Guglielmo Ferrero.

Ancient Rome and modern America; a comparative study of morals and manners online

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have been proposed; now is not the time to discuss the
principal ones. So I will confine myself to expounding
to you that one of these theories which seems to me
the simplest, the most ingenious, and the most useful
for the resolution of the problem which we have set
ourselves in connection with sport. It is the theory
of the limits. All human activities ought to be
reciprocal limits.

Take art and morality for instance: What relation
ought they to bear to each other? The question has
been discussed with ardour. Artists, and many of
their friends, have tried to postulate a violent schism
between the two, proclaiming that art has the right to
search for beauty wherever she can find it, without
bothering herself about morality. Super-moralists, on
the contrary, have tried to make art the slave of
morality, asserting that the former ought to be always
ready to obey its orders and to sacrifice herself to its
demands. But would it not be more reasonable and
more human to say that art and morality are reciprocal
limits? Morality is one of art's limits; without wishing
to make her its slave, it can and must prevent her from
seeking beauty in certain subjects and certain incidents
which would be dangerous to morals or to the pure-
mindedness of the public. The forms of beauty are so
numerous. Why should not art refrain for moral reasons
from seeking for some of them? But art on her side

The Limit of Sport 337

is a limit of morality ; she is in no way anxious to domi-
nate it, but she can and must prevent morality from
going astray in its search for perfection. Those who
are familiar with history know that a spice of ar-
tistic taste has always been the best remedy for the
most dangerous or the most repugnant excesses of

Let us take another example. A question which has
much exercised men's minds is whether art and science
ought to set before themselves practical ends, or whether
they are in themselves ends. There are people who
would like to subordinate the rest of the world to art
and to science. This entails requiring of art and
science that they should seek beauty and truth without
having in view any utilitarian end, without troubling
themselves to ask whether they are useful or hurtful to
man. Others again propose to subordinate art and
science to the rest of the world, asserting that every
art and every science which does not serve practical
ends is a waste of time and trouble. Here, too, it
seems to me that it would be more human to say that
science and art seek truth and beauty, not utility.
Utility, then, is not the end of art and of science;
but it is one of their limits. The truths which the
human mind can discover, like the forms of beauty
which it can create, are infinite.

Is it strange, then, that man, unable to discover all
the truths or to create all the forms of beauty, should
choose for preference those which, in addition to con-


338 Ancient Rome and Modern America

ferring intellectual or aesthetic pleasure, help him to
live? Can anyone see anything absurd in this? If a
man set to work to build edifices with the sole object of
pleasing the eye through harmonious lines, he could
build them as fancy prompted him; there would be no
limit either to the variety of forms or to the number of
different constructions. Will anybody be found to
maintain that art has the right to fill the world with
beautiful edifices which are of no use for anything?
No, practical considerations have their claim. Even
the epochs in which architecture flourished most bravely
built edifices which, while beautiful to look at, served
also definite ends; and nobody has ever protested
against the limitations which this practical considera-
tion imposed.

Similarly sport must, in my opinion, be considered
as a limit; the limit necessary to the excesses of an
intellectual and sedentary civilisation, which exposes
the nervous system to formidable trials. M. de Couber-
tin has analysed this aspect of modern life so well in his
Essais de psychologic sportive, that I beg leave to quote
one of the numerous fine passages from that book:

La vie moderne n'est plus ni locale ni speciale; tout y
influe sur tout. D'une part la rapidite et la multiplicity
des transports ont fait de 1'homme un etre essentiellement
mobile, pour le quel les distances sont de plus en plus insigni-
fi antes a franchir et sollicitent, par consequent, de frequents
changements de lieu; d'autre part legalisation des points
de depart et la possibilite d'elevations rapides vers le pou-

