Strenuous Life Essays Examples
The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (1910) is a collection of Theodore Roosevelt’s published commentaries and public addresses on what is necessary for a vital and healthy political, social and individual life.
The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (1900)
- Text available available at bartleby.com. Scanned image at theodore-roosevelt.com.
The Strenous Life
- "Speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899
- I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.
- A life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual. [...] If you are rich and are worth your salt, you will teach your sons that though they may have leisure, it is not to be spent in idleness; for wisely used leisure merely means that those who possess it, being free from the necessity of working for their livelihood, are all the more bound to carry on some kind of non-remunerative work in science, in letters, in art, in exploration, in historical research—work of the type we most need in this country, the successful carrying out of which reflects most honor upon the nation. We do not admire the man of timid peace. We admire the man who embodies victorious effort; the man who never wrongs his neighbor, who is prompt to help a friend, but who has those virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life. It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past. A man can be freed from the necessity of work only by the fact that he or his fathers before him have worked to good purpose. If the freedom thus purchased is used aright, and the man still does actual work, though of a different kind, whether as a writer or a general, whether in the field of politics or in the field of exploration and adventure, he shows he deserves his good fortune. But if he treats this period of freedom from the need of actual labor as a period, not of preparation, but of mere enjoyment, even though perhaps not of vicious enjoyment, he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth's surface, and he surely unfits himself to hold his own with his fellows if the need to do so should again arise.
- A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world. In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.
- Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in that grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
- We cannot, if we would, play the part of China, and be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in a scrambling commercialism; heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk, busying ourselves only with the wants of our bodies for the day, until suddenly we should find, beyond a shadow of question, what China has already found, that in this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound, in the end, to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities. If we are to be a really great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the world.
- We cannot avoid meeting great issues. All that we can determine for ourselves is whether we shall meet them well or ill.
- We have a given problem to solve. If we undertake the solution, there is, of course, always danger that we may not solve it aright; but to refuse to undertake the solution simply renders it certain that we cannot possibly solve it aright.
- No country can long endure if its foundations are not laid deep in the material prosperity which comes from thrift, from business energy and enterprise, from hard, unsparing effort in the fields of industrial activity; but neither was any nation ever yet truly great if it relied upon material prosperity alone. All honor must be paid to the architects of our material prosperity, to the great captains of industry who have built our factories and our railroads, to the strong men who toil for wealth with brain or hand; for great is the debt of the nation to these and their kind. But our debt is yet greater to the men whose highest type is to be found in a statesman like Lincoln, a soldier like Ulysses S. Grant. They showed by their lives that they recognized the law of work, the law of strife; they toiled to win a competence for themselves and those dependent upon them; but they recognized that there were yet other and even loftier duties—duties to the nation and duties to the race. We cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond. Such a policy would defeat even its own end; for as the nations grow to have ever wider and wider interests, and are brought into closer and closer contact, if we are to hold our own in the struggle for naval and commercial supremacy, we must build up our power without our own borders. We must build the Isthmian Canal, and we must grasp the points of vantage which will enable us to have our say in deciding the destiny of the oceans of the East and the West.
- Let us, as we value our own self-respect, face the responsibilities with proper seriousness, courage, and high resolve. We must demand the highest order of integrity and ability in our public men who are to grapple with these new problems. We must hold to a rigid accountability those public servants who show unfaithfulness to the interests of the nation or inability to rise to the high level of the new demands upon our strength and our resources. Of course we must remember not to judge any public servant by any one act, and especially should we beware of attacking the men who are merely the occasions and not the causes of disaster.
- We must see that there is civic honesty, civic cleanliness, civic good sense in our home administration of city, State, and nation. We must strive for honesty in office, for honesty toward the creditors of the nation and of the individual; for the widest freedom of individual initiative where possible, and for the wisest control of individual initiative where it is hostile to the welfare of the many. But because we set our own household in order we are not thereby excused from playing our part in the great affairs of the world. A man's first duty is to his own home, but he is not thereby excused from doing his duty to the State; for if he fails in this second duty it is under the penalty of ceasing to be a freeman. In the same way, while a nation's first duty is within its own borders, it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the peoples that shape the destiny of mankind.
- If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.
