Happy 160th Birthday to President Theodore Roosevelt.
The most famous speech Roosevelt ever delivered is one that should be etched into the mind of every American student. Why? Because his particular brand of wisdom is one that is desperately needed by an American citizenry that often finds itself hopelessly adrift. For young people asking themselves what it means to be an American or what it is that bonds us to one another these days, I offer the following answer from a speech delivered in Paris on April 10, 1910 entitled, “Citizenship in a Republic.”:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
A British viceroy, John Morley, put it best when he observed that, “he has seen two tremendous works of nature in America—the Niagara Falls and Mr. Roosevelt.” Too many modern Americans live their lives on the sidelines of civil society as “cold and timid souls.” We are socially isolated by our technology, geographically cloistered by our ideology, and terrified of saying or doing anything that stands outside the accepted world-view of modern popular culture.
For example, our students should understand that their over reliance on devices is inadvertently erecting hurdles to entering the arena Roosevelt celebrates. These devices will not make them happy. They will not make them feel connected. They will not inspire them. Devices do not move people—ideals do. They will not cultivate character or refine juvenile sensibilities. They will not make young people better friends, more civic-minded citizens, or more attractive human beings. They won’t help students master Shakespeare, Milton, or Morrison. Nor will they move anyone to be creative in the traditional sense of the word. They won’t help our fellow citizens to reach the mountaintop, real or proverbial.
TR would remind us that Thomas Jefferson became a master of civilization by studying over ten hours a day—every single day. It’s how he was able to read Homer in Ancient Greek, learn calculus from Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and teach himself Spanish on a single voyage across the Atlantic. George Washington became the “Father of the Country” by always advancing the cause of his nation over his own private concerns, even personal safety. Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, abandoned by his father, watched his mother die in the bed where he slept, and became the most popular modern founding father through sheer force of grit, moxie, and raw will. MLK was stabbed, imprisoned, and ultimately shot to death.
None of these American feats happened on accident. And every single one of them was moved by a “worthy cause,” inspired by “great enthusiasms,” and dared “greatly.”
Nobody doubts that they were wounded in the arena of life.
It is also worth noting that none of these men championed the hip irony of our age, or the easy cynicism, or viewed life with a fashionable philosophic absurdism, or communicated with vacuous, airy sarcasm.
You see, we human beings are made to move. And move aplenty. Without activity, and lots of it, we will never flourish or prosper. Our ears are shaped to catch sound waves, our arms are structured to hug, climb, or fight. Our cheekbones, noses and foreheads are biological reminders that we are supposed to live everyday encountering the world around us by moving forward—not passively viewing a screen.
The generational drift extends beyond just how our popular intelligence comports itself towards values; our very physicality has changed. Recently it was reported that Americans’ handshakes are the weakest they have ever been. And perhaps that is because we no longer see the virtue of unfettered human muscle, of raw strength, of possessing the capacity to move what is heavy.
TR embodied strength and superhuman exuberance. He wrestled wild animals, took exotic tours of Africa and South America, and hunted down fugitives by himself. He understood that human beings who flourish must possess the ability to stand tall when the forces of life attempt to pull us, sometimes violently, on the ground.
Roosevelt lost his mother and first wife on the same day. He responded by voyaging to the Badlands and seeking the most difficult physical work he could find as a ranch hand. As a young man, he was told by a doctor that a heart condition meant he would need to live a sedentary life. And yet he told the doctor he would do “just the opposite.” His father scolded him for being physically weak as an adolescent. Roosevelt responded by lifting weights “and remaking his body.”
Roosevelt hearkens back to a form of ancient wisdom. The ancients believed “fortitude” was one of the greatest of human virtues. Fortitude is how we absorb the blows of life, how we regain our equilibrium and our wits, how we get knocked down but summon the energy to stand up no matter how hard we may have fallen. Fortitude is not given. It is won. Roosevelt knew this better than most.
But modern Americans have few of the habits that cultivate moral, physical, and spiritual fortitude. Instead, we celebrate that which is easy and look for the path of least resistance. Easy weight loss. Easy college degrees. Easy divorces. Easy answers to difficult political questions.
TR would be mystified by the lethargy and obesity of so many American children. He would counsel them, but he wouldn’t do it gently. There is no “gentle reminder” from TR! He would forcefully say, “Go for a walk. Memorize a poem. Read a book that won the National Book Award. Plant a tree. Volunteer to help the needy. Pick three topics you are ignorant of and remedy your ignorance. Make contact with a friend you haven’t heard from in a while.”
We spend too much time being critics and not enough time getting bloodied, dirtied, and spent in the arena of life. Social media is an egalitarian platform from which to opine, blather, and denigrate others. It is a facile business to criticize and disparage. It is an entirely different human enterprise to build and create something from scratch.
TR built up the American navy. He wrote forty books. He built the Panama Canal. He created a regulatory state that rejected two doctrines of American political life that were in desperate need of reconsideration: laissez-faire economics and isolationist foreign policy. He would ask young Americans:
What did you do with your day?
What did you create or write or draw?
Who did you talk to and what did you talk about?
What did you read?
How much time was spent on minutiae and amusement?
How many hours were devoted to Netflix or video games?
As one of TR’s biographers observed, “he was incapable of extended periods of leisure.” He understood how much can be achieved if one is always busy.
Words that were fashionable in TR’s time—duty, courage, honor—have become entirely passé in ours. Some may even call them old-fashioned. But there is value in them. We speak loudly and frequently about tolerance, empathy and compassion, but in many ways these are passive virtues. They ask very little of us. They don’t require us to storm beaches, sit in trenches, or serve in the Peace Corps. They merely ask us not to do harm to others on the basis of bigotry, prejudice, or ignorance.
What they rarely do is put us in harms way. They ask us to add our voices to the chorus of mainstream opinion. They ask us to acquiesce to what is already chic, vogue, and socially avant-garde. And to a large extent, this is a good thing, a very good thing. Given our troubled history, tolerance and empathy are important to cultivate so as not to marginalize anyone within the fabric of the country. But our civic duty shouldn’t end there. Being tolerant, kind to others, and extending the same rights to every American citizen should be the beginning of our contribution to America’s social fabric, not the full extent of it.
And to the parents of modern students he would say, “stop making life so easy for your children.” Throw them in the arena—don’t let them sit in the stands with cell phones shoved in their faces and earbuds nestled into their ear canals. They should keep their own schedules. Work a hearty menu of house chores. Make them schedule their own appointments. Get a job in the summer. Do the tasks no one else wants to do.
Being a critic is easy because it risks almost nothing. Click To Tweet
Being a critic is easy because it risks almost nothing. There is no genuine prospect of failure. But TR would remind us that there is also almost no hope of genuine success or contribution. And to be an American means to aspire to more than simple comfort.
Let us celebrate Roosevelt’s birthday by entering the arena today. It won’t just lead to a better life. It will lead to a better nation. And that is exactly what he had in mind!
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