Submitted by Manfred Messing
Manfred Messing , Dr.phil, sciences , Prof. em. at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz for Sport Sociologie

Hans Lenk, German Olympic Gold Medallist in Rome and acknowledged sport philosopher had stated already in 1972 (p. 15) that the Olympic aims are characterized by a cultural “multi-compatibility.” This includes the proposition, that the Olympic Idea is compatible with the different world religions and dominant philosophical and ideological systems. However, this proposition was not proved in concrete detail. Therefore the researchers took the Olympic Games in Beijing as an impulse to sketch out a comparison of the philosophies of Confucius and Coubertin. The researchers admit that such a comparison is connected with methodological problems, which are not discussed here. One is the assumption, that Confucianism is still influential in China, even if in the Peoples Republic of China the official ideological base is a communist one.

The question is, how far Confucianism corresponds with the main ideas of Coubertin’s Olympic philosophy? Is it true, what Rudyard Kipling writes in the first two lines of his ballad of East and West: “…East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat…”?

It is assumed, that high agreement between Coubertin and Confucius exists, if
1. The very concrete formulations show conformity.
2. Important elements of the two concepts are directly exchangeable;
3. Elements of one philosophical system fill up a gap, being a deficiency of the other.
4. The context of these elements is exchangeable (e.g. a relation to a ritualized physical contest).
Was Coubertin’s Personal Motto Derived from Confucius’ Teachings?

A test of the first question we owe to Susan Brownell, University of Missouri, who wrote Norbert Müller (2008, January 19), that she wonders if the phrase “voir loin, parler franc, agir ferme,” which is on the “ex libris” emblem that Coubertin put into his books, was inspired by a similar Chinese phrase, appearing in the “Way of the Mean” (Zhong Yong), one of the sections of the “Book of Rites” namely: “Study (learn) broadly, ask carefully, think prudently, distinguish (argue) clearly, act sincerely (earnestly, seriously)” (citation according to Brownell).

In the translation by James Legge (1885), it is said: He [the man who wants to have a clear understanding of what is good] “extensively studies what is good; inquires accurately about it; thinks carefully over it; clearly discriminates it; and vigorously practices it” (p. 318).

Brownell commented:
“Since the Zhong Yong was translated by Jesuits into Latin in the 17th century and into French in the late 19th century, it seems to me that he [Coubertin] could have read it while a student, or later.”

Of course there is a probability that Coubertin did read the “Way of the Mean,” because of his educational ethical interest, and of his “eclecticism” (Wirkus, 1987).
In fact, Coubertin had mentioned Confucius several times in his writings:
– Revue mensuelle du Touring-Club de France, March 20th, 1920, pp. 146-150
– Revue Olympique, April 1907 “Aux Champs-Elysées”
– Pedagogie Sportive. Paris, G. Crès, 1922
– Histoire Universelle, Vol. I: Les Empires d’Asie. Aix-en-Provence, 1926-27. Here he gives a concise judgement about Confucius: L’homme est sympathique; la doctrine est pauvre” (p. 56).

Obviously Coubertin did not see the similarities between his own central term “Eurhythmics” and the teachings of Confucius in the “Way of the Mean.” It is therefore doubtful, that Coubertin had more than a superficial knowledge of Confucius’ philosophy.
The probability of borrowing Confucius’ ideas for Coubertin’s own personal motto would be considered high, if three of the five Chinese imperatives would not only appear but follow in the same order. Comparing Coubertin’s phrase with the text from the “Zhong Yong” or – as Legge (1885) translated the title of the book – “The State of Equilibrium and Harmony,” we can see only one equivalent: Practice vigorously: act firmly (p. 300).

In both cases this is the last step in order. The Chinese text makes that explicitly clear by the following admonition, that the scholar should not proceed to the next step, if he has not grasped perfectly the step before.


Translation of Legge Citation of,Brownell Coubertin
1. “extensively studies” study broadly
1. “extensively studies” ask carefully
3. “thinks carefully” think prudently (1. see afar)?
4. “clearly discriminate” distinguish clearly
5. “vigorously practice” act sincerely 3. act firmly
2. speak frankly

The third imperative has a small connotation to “see afar,” because the prudent thinker should be aware of the future consequences of wrong conclusions. However, we stress the meaning of “see afar” as having a wide perspective, considering at least the near future and not only the next day (as the claim for sustainable development implies).

