ideals, not least because it concentrates on personal perfection rather than the correction and control of others. (44) Virtue (de) is understood as a kind of "moral force" that is contrasted favorably with physical (and especially martial) force. The seeds or "sprouts" of virtue are found naturally in every human being; the Confucian philosopher Mencius compares having them to having the four limbs. (45) In keeping with the agricultural metaphor, virtue is cultivated within individuals rather than taught or transmitted from outside. Reflecting Olympism's "educational value of a good example," Confucius says one can always "find a teacher" either by emulating good people, or being reminded by bad people "of what needs to be changed in myself." (46) Because the "teacher" here is not an external authority, and the lesson learned is not a fixed formula, the Eastern virtue ethics model evades some of the pitfalls of modern Western ethics. The ethical "principle" of virtue (de), is universal-but it cannot be articulated as a formula or enforced like a moral code. The common ethical denominator is simply our humanity.
An ethical theory focused on virtue rather than rules also promotes freedom both from material temptation and from the approval of others. In this way it reflects the Hellenic ethical tradition embodied in Socrates' chastisement of the Athenians for their "eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom, or truth, or the best possible state of your soul." (47) Socrates believed that the cultivation of virtue demanded liberation from merely social concerns. As the Stoic Epictetus, an admirer of Socrates, warned, if we concentrate on virtue we may also achieve wealth and social status, but if we concentrate on the latter, we will never achieve the former. (48) Confucius concurs: "[A sage] does not grieve that people do not recognize his merits; he grieves at his own incapacities." (49) Declares Laozi, "The worst calamity is the desire to acquire" But
To produce without possessing; To act with no expectation of reward; To lead without lording over; Such is Enigmatic Virtue! (50)
A philosophy focused on virtuous ideals (ideals to which the IOC itself must live up to in its actions) will be more effective and more culturally transcendent than the institution of increasingly complex rules and regulations. (51)
Both the ancient Chinese and Hellenic traditions acknowledge that virtue is hard to achieve. Said Confucius, "Goodness cannot be obtained until what is difficult has been duly done" (52) In ancient Greek thought, the path to virtue is described as arduous and uphill. Plato quotes Hesiod:
Vice in abundance is easy to get The road is smooth and begins beside you, But the gods have put sweat between us and virtue. (53)
The process is aptly compared to athletic training. Once a state of virtue or excellence is attained, however, good actions flow effortlessly from it--not unlike an athlete in the "zone" who acts without deliberation and can do no wrong. Plato thought that a virtuous person could not help but act rightly. (54) Confucius identified his highest level of philosophical development as a state in which his "heart's desire" harmonized perfectly with propriety. (55) The Daoists practically equated this state effortlessness (wu-wei) with virtue itself. Some times translated "inaction" or "passivity," wu-wei is nevertheless a state of strength. Like virtue itself, it is flexible and responsive to change--a principle that might well be adapted to serve the modern Olympic Movement. As Laozi explains in Daodejing:
Those who know others are knowledgeable; Those who know themselves are enlightened. Those who conquer others have power; Those who conquer themselves are strong (56)
Laozi's sentiment corresponds closely to the Delphic commandment "know thyself," taken by Socrates and Hellenic philosophy generally as the foundation of ethics. By looking inward toward virtue and personal excellence, the Eastern and Hellenic ethical traditions counterbalance the modern Western tendency to articulate and legislate "universal ethical principles." To be sure, both rules and virtue have their place in Olympism, but the Movement cannot limit itself to one or the other if it is to effectively face the challenge of finding common ethical ground among diverse cultural traditions. Indeed the Movement's leadership might start by looking at itself in the mirror.