The Limit of Sport 339

voir et la fortune ont excite les appetits et les ambitions
des masses a un point inconnu jusqu' ici. . . . Ce double
element a transforme de facon fondamentale 1'effort
humain. L 'effort d'autre-fois etait regulier et constant ; une
certaine securite resultant de la stabilite sociale, le pro-
tegeait. Surtout, il n' etait pas cerebral a un degre excessif.
Celui d'aujourd'hui est tout autre. L'inquietude et
1'esperance 1'environnent avec une intensite particuliere.
C'est que 1'echec et la reussite ont de nos jours des con-
sequences enormes. L'homme peut a la fois tout craindre
et tout esperer. De cet etat de chose est nee une agitation
que les transformations de la vie exterieure encouragent et
accroissent. Au dedans et au dehors le cerveau est entre-
tenu dans une sorte d' ebullition incessante. Les points de
vue, les aspects des choses, les combinaisons, les possibilites,
tant pour les individus que pour les collectivites, se succedent
si rapidement qu'il faut pour en tenir compte et les uti-
lises au besoin se tenir toujours en eveil et comme en une
mobilisation permanente.

This picture of modern life is perfect. Never has
man lived in such a state of permanent and growing
excitement. If the men of the ancient world could
come to life again, their first impression, you may be
sure, would be that mankind had gone mad. It is this
excitement which has produced the formidable explo-
sion of energy that we are witnessing on our little planet,
which for ages had lived in comparative tranquillity.
But has not this formidable tension of the world-soul
itself need of limits? Can we conceive its being allowed
to increase indefinitely until the time when the nervous
system breaks down as inevitably it must? Can we
conceive our perpetual agitation being left without any

34 Ancient Rome and Modern America

limit save exhaustion, insanity, or death? The question
answers itself. The limits to the over-excitement of
our nerves raise one of the most serious problems of our
epoch; a problem with a thousand different aspects,
which involves morals as well as hygiene, politics as
well as the intellectual life. Now sport may be one of
these limits, if it be practised again I borrow from M.
de Coubertin with calmness, Vil devient cet empire
du Matin Calme d'ou les deux vampires de notre
civilisation la hate et la foule sont chasses"; if it
be made, not one more in the long list of causes of
excitement and exhaustion, but a health-giving diver-
sion, a beneficent force capable of spraying the nerves
with that divine ambrosia, now so rare and so precious
healthy sleep and peace of mind. No one who is
convinced of the supreme necessity for limits can doubt
that this conception of sport is the truest, worthiest,
and most beneficial; indeed, the only one that is in its
turn susceptible of a limit and runs no risk of losing it-
self in excesses, those excesses of sport, in its quality
of spectacle for the masses, whose brutalising and
corrupt effects are notorious.

A balancing force, a counterpoise to the intellectual
excesses of a sedentary, nervous civilisation which is
agitated by a perpetual excitement, that is what sport
ought to be. I hasten to add that I cannot claim the
credit for this definition, not that it is in itself a very
striking discovery. An opponent might even say that
it is almost a platitude; a special application of that

The Limit of Sport 341

principle which is as old as the hills, and which the
Greeks expressed in their formula, pvfikv ayav, no-
thing in excess. Granted; but it is sometimes a good
thing to repeat platitudes, for human wisdom is not
an inexhaustible mine of ever-new principles and ideas.
Its treasure-house is stored with platitudes, which have
only become such because man is always requiring their
repetition. Besides, when questions touching moral
and social life are under discussion, the intellectual
point of view is not by any means the most important.
Those principles of wisdom which seem the easiest
and simplest to announce are not those which are always
the simplest in practice, and the easiest to carry into
execution. ^Bev ayav nothing in excess has been
to men the cry of wisdom since the beginning of time.
Is it not the clearest and the simplest of principles?
Need one be a profound philosopher to understand that
moderation in the use of everything, even of good things,
is necessary? This truth is indeed one which the
simplest mind is capable of understanding. Yet life
is but an eternal struggle against excesses of all sorts, to
which man is continually tempted to give way. Why?
Because though the precept be clear and evident, to
apply it man has to struggle with his passions, with his
own interests, and those of others, and with the illusions
and errors that assail him on all sides. Consequently,
he must be under no illusion.