In the Li Gi, careful thinking alone is not enough to foresee the future. That is a result of “self-completion” and “wisdom” (Legge, 1885, p. 321): “It is characteristic of him, who is entirely perfect that he can foreknow” (p. 320)

“Speak frankly” contradicts partly the admonition No. 18 in “The Book Dsong Dsi” (Chapter 6 of Li Gi, p. 155) “Cautious in speaking”: “If you could say something, which would not believed in [by others], so you should better not say it.” On the other hand it is said: “If he [the nobleman] does not believe in the words of others, he should not agree with them.” Of course, according to the rule beforehand others should not say something I cannot agree upon – otherwise the harmony would be disturbed. This is certainly not the meaning of Coubertin’s “Speak frankly.”
On Compatibility of Confucianism with Coubertin’s Olympism

In the following, the focus is on 10 dimensions which are meaningful for Coubertin’s Olympism as well as for the teachings of Confucius. These dimensions are:
1. Metaphysical Orientations
2. Historical Configurations, in which the Philosophies developed
3. Leading Ideas
4. Sources of Inspiration of the Philosophers
5. Recommended Means of Education
6. Aims of Education
7. Main Clients, the Philosophies are addressed to
8. Rank Order of Values
9. Usefulness of Philosophies in Everyday Life
10. Projections of a Future Society

(1) In this section we refer to German texts, which are translated into English by M. Messing. For a more elaborated investigation see: Messing, Müller, and Bohnstedt (2008, pp. 223-248). – As far as the text Li Gi is concerned (including the book, The State of Equilibrium and Harmony), we should be aware, that it is not written by Confucius himself, but contains almost everything, what has grown out of his ideas during the first centuries… (Wilhelm, R., 2007 [1930], p. 23).

A qualitative content analysis of Confucian thought and Coubertin’s Olympic Idea is presented in Table 2. One must be aware of the fact, that common features do not exclude differences, and differences can be variations of the same topic.

1. At a metaphysical level Confucius and Coubertin approximate each other insofar, as their central lifework is inner-worldly directed. Namely in an audience at the Duke Ai of Lu Confucius advises to maintain the customs of sacrifice to serve the gods, but adding skeptically: “However, I don’t know if this will keep away mischief from heaven” (Li Gi, 2007, 132 f.).

Coubertin, who was educated in a gymnasium of Jesuits in Paris, did not found his Olympism on an ascetic Christian teaching. This seems to be logical, because of his model in a polytheistic Greek Antiquity and the universal orientation of his educational program.

Tab. 2: Comparison of two Philosophies

Dimension Confucius (K.) Coubertin (C.)
1. Metaphysical Inner-worldly
orientation, but respect in front of the unexplorable
Inner-worldly oriented
“religion athletae” (C. 137)
2. Historical Configuration Decline of the old order Defeat of France, 1871
3. Leading Idea Harmony Progress and Eurhythmics
Concrete aims Re-establishment of
social order by “rectification of names” (K. 154)
At the beginning: “Rebronzer
la France” (C. 1888),Later: “Brotherhood of body an
spirit” (C. 130)
4. Sources of inspiration
Abstract History History
concrete Old imperial times: “I
follow the morals of Dschou.” (which are still practiced today) (Li Gi, p. 49)
Olympic Competitions in
5. Means of Education
Abstract Master instruction and
his good example, self education
Sports force “to measure and
excess” (C. 66)
Sport education
concrete music Olympic Games as unity
of sports and art
Customs as rituals Rules of sport with
ritual character, Olympic ceremonies

2. Both pedagogical reformers found in social crises of their times causes for their activity: Confucius regrets the decay of the old feudal order and Coubertin the defeat of France in the war of 1870/71, which resulted in the proclamation of the German Empire.
3. Leading ideas of both reformers – harmony and eurhythmics – seem to mean basically the same. Eurhythmics is understood by Coubertin as the “taste for due measure” (1918). This principle is inseparable combined with the Olympic Idea of progress “Citius – Altius – Fortius.” Coubertin in this relation stands in contradiction to Confucius, when he praises passionate sport engagement.

In his own words:
“Mankind has always been passionate, and heaven may protect us from a society, where the expression of over foaming feeling could be forced into a too tight circle of conventions” (180, 21).

The overall aim of bringing about a harmonious equilibrium shall be realized in different ways. As his first action in case of governmental responsibility at the Ruler of Wei Confucius would “rectify the names.” That is, that he would take care that signs and reality would coincide and by this way state affairs would be put in order. The noticed social chaos reminds us of Shakespeare’s sonnet LXVI, where the poet complains about the following inversions of the right order:
“ And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d.
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill (…)”
Coubertin’s way to eurhythmics can be marked at the beginning as “Rebronzer la France,” later as “brotherhood of body and spirit,” “social integration” – concerning the class conflict – and “peaceful internationalism.”

4. Confucius and Coubertin are inspired by looking back at a seemingly better past to construct an ideal model for present time and future. The Chinese finds this model in the Dschou-epoch (11th – 5th century B. C.), the Frenchman in the Olympic competitions of classical Hellas.