Politics: Nature and Civilization
The second fundamental principle of Olympism states its political goal: "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." (57) From the perspective of modern Western philosophy, the promotion of a peaceful society depends upon the authority of a civilizing force, which uses law to overcome our natural state within which individuals' competing interests dispose them inevitably toward violence. The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described life within this warlike "state of nature" as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (58) Accordingly, Westerners are likely to envision the Olympic Movement's promotion of a peaceful society in terms pushing (and sometimes forcing) conformity to a political ideal through "civilizing" law and authority, just as modern Western ethics focuses on rules and punishment. The history of Western colonialism as well as 21st century efforts such as the war in Afghanistan may be interpreted as evidence of this approach. Multiculturalism, however, poses special challenges to this top-down approach. Who holds the authority in a diverse world community? Who makes the rules? Who enforces them? How do we decide which model of civilization will rescue us from the chaotic and warlike "state of nature?"
These questions are less pressing from the Eastern perspective because there the "state of nature" is characterized by harmony and peace. On this view, the promotion of a peaceful society depends on "going back" either to Confucianism's remote and idealized past, or to Daoism's uncorrupted childlike state symbolized by the image of an uncarved block. (59) Peace is not imposed upon a community through law and authority; rather the ideal leader exhibits wuwei--a passivity that amounts to power by virtue of its concordance or harmony with nature. Says Laozi:
The accomplished person is not aggressive. The good soldier is not hot-tempered. The best conqueror does not engage the enemy. The most effective leader takes the lowest place. This is called the Te of not contending. This is called the power of the leader. This is called matching Heaven's ancient ideal. (60)
Daoism finds the greatest political strength in responsiveness and spontaneity, rather than force. "The supplest things in the world run roughshod over the most rigid," claims Laozi. "That which is not there can enter even when there is no space. This is how I know the advantages of wuwei!" (61) The strength associated with aggression is bound to fail in this context. Violence amounts to weakness for Laozi because it begets further violence:
Use Tao to help rule people. This world has no need for weapons, Which soon turn on themselves. Where armies camp, nettles grow; After each war, years of famine. The most fruitful outcome Does not depend on force, But succeeds without arrogance Without hostility Without pride Without resistance Without violence. (62)
Confucius also condemns force as ineffective: "If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations and keep them in line with punishments," he says, they "will become evasive and will have no sense of shame." (63)
Both Laozi and Confucius' advised leaders to concentrate on their own virtue rather than attempting to control their subjects. (64) "To demand much from oneself and little from others," counseled Confucius, "is the way (for a ruler) to banish discontent." (65) The idea is that a leader's virtues inspire similar behavior in his subjects, obviating the need for orders, punishments, or even the knowledge of practical crafts such as agriculture. (66) This political ideal may be described as a virtue-culture; one in which the leaders' virtue has a magnetic effect that draws others in and inspires them to be and to do their best within the community. Virtue (de), said Confucius, "never dwells in solitude; it will always bring neighbours." (67) To illustrate, we might imagine a champion basketball team led by one great player whose excellence inspires everyone else to work hard and play their best. This model contrasts favorably with a Westernstyle rule-culture in which the coach tries to legislate good performances through strict regulations, such as required practices and dietary restrictions. The Eastern model of political philosophy is summed up in an image from nature: "The Virtue of the gentleman is like the wind, and the Virtue of a petty person is like the grass--when the wind moves over the grass, the grass is sure to bend." (68) Virtue's inspirational power, it seems, is more influential than regulations, more powerful than violence.