You are at one in a conception of sport which is the
noblest and wisest possible, because it regards sport

342 Ancient Rome and Modern America

as a balancing force between the diverse elements of
social life. You band together and join forces in order
to popularise this conception. It is a useful and a wise
task ; but it will expose you to wearisome struggles, and
you must be prepared for many a bitter disappoint-
ment. In every epoch, those who have wished to
introduce equilibrium into life have had to struggle
against this mysterious force which drives men into
every excess. But in no epoch and in no civilisation
perhaps has this struggle been so difficult and weari-
some as it is in contemporary civilisation. It is a
phenomenon which few people nowadays take clearly
and precisely into account; but which is, nevertheless,
the keystone of the greatest difficulties by which our
civilisation is beset. Yes, there is no doubt about it, we
are living at an extraordinary crisis in history. Man
has never been so powerful, so wise, so rich, so sure of
himself and of his future. He has dared to lift his eyes
and gaze steadily at the sombre mystery of things,
before which he had for so many centuries bowed his
head in trembling. He has conquered the world and
torn from it its most recondite treasures. He has cast
aside all the supports which sustained our ancestors in
their toilsome march through life traditions, religions,
beliefs, all the principles of unquestioning obedience.
He had succeeded to a certain degree in conquering
space and time. All the civilisations which preceded the
French Revolution seem, if we compare them with ours,
small, limited, timid, poor, and inadequate.

The Limit of Sport 343

Yet modern man does not seem to have any very
distinct and sure consciousness of his actual greatness.
He may be elated by an occasional fit of glowing pride,
but as often as not he is discontented. He grumbles;
he sincerely deplores the vices and imperfections of his
day. A broad and deep current of pessimism flows
through the fabulous wealth and the wonders of our
times. Why? Because our civilisation is by the very na-
ture of its constitution unable to thrive save on excesses ;
and it can thrive only on excesses because it has acquired
so much power by overturning nearly all the limits with-
in which previous civilisations had confined themselves.

How marvellous an epic, but how disquieting in its
novelty and its grandeur, is this gradual awakening of
human daring and pride, of which the history of the last
four centuries is full! For its first appearance dates
back to the great geographical discoveries of the
fifteenth century, and to that which was the greatest
of all those discoveries America.

A few years later saw the astronomic revolution.
Ancient thought, after long deliberation, had decided to
enclose the universe in a confined system, with estab-
lished limits. Copernicus took no notice of these limits,
and launched out in thought into the infinite. The
impression produced on the men of the sixteenth cen-
tury by these two great events was profound. The
bold spirits who had dared to cross the two limits con-
sidered insuperable on earth and in the sky had come
back with a rich booty of land and stars.

344 Ancient Rome and Modern America

Was the world then greater and man more powerful
than the ancients had thought, and had the ancients
been wrong in seeking to limit the efforts of human
genius so strictly? Gradually, during the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, the effort of the human spirit
to free itself from the ancient limits continued, increased,
and became bolder and more methodical. Subtle and
ingenious philosophies delivered masked but clear
attacks on the limits which marked the bounds of
Good and Evil, Truth and Error; on tradition, on
century-old institutions, on authority in all its forms.
They pretended to wish to ascertain whether the limits
were solidly planted in the right place; but in reality
they undermined their foundations. Little by little an
idea crept into men's minds, an idea which was the
negation of all the limits within which the world had
lived until then; an idea which was bound to upset the
conception of social and moral life; the idea of liberty,
applied to religion, culture, and politics. At the same
time, by means of science and fire, man sought very
timidly, if not to free himself from, at least to enlarge,
the Umits which nature seemed to have set to his forces.
The strata of coal began to be discovered and
exploited. Men set themselves to invent machines
more complicated and more rapid than those of which
their fathers made use; the steam-engine, the foun-
tainhead of all the formidable agitation which has
invaded the world, made its appearance; the great
era of iron and of fire began. And lo! finally a

The Limit of Sport 345

formidable cataclysm, of which man had never seen
the like in a few years, upset traditions, and wrought
havoc amongst states, institutions, and old-estab-
lished laws. To the strains of the Marseillaise, on
the ruins of the Bastile, on the fields of Marengo and
Austerlitz, the work sketched out by Columbus and
Copernicus, continued by Galileo, Descartes, Voltaire,
Rousseau, and Kant, was completed. Man arose,
tore up, and overturned all the ancient limits and
planted the new ones with his own hands, at his own
good pleasure, not only for himself but also for the
authorities of Heaven and earth, who had until then
imposed their limits upon him.

