“Health is a divine gift, and the care of the body is a sacred duty, to neglect which is to sin.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
There is a stereotype figure of the old-time strongman that we will have to part with when thinking about Eugen Sandow. I think most people imagine a brutish, hulking man, who has been naturally endowed with a larger frame and muscles, and therefore, has relied upon his body rather than his mind all his life. He works as a performer because it is a better alternative to being a rock breaker or some other manual labor for which he would be suited, and for which he would get none of the attention he otherwise receives each night.
Once you begin to read the works of Eugen Sandow, you see that he stands in contrast to that stereotype. He is articulate and thoughtful, not only about strength building, but even the effects of weakness and disease on society and how a strong body can lead to a strong mind, and serve as an underpinning for moral behavior.
Sandow on Society at the Turn of the 20th Century
“Civilisation has, indeed, become a slaughtering-car crowned by a grinning effigy of Comfort, before which man blindly and voluntarily hurls himself in his own ignorance.” – Eugen Sandow, Life is Movement
Lessons the War Has Taught Us
After WWI, England, Sandow’s adopted home, found that the war would have ended much sooner and been won more handedly if they had more men in fighting condition. It was estimated that over 1 million men were rejected due to simply being terribly unfit, and you really had to be unfit not to make it into the war at that time. These men were labeled “ The Lost Army of the Rejected“. The lessons of Physical Culture and its relevance in society is something Sandow had stressed years before, but was taken without heed. As Prime Minister Lloyd George states in a speech about the future of the British Empire, at Manchester:
“We have had and compiled statistics as to the health of the people between the ages of eighteen and forty-two. Now that is the age of fitness, the age of strength. You have three grades, Al, B2, and C3, and all I can tell you is this, that the results of these examinations are startling, and I do not mind using the word appalling. I hardly dare tell you the results of same.” – David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England, 1863 – 1945
In his later years Sandow’s system of exercise became the standard for many police and military organizations as well as schools. Anywhere the British Empire had authority (such as India and Australia) Sandow would go and teach his methods.
The Change in Culture and Impact on Health
While society was racing forward towards automation and ease on the coat tails of the Industrial Revolution, Sandow was strongly cautioning against the sedentary lifestyle that was quickly becoming normal. The thoughts Sandow shared (below) prior to 1900 have unfortunately become the state of our everyday life.
“It is interesting to glance back through the generations, even as far as the ancients. If we stop midway back we find that we drive where our ancestors walked; we are replacing the stairs with the lift; the automobile is displacing the bicycle; we favour indoor amusements rather than outdoor games and contests. In short, we are in dangers of becoming a race of people whose sole physical exertion will consist in pressing buttons and turning levers.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
Strength is Necessary for a Moral Society
“Its (exercise) moral effect is no less obvious, for it tends to wholesome-mindedness and the tonic bracing of the whole man.” – Eugen Sandow, The System of Physical Training
It has been well documented that children who play sports are less likely to get into all sorts of trouble and do better in many areas in life than those who neglect physical activity. There is something about building up yourself, taking your body and health seriously, that cautions us from going down bad paths. Not only this, but exercise awakens the mind and builds confidence. Sandow was aware of this and promoted exercise and strength building for the whole of its benefits on a person, not just to make one strong.
He quotes Australian minister Rev. Henry Howard on the issue of health and moral duty:
“The care of the body is a moral duty. All those wonderful powers stored up in our muscles are a sacred trust, which we are bound not only to guard from disgrace, but to definitely direct to the highest ends. It is more than a personal matter, it is a sacred duty owed to society for us to bring ourselves to the highest degree of physical and mental efficiency.” – Rev. Henry Howard, The Gospel of Strength
Then adding himself:
“I might add that I fully concur with Mr. Howard’s remarks. I believe that it is the Divine will that we should make the most of our bodies, and that it is by the aid of that Power that we are enabled to attain a pitch of perfection.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
Sandow continues on to discuss the unhealthy dress of women (corsets), the need to begin exercise with light weights at an early age, and so much more, far more than I can write about without reproducing all of his work. What really stood out to me when reading his books is how much society has ignored his warnings, and also how much spin has been put on exercise and the simple, healthy life, making it something that appears obtainable only if you have a lot of money. His warnings came at a time when we still had buttons to push and levers to pull; we don’t even have those anymore! God help us!
His approach to diet and exercise are refreshing to say the least and I’ll dig into those in the upcoming articles in this series.
More on Sandow
Read more on Eugen Sandow in the books he published. Most, if not all, are available on Kindle for a small fee, though you can find many of them in PDF for free, online.