The Olympic Movement's ability to legislate and enforce its own values through punishment and exclusion has produced little success. (69) A renewed focus on inspiration through virtue--both the leaders' own and that of the athletes--may help the Movement to reach its goals. This was the model in ancient Greece, where a healthy skepticism about the reliability of nomos (law or convention) was combined with a deep respect for physis--nature in the sense of ultimate reality, much like the Chinese Dao or Way. (70) The ancient Hellenes saw harmony between virtue, politics and nature. Aristotle argued that "a city-state is among the things that exist by nature, [and] a human being is by nature a political animal." (71) He added that a true city-state "must be concerned with virtue" because otherwise its laws are reduced to mere agreement and the community loses its ability to make people "good and just." (72) In Plato's philosophy the just community resembles the virtuous soul, which itself moves in harmony with the heavens. (73) Later, the Stoics took living in accordance with nature to be their highest principle. The Olympic Movement's recent commitment to environmental sustainability emerges in this context as an appropriate effort toward "promoting a peaceful society;" one that reflects both Eastern philosophy and Olympism's own Hellenic heritage. (74)
Conclusion: The Model of Harmony
The fourth Fundamental Principle of Olympism defines the Olympic spirit in terms of mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity, and fair play. (75) It is in this Olympic spirit that I have tried to view Olympism through the lens of Chinese philosophy. My goal is not to supplant the modern Western view--or any other view, for that matter. My goal simply is mutual understanding: becoming aware that even common values expressed in clear language can be interpreted differently by different people without losing their philosophical meaning. Just as Olympic athletes from diverse cultural backgrounds compete in a common arena, diverse understandings of Olympism can find common ground. And the winner of the contest in a given Olympiad, or even the dominant athlete in a given era, does not tell the whole story of the sport. To find meaning we must consider a panorama of perspectives and seek harmony among them. Confucius illustrates the phenomenon with music: "when it first begins, it resounds with a confusing variety of notes, but as it unfolds, these notes are reconciled by means of harmony, brought into tension by means of counterpoint, and finally woven together into a seamless whole. It is in this way that music reaches its perfection." (76) Likewise, the global Olympic community finds its own beauty and harmony within and not despite its diversity.
We have seen how Western metaphysics tends to break things down and concentrate on the parts, while Eastern philosophy focuses on interconnectedness within the whole. Western ethics embraces the language of universal obligation, defining its values through rules and commandments, whereas Eastern and Hellenic philosophy look inward toward cultivating virtue as a moral power. Likewise, Western politics uses law as a barrier to protect individual rights, while the Eastern and Hellenic models use virtue like a magnet to draw the community together and inspire right behavior. To be sure, examples reflecting the Eastern perspective are to be found in the West and vice versa. The point is not that one perspective is superior to the other or even that individual regions should privilege their particular heritages. The point is to learn from one another--to realize that true philosophy is a love of wisdom and learning; one that can cooperatively search after one truth and one "Way" without limiting itself to a single expression of its meaning. This is Olympism's Hellenic heritage; one that served (and probably spawned) Olympic ideals for over 1,000 years in antiquity.
By examining Olympism through the divergent lenses of East and West, we have seen that it accommodates both philosophies well--and that it may serve its multicultural goals by intentionally harmonizing these perspectives. The Movement should begin by taking an open attitude toward the beliefs and values of Asians, Africans, and others that it has heretofore tended to ignore--looking not to bring them under an established paradigm, but to engage them in the ongoing development of that paradigm. Next, it should rediscover virtue as a moral force and educational example by encouraging and rewarding both leaders and athletes who consistently act out Olympism's stated ideals. This requires special attention to the commercial aspects of the Games; if the Movement appears to care only about money, athletes and spectators will follow suit. Warns Mencius, "if righteousness is put behind and profit is put ahead, one will not be satisfied without grasping from others." (77) The Games should also include more sports of non-western origin, (78) such as wushu, which, through the cultivation of qi, weaves minds, bodies, diverse individuals, and nature itself into a "balanced whole." (79) Finally, the Movement should intentionally exploit the power of its rituals to unify its community. The opening and closing ceremonies should be regarded not as mere entertainment, but as an opportunity to cultivate appropriate dispositions and to affirm the common cause of peace and understanding. The athletes' and officials' oaths, for example, are often deleted from commercial broadcasts--the IOC should work with entertainment executives to see that such tone-setting rituals are seen by more than the audience in the stadium.