Then began the extraordinary drama of which we
are the spectators. Rich, wise, and free, armed with
fire and science, mistress of a large part of the earth
and, in particular, of a continent so vast and rich as
America, irked no longer by any limit, not by extent
nor by weight nor by matter and its laws which it has
conquered, thanks to discoveries and to machines, nor
by God, whom it has banished to the infinite, itself
usurping His earthly throne, our civilisation expanded
in every direction, as it were, carried away by the in-
toxication of the unlimited. Man rose erect like a giant,
to face nature and the past ; and like a giant whom
none can resist he swept on and conquered the world.

Like a giant, indeed, but like a giant who totters at
every step. This civilisation of ours has become so
powerful because it has overturned all the limits; but

34 6 Ancient Rome and Modern America

just because it has overturned nearly all the limits, it
has become increasingly difficult for it to limit itself
in the good as well as in the bad ; I mean to say, that the
bad tends to become worse, and the good to become bad.
If the strength of the forces of creation and initiative is
in our epoch greater than ever it was in any previous
epoch, the same may be said of the weakness of the forces
of equilibrium, whose function it is to check the most
dangerous exaggerations and excesses. What an
interesting comparison might be made between the
present and the past from this point of view; and how
many instances could be cited in proof of this asser-
tion! I shall instance just one, a simple and homely,
but clear, one. Once delivered from all the bonds which
limited his efforts of yore, man has succeeded in the
last century in creating an abundance of material
goods such as the world had never thought possible
even when it dreamed of the Terrestrial Paradise, the
Golden Age, and the Garden of the Hesperides; all of
them myths in which man had been pleased, during
centuries of the life of struggle, to objectify his most
ardent desires. It is all very well for men of the present
day to complain that life is difficult and full of struggles.
Those who know the difficulties which beset preceding
centuries will feel a strong temptation to laugh at their
complaints. The modern world has contrived abun-
dance in everything; in the necessities of life, such as
bread, and in things which become very dangerous
when they are over-abundant, like alcoholic drinks,

The Limit of Sport 347

tobacco, and all stimulants. Many are the reproaches
hurled against our epoch on the score of the increase in
alcoholism; many are the remedies devised for this evil.
But would not the only and the simplest remedy be
that adopted by our ancestors, the limitation of the
production of liquors? The masses would no longer
be able to poison themselves when the quantity of
these liquors was scarcely sufficient as it used to be
for the requirements of a moderate consumption.
The world, on the contrary, will continue to get glori-
ously drunk, so long as the production of wine, beer,
and spirits increases. Now why is it that this, the
only efficacious remedy, is just the one which our
epoch cannot bring itself to apply? Why do we see
everywhere governments taking measures of more or
less efficacy against alcoholism and at the same time
contributing, directly or indirectly, to the increase in
the production of alcoholic drinks?

The reason is, that nothing is more difficult for our
civilisation than to impose a limit on anything. Its
impetus carries it too far in everything. It is almost
a law of its constitution. We have, to a great extent,
lost the sense of just measure, because we have weak-
ened or destroyed nearly all the authorities and moral
forces which used to make the limits respected. Our
greatness and our power are partly due to disequi-
librium ; and often enough we are called on to pay the
tragic penalty for this at the moment when we least
expect the call.

34 8 Ancient Rome and Modern America

This is, however, a long digression, and you may with
reason ask me to return to the matter which interests
us. I have not lost sight of it ; for this digression has a
very close connection with our subject.