6. Abstract aims of Education Spiritual aristocracy Aristocracy through,“perfection of muscles” (C. 37)
concrete Control of passions,
composure, understanding the meaning of rites to stabilize ritual culture,
emotional forming by music
“noble minded and moral,purity, (…) edurance and psychic energy” (C. 116)
7. Main Clients Leading class, civil
8. Rank of Values
Money vs. Honour “His heart (of the noble) is
not for sale.” (Li Gi, 253)
Protect modern sports from
commercialism (C. 9),“disqualify pseudo-amateurs”
(C. 1931, 105)
Way vs. Aim “Harmony is the way on
earth leading to the aim.” (Li Gi, 32)
“Essentially is not to
be victorious, but to have fought in a gallant good way.” (C. 22)
9. Usefulness of Philosophy Without limitations “how many a courageous
swimmer let discourage himself in the floods of human ocean (…)” (C. 57)
10. Future Society Golden era, if “saints
have got the Empire (…)” government by “trustworthyness of goodness” (Li Gi,
135 passim)
“the society of future will,be altruistic, or it will be not exist (…)” (C. 142)

C. = de Coubertin, P. Der Olympische Gedanke. Schorndorf 1967.
C. 1931 = de Coubertin, P. Olympische Erinnerungen. Frankfurt am Main – Berlin 1996 [1931].
K. = Konfuzius. Gespräche (Lün Yü). Kettwig 1989.
Li Gi: Das Buch der Riten, Sitten und Gebräuche. Köln 2007 [1930].
C. 1888, in: Une Campagne de 35 ans. In: Revue de Paris: 30 (1923), 11, p.688.

5. The selected means of education are different: at one side Confucianistic instruction by discourse and right exemplary living of the master, at the other side physical education after an English model and Olympic Games as unity of sports and art to create harmony of excess and measure.
The different educational means – like practiced customs and the rules of sports – have both a ritual character – an example for commonness within the difference.

6. Confucius aims at a spiritual aristocracy, which everybody can attain by master or self education. Coubertin stresses the aristocracy of muscles, which is connected after all with a noble mind – analogous to Confucius.

7. and 8. Aristocracies of spirit and of muscles should not make themselves dependent on money: especially in the case of civil servants – a group which Confucius addressed – the orientation at one’s own interests instead of the common good leads to corruption.
Coubertin rejects the “Mercantilization” of sports and pseudo-amateurs, but in 1931 (“Olympic Memories”) he moderates his rigid defense of an exclusive admission of amateurs to Olympic Games, saying, “that there are many false amateurs, who have to be sanctioned as well as professionals, who deserve indulgence …”

Although in high achievement sports the “Victory-Defeat-Code” (Bette, 2005, p. 172) seems to be the guiding principle, Coubertin underlines, that in life “essentially is not to be victorious, but to have fought in a gallant good way.”
Here he is in principal agreement with Confucius, that “on earth” only the way of harmony leads to any aim.

9. Probably both philosophers understood that only striving for human cultivation is socially useful. However, Coubertin, who propagated the forming of a good character by sports, is realistic enough to know that characteristics shown in sports are difficult to transfer into other spheres. Such limitations in the transfer of virtues could not be found in the analyzed texts of Confucius.

10. The difference should not be exaggerated. In the last analysis Coubertin’s philosophy is about a reform of society by an education directed towards altruism. According to Immanuel Kant “only that one is worth a positive honour, whose actions contain more than he is obliged to do.”
This “more giving than receiving” corresponds in its extreme form with the type of a “saint,” who sacrifices himself/or herself for a community. Goodness is a voluntary limitation of selfishness and origin of harmony. In that sense we can understand the projection of a “Golden Age,” where “saints rule the Empire” by Bo I, clerk of the Ruler of Yü. According to Bo I, in Chinese antiquity such characters were “organizers of a world empire,” who regulated state and people “on the base of mutuality” (Li Gi, p. 135). Within the hierarchy of values they appreciated “on top the goodness and then the rank order, followed by strength, beauty, archery and coach-driving.”

The often-exaggerated contrast of Eastern and Western thought seems here to be mitigated with regards to Plato’s “Rule of Philosophers” as a Western counterpart. According to Kant the “last determination of mankind (…)” is “the greatest moral perfection,” based on freedom and attained by education. In spite of many differences, Confucius and Coubertin stand for two ways of man’s “cultivation.”

Therefore, we can follow the conclusion of Li-Hong Hsu (2012), from Da-Yeh University in Taiwan, that “it would be inappropriate and unfair to assume that the ideals of Western oriented Modern Olympism and East Asian Confucianism have nothing in common for us to learn and inform from each other.

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