At the Beijing Games, the Chinese put their own philosophical heritage in the service of Olympic ideals, for example by linking ideas from Confucius and Laozi with such Olympic principles as peace and friendship in the opening ceremony. But the effort must not stop with these Games and must not be limited to one nation or even one region. All members of the Olympic Movement need to work harder to develop a richer understanding of Olympism that embodies diverse perspectives on Olympic philosophy. Following the example of ancient Olympia, scholars from various nations should gather during the Games to exchange ideas and articulate common values. In this way we may cultivate the unity that discourages violence and fosters peace. Ancient Chinese philosophers understood that such ideals carry within them their own moral force; as is shown in the following conversation recounted by Mencius:
He asked me abruptly "How could we get a world settlement?" "By unification" I said. "Who is capable of uniting the world?" he asked. "If there were a single ruler," I said, "who did not delight in the slaughter, he could unite the whole world." "And who would side with him?" he asked. "Everyone in the world" I replied. (80)
(1) I would like to thank Susan Brownell helping me to appreciate the challenge of multiculturalism in the Olympic Movement, Ren Hai and Nathan Sivin for encouraging me to study ancient Chinese philosophy, Christos Evangeliou for teaching me the difference between Hellenic and Western philosophy, and an anonymous reviewer from Olympika for many helpful comments and criticisms.
(2) By "Eastern" ideas, I mean those linked specifically to Laozi and Confucius. Although both are Chinese, their thought had a seminal influence throughout the region; much as ancient Hellenic thought had a seminal influence on Western philosophy.
(3) International Olympic Committee, Fundamental Principle of Olympism #2, Olympic Charter (Lausanne: IOC 2007), 11.
(4) See C. Evangeliou, Hellenic Philosophy: Origin and Character (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).
(5) Fundamental Principle of Olympism #1, Olympic Charter, 11.
(6) The questions of Olympism's universality and transcultural relevance are addressed in a different way but with similar conclusions by Jim Parry, "Sport and Olympism: Universals and Multiculturalism," Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2006, 33, 188-204, and Mike McNamee, "Olympism, Eurocentricity, and Transcultural Virtues," Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2006, 33, 174-187. McNamee, in particular, points out that opposition to Olympic ideas deemed characteristically Eurocentric can easily be found within the European literature.
(7) In at least one of his early writings, Descartes used the pseudonym "Polybius, citizen of the world." R. Descartes, "Preliminaries," in J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, eds., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1985), 2 n.1.
(8) R. Descartes, "Discourse on Method" VI.1, in J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, eds., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. I, 111.
(9) See, for example, H. Reid, "Contests of Truth: Ancient Olympic Games and the Origin of Hellenic Philosophy," in From Athens to Beijing: West meets East in the Olympic Games, eds. S. Brownell, forthcoming 2010.
(10) Laozi, "Daodejing" 1.1., translated by P. Ivanhoe in P. Ivanhoe, and B. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001). All quotations from the Daodejing are from this source unless otherwise indicated.
(11) Sarah Allan, "Introduction" in Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching trans. D.C. Lau (New York: Everyman, 1994), xxi. Experience teaching the text suggests that translations vary dramatically, and the only way to get at the variety of possible interpretations is to consult several of them.
(12) Zhangzui qtd. in Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (Stanford: Stanford U.P., 1939), 10.
(13) Parry, "Sport and Olympism" argues that Olympic values can fit the bill: "Each one of these values, being articulated at a high level of generality, will admit of a wide range of interpretation, but they nevertheless provide a framework that can be agreed on by social groups with very differing commitments" (192).
(14) See C. Evangeliou, "Philosophy, Human Wonder and Hellenic Logos," Skepsis II (1991), 29-41.
(15) Socrates' statement is at Apology 23b. The story about Pythagoras comes from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks (Cambridge, MA: Loeb, 1972), 1.12.
(16) The origin of such a crusade for universal truth may be traced back to early Christianity and its faith in the One true God and the one and only true way of salvation through Jesus Christ. See Evangeliou, Hellenic Philosophy, 64-74.
(17) Laozi, Daodejing, 71.
(18) Confucius, Analects trans. E. Slingerland (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 5.28: "In any village of ten households there are surely those who are as dutiful or trustworthy as I am, but there is no-one who matches my love of learning." All quotations from the Analects are from this source unless otherwise indicated.