This epoch which misuses everything, misuses and
will misuse sport. It will make it it has already
begun to make it one more of the elements of excite-
ment, of competition, and of exhaustion, already alas!
only too numerous. No illusions are possible on this
score. It might even be said that sport is one of the
things of which our epoch will probably make the
greatest misuse. History justifies us in this fear, for
it proves to us that even those civilisations, like the
Greek and Roman, which succeeded in limiting them-
selves in everything else, misused games. Is it likely
that our civilisation, which misuses toilsome activities
like work, will easily preserve a just measure in amuse-
ments? Besides, you have only to look round you to
see interests forming groups, coalitions, and organi-
sations for the purpose of exploiting, in this field also,
the morbid need for excitement which has taken hold
of the masses; their desire for amusements and dis-
tractions and even their incorrigible weakness for
games of chance. Those, then, who wish to purge sport
of its elements of haste and crowd, to transform it I
borrow once more M. de Coubertin's happy phrase
into the "Empire du Matin Calme,' will have a
singularly difficult task before them. If, however, the
task is difficult, it is for that all the nobler. The

The Limit of Sport 349

modern world has need, great and urgent need, of bal-
ance, measure, and harmony, if it is not to run the risk
of being stifled by the excess of its energy. Do not let
yourselves be deceived by its assurance, its pride, the
blind confidence in its powers which it affects, the
haughty challenge it so often throws to the humble
wisdom of past generations. We are richer, wiser, more
powerful than were our grandfathers. But because we
have discovered America and invented railways we
have not become demi-gods; we are still only men.
All the weaknesses of human nature which the moralists
of olden times discovered and analysed so subtly still
subsist in us, and still distract us ; we must pay nature,
the great equaliser, the price for the advantages secured
to us by the sum of the work of preceding generations ;
and many are the forms in which that payment is made.
Nervous illnesses, insanity, and suicides are on the
increase. Sterility is spreading, especially in the
peoples and countries that have been most highly
favoured by the development of modern civilisation.
A discontent as deep as it is unreasonable seems to
pervade the world, with each improvement in the
conditions of every class. One might say that man has
become insatiable. The more blessings are heaped
upon him, the more he complains. The more he
possesses, the more he thinks himself poor and needy.
The fewer are the causes for grief and the dangers
around him, the more wretched he feels. These
apparent paradoxes, these inexplicable contradictions

350 Ancient Rome and Modern America

are only the warnings life utters to remind men of the
^Y)Bh> afav of ancient wisdom. The modern world suf-
fers from the excesses to which it abandons itself,
even if it will not acknowledge this fact. Those who
try to recall the modern world to a more harmonious
ideal of life do it a service whose usefulness is most
strikingly proved by the attitude of resentment it
assumes towards their efforts.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I feel somewhat ashamed
that my contribution to your work must be merely
these few general considerations. Dissertations on
the ends to be aimed at are easy enough to con-
coct, but the task is apt to be a theoretical one
of little enough utility. The important thing in all
the great social problems is the means of attaining
those ends. That is the point upon which all our
efforts, all our intelligence, all our wills, must con-
verge. I cannot be of any use to you in that, by
reason of my incompetence. I can only attend this
congress as an onlooker anxious to learn, corne not to
purvey information but to convey it away. I must
then confine myself at the conclusion of my speech to
wishing your task and your labours all the success
which your energy, your enthusiasm, and your faith
deserve. But this wish of mine, though sterile in
itself, owing to my inability to take an active part in
your work, is none the less cordial. By birth, by
natural tendencies, and by education, I belong to a
culture which has always tended to harmony, modera-

The Limit of Sport 351

tion, and equilibrium. I have passed a portion of my
life in studying the ancient civilisations which created
so many beautiful and profound things because they
succeeded in limiting themselves. I have visited and
studied also those vast new civilisations on the other
side of the Atlantic, which seem to be aiming at
the realisation of the perfect type of the unlimited

It is not possible to have been born in Italy, to have
studied ancient civilisations, and to have examined
at first hand the tendencies of modern civilisation in
Europe and America, without being convinced that our
epoch is allowing itself to be seduced by too material
and gross a conception of progress. Progress cannot be
merely the accumulation of wealth, accelerated by the
inventions and great discoveries of science, nor the
hurried transformation of everything, the perpetual
change which is the mania of our epoch. There is,

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Online LibraryGuglielmo FerreroAncient Rome and modern America; a comparative study of morals and manners → online text (page 21 of 22)