(19) Confucius, Analects 17.8 "Loving Goodness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of foolishness. Loving wisdom without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of deviance. Loving trustworthiness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of harmful rigidity. Loving uprightness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of intolerance. Loving courage without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of unruliness. Loving resoluteness without balancing it with a love for learning will result in the vice of willfulness."
(20) Confucius, Analects, trans. A. Waley (New York: Vintage, 1989.) 9.7. Socrates expresses a similar willingness to discuss with anyone.
(21) Fundamental Principle of Olympism #4, Olympic Charter, 11.
(22) Besides the emulation of worthy models, Confucian virtue is shaped by the sincere practice of ritual (li). Ritual promotes virtue by putting the practitioner in the right state of mind--that is by cultivating the kinds of attitudes that constitute jen itself. Ritual functions as a tool to shape and constrain a person's natural exuberance and desire (Analects 1.2, 6.27, 8.2, and 9.1). Specifically, it requires a person to subordinate personal desires and interests to something larger. From the Eastern point of view, however, such flexibility better serves the ideal: "When it comes to being Good," says Confucius, "defer to no one, not ever your teacher" 15.36.
(23) This is especially important in an age where the medal count is so closely linked to population and GDP that most countries in the world cannot hope for Olympic success in the conventional sense. See A. Bernard and M. Busse, "Who Wins the Olympic Games: Economic Resources and Medal Totals," The Review of Economics and Statistics (August, 2000) 1-16. See also A. Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (Stanford: Stanford U.P., 1939), 36: "Success, however, is a theme seldom dealt with in the Analects; for it is well known that the Way 'does not prevail in the world,' and the merits of the true chun-tzu are not such as the world is likely to recognize or reward."
(24) Confucius, Analects 15.37. See also Analects 19.11: "Zixia said, 'As long as one does not transgress the bounds when it comes to important Virtues, it is permissible to cross the line here and there when it comes to minor virtues.'" Mencius 4A17 illustrates with this example: "Chunyu Kun said, 'That men and women should not touch in handing something to one another--is that the ritual?'/Mengzi said, 'It is the ritual.'/Chunyu Kun said, 'If your sister-in-law were drowning, would you pull her out with your hand?'/Mengzi said, 'To not pull your sister-in-law out when she is drowning is to be a beast. That men and women should not touch in handing something to one another is the ritual, but if your sister-in-law is drowning, to pull her out with your hand is discretion."
(25) Fundamental Principle of Olympism #1, Olympic Charter, 11.
(26) R. Descartes, "Rules for the Direction of the Mind" #13, in J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, eds., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. I, 51.
(27) The addition of "will" probably reflects contemporary ethical discussions about human will as the seat of moral responsibility.
(28) R. Descartes, "Second Meditation" 25, in J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, eds., The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. II, 17. Note that "I think therefore I exist" is a paraphrase of Descartes main point in the Second Meditation, it is not an exact quotation. I cannot resist sharing an anecdote here. While giving a series of lectures on philosophy of sport in Beijing, I asked the class whether anyone had heard of Descartes. A Chinese student raised her hand and said, "We think therefore we exist." I was delighted both that she could actually quote Descartes, and that she had added an Eastern spin by replacing the individual "I" with a collective "we."
(29) True to his Christian upbringing, Descartes associated mind with nonphysical spiritual substance, and even found a way to keep his God atop the hierarchy. Descartes, "Third Meditation," ibid.
(30) It has more to do with social hierarchy and values; athletes and martial artists alike were not among the highest caste.
(31) Akio Inoue, "Critique of Modern Olympism: A Voice from the East" in G. Pfister and L. Yueye eds, Sports--The East and the West (Sant Agustin, Germany: Academia Verlag, 1999) 163-7, 165.
(32) See A. Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, 44.
(33) S. Brownell, Training the Body for China (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), 125: "They make use of a principle recognized by Confucius fifteen hundred years before Bourdieu: when structured body movements are assigned symbolic and moral significance, and are repeated often enough, they generate a moral orientation toward the world that is habitual because the body as a mnemonic device serves to reinforce it."
(34) "Zhaungzi" in P. Ivanhoe, and B. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001), 365. All quotations from the Zhuaungzi are from this source unless otherwise indicated.
(35) For Homer, the psyche was life itself and the word for body, soma, signified a corpse--a body lacking in movement because its psyche had escaped it at death. Plato uses the word soma to signify living bodies and he considers the psyche to be the seat of reason, but he doesn't seem to have abandoned the idea that the psyche, and most specifically the spirited part of the soul, thymos, is what moves the body. For an excellent discussion of these terms and ideas, see B. Snell, The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, translated by T. G. Rosenmeyer (New York: Dover, 1982), 8-22.
(36) See H. Reid, "Sport and Moral Education in Plato's Republic." Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 34, no. 22 (2007), 160-175.
(37) Fundamental Principle of Olympism #1, Olympic Charter, 11
(38) I. Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals trans. J. Ellington (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 421.
(39) Ibid., 411: "... principles should be derived from the universal concept of a rational being in general, since moral laws should hold for every rational being as such."
(40) See: I. Kant, "On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns" in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. J. Ellington (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 63-7.
(41) Cogito is shorthand for "I think, therefore I am" or in Latin, "cogito ergo sum." Descartes identified this statement as the one irrefutable thing he could claim to know with certainty.
(42) Laozi, Daodejing 57 (trans. Addiss & Lombardo).
(43) Confucius, Analects 4.11.
(44) The exception that proves the rule of ancient Chinese philosophy's focus on virtue ethics is a tradition called "Legalism" which rejects the virtue-based approach of Confucianism and Daoism, and focuses precisely on law and punishment. See A. Waley, Three Ways of Thought, 152-196.
(45) Mencius 2A6 in P. Ivanhoe, and B. Van Norden, eds. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001). The entire passage reads as follows: "From this we can see that if one is without the heart of compassion, one is not a human. If one is without the heart of disdain, one is not a human. If one is without the heart of deference, one is not a human. If one is not without the heart of approval and disapproval, one is not a human. The heart of compassion is the sprout of benevolence. The heart of disdain is the sprout of righteousness. The heart of deference is the sprout of propriety. The heart of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom. People having these four sprouts is like having four limbs. To have these four sprouts and to say of oneself that one is unable to be virtuous is to steal from oneself. To say that one's ruler is unable to be virtuous is to steal from one's ruler. In general, having these four sprouts within oneself, if one knows to fill them all out, it will be like a fire starting up, a spring breaking through! If one can merely fill them out, they will be sufficient to care for all within the Four Seas. If one merely fails to fill them out, they will be insufficient to serve one's parents." (All quotations from the Mencius are from this source unless otherwise indicated.)
(46) Confucius Analects 7.22. See also Analects 4.17: "When you see someone who is worthy, concentrate on becoming their equal; when you see someone who is unworthy, use this as an opportunity to look within yourself.
(47) Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates, trans. GMA Grube (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1975), 29d.
(48) Epictetus, Handbook, #1.
(49) Confucius Analects 14.32 (Waley trans.) See also Analects 1.1, "To remain unsoured even though one's merits are unrecognized by others, is that not after all what is expected of a gentleman?" Analects 1.16: "The Master said, (the good man) does not grieve that other people do not recognize his merits. His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognize theirs." and Analects 15.18: "The Master said, A gentleman is distressed by his own lack of capacity; he is never distressed at the failure of others to recognize his merits" (all Waley translations).
(50) Laozi, Daodejing, 46, 10 (trans. P. Ivanhoe). The "desire to acquire" may be compared to the Hellenic idea of greed or pleonexia.
(51) McNamee touts the cultural transcendence of Olympic virtues in "Olympism, Eurocentricity, and Transcultural Virtues" 180-85.
(52) Confucius, Analects 6.20 (Waley trans.)
(53) Plato, Republic 364d. From Hesiod, Works and Days 287-89, with some modification.
(54) This is often called Plato's denial of "akrasia" (weakness of will). Socrates' argues at Protagoras 355a ff. that if an agent has true knowledge of the right thing to do, he could not help but do it.
(55) Confucius, Analects 2.4: "At fifteen I set my mind upon learning; at thirty, I took my place in society; at forty, I became free of doubts; at fifty, I understood Heaven's Mandate (ming); at sixty, my ear was attuned; and at seventy, I could follow my heart's desire without overstepping the bounds of propriety."
(56) Laozi, Daodejing, 33 (trans. P. Ivanhoe).
(57) Fundamental Principle of Olympism #2, Olympic Charter, 11.
(58) T. Hobbes, Leviathan Parts One and Two (Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, 1958), 107.
(59) Clearly these ideal states differ significantly from one another, but they are both regarded by their proponents as "natural." In Confucius' case, society seems like a natural human state, whereas Daoists tend to view society as corrupting and imagine a more hermitlike state as natural for humanity.
(60) Laozi, Daodejing 68 (trans Addiss & Lombardo).
(61) Laozi, Daodejing 43 (trans. P. Ivanhoe).
(62) Laozi, Daodejing 30 (trans Addiss & Lombardo).
(63) Confucius, Analects 2.3. The rest of the passage reads: "If however, you guide them with Virtue, and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves."
(64) G. Lloyd, Ancient Worlds, Modern Reflections (New York: Oxford UP, 2004), 45: "Rather, the focus of Chinese attention was usually on persuading the ruler or his ministers or those in positions of power or influence--and to achieve this end, of winning people round, without being seen to be manipulative."
(65) Confucius, Analects 15.14 (Waley trans.).
(66) See Confucius 13.4: "When a ruler loves ritual propriety, then none among his people will dare to be disrespectful. When a ruler loves rightness, then none among his people will dare not to obey. When a ruler loves trustworthiness, then none of his people will dare not to be honest. The mere existence of such a ruler would cause the common people throughout the world to bundle their children on their backs and seek him out. Of what use then is the study of agriculture," and 13.6: "when the ruler is correct, his will is put into effect without the need for official orders. When a ruler's person is not correct, he will not be obeyed no matter how many orders he issues."
(67) Confucius, Analects 4.25 (Waley trans.).
(68) Confucius, Analects 12.19.
(69) Examples that come to mind include the previously discussed issue of "amateurism," the ongoing battle against doping, and the occasional exclusion of countries for political reasons, such as South Africa during Apartheid.
(70) Lloyd, Ancient Reflections, 163. "Along with a strong sense of the objectivity of phusis, nature, went different views of what was often its antonym, where the term nomos covered laws, customs, conventions."
(71) Aristotle, Politics, trans. C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), 1253a1-3.
(72) ibid., 1280b5-12.
(73) Plato's Republic postulates three social classes that reflect this tripartite theory of the soul. The connection between virtue and planetary movement is found in Timaeus 47bc, 90d.
(74) See IOC Sport and Environment Commission, Olympic Movement's Agenda 21: Sport for Sustainable Development (Lausanne: IOC, 1996).
(75) Fundamental Principle of Olympism #4, Olympic Charter, 11.
(76) Confucius, Analects 3.2.
(77) Mencius, in P. Ivanhoe, and B. Van Norden, eds. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001) 1A1.
(78) An argument also made by Parry, "Sport and Olympism" 201-2.
(79) See S. Ebrey, qtd in Brownell Training the Body, 241: "The human body was perceived as intimately connected with the world around it: the body and the environment mutually influenced each other, each being permeated with essences that circulated throughout the cosmos. The most important influence on both the cosmos and the body was the balance of yin and yang, which were the source of the universe, of life and death, and of health and illness in the individual parts and organs of the body."
(80) Mencius, quoted in Waley, Three Ways of Thought, 91. Unfortunatley, some of our modern rulers seem oblivious to this; see Evangeliou, Themata Politica: Hellenic and Euro-Atlantic, (CSP, 2008), especially chapters 29-32.
Heather Reid *
* Heather Reid is Professor of Philosophy at Morningside University, Sioux City, Iowa, USA.
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|Publication:||Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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