Expansion and Peace
- Published in the "Independent", October 21, 1899
- Cowardice does not promote peace.
- Peace is a great good; and doubly harmful, therefore, is the attitude of those who advocate it in terms that would make it synonymous with selfish and cowardly shrinking from warring against the existence of evil. The wisest and most far-seeing champions of peace will ever remember that, in the first place, to be good it must be righteous, for unrighteous and cowardly peace may be worse than any war; and, in the second place, that it can often be obtained only at the cost of war.
- The growth of peacefulness between nations, however, has been confined strictly to those that are civilized. It can only come when both parties to a possible quarrel feel the same spirit. With a barbarous nation peace is the exceptional condition. On the border between civilization and barbarism war is generally normal because it must be under the conditions of barbarism. Whether the barbarian be the Red Indian on the frontier of the United States, the Afghan on the border of British India, or the Turkoman who confronts the Siberian Cossack, the result is the same. In the long run civilized man finds he can keep the peace only by subduing his barbarian neighbor; for the barbarian will yield only to force, save in instances so exceptional that they may be disregarded. Back of the force must come fair dealing, if the peace is to be permanent. But without force fair dealing usually amounts to nothing. In our history we have had more trouble from the Indian tribes whom we pampered and petted than from those we wronged; and this has been true in Siberia, Hindustan, and Africa. Every expansion of civilization makes for peace. In other words, every expansion of a great civilized power means a victory for law, order, and righteousness. [...] The rule of law and of order has succeeded to the rule of barbarous and bloody violence. Until the great civilized nations stepped in there was no chance for anything but such bloody violence.
- Nations that expand and nations that do not expand may both ultimately go down, but the one leaves heirs and a glorious memory, and the other leaves neither. The Roman expanded, and he has left a memory which has profoundly influenced the history of mankind, and he has further left as the heirs of his body, and, above all, of his tongue and culture, the so-called Latin peoples of Europe and America. Similarly to-day it is the great expanding peoples which bequeath to future ages the great memories and material results of their achievements, and the nations which shall have sprung from their loins, England standing as the archetype and best exemplar of all such mighty nations. But the peoples that do not expand leave, and can leave, nothing behind them.
- It is only the warlike power of a civilized people that can give peace to the world. The Arab wrecked the civilization of the Mediterranean coasts, the Turk wrecked the civilization of southeastern Europe, and the Tatar desolated from China to Russia and to Persia, setting back the progress of the world for centuries, solely because the civilized nations opposed to them had lost the great fighting qualities, and, in becoming overpeaceful, had lost the power of keeping peace with a strong hand. Their passing away marked the beginning of a period of chaotic barbarian warfare. Those whose memories are not so short as to have forgotten the defeat of the Greeks by the Turks, of the Italians by the Abyssinians, and the feeble campaigns waged by Spain against feeble Morocco, must realize that at the present moment the Mediterranean coasts would be overrun either by the Turks or by the Sudan Mahdists if these warlike barbarians had only to fear those southern European powers which have lost the fighting edge. Such a barbarian conquest would mean endless war; and the fact that nowadays the reverse takes place, and that the barbarians recede or are conquered, with the attendant fact that peace follows their retrogression or conquest, is due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.
Latitude and Longitude among Reformers
- Published in the "Century", June, 1900
- The quality of striving after the ideal, that is, the quality which makes men reformers, and the quality of so striving through practical methods—[is] the quality which makes men efficient. Both qualities are absolutely essential. The absence of either makes the presence of the other worthless or worse.
- Success is abhorrent if attained by the sacrifice of the fundamental principles of morality. The successful man, whether in business or in politics, who has risen by conscienceless swindling of his neighbors, by deceit and chicanery, by unscrupulous boldness and unscrupulous cunning, stands toward society as a dangerous wild beast. The mean and cringing admiration which such a career commands among those who think crookedly or not at all makes this kind of success perhaps the most dangerous of all the influences that threaten our national life. Our standard of public and private conduct will never be raised to the proper level until we make the scoundrel who succeeds feel the weight of a hostile public opinion even more strongly than the scoundrel who fails. On the other hand, mere beating the air, mere visionary adherence to a nebulous and possibly highly undesirable ideal, is utterly worthless.
- Now and then one can stand uncompromisingly for a naked principle and force people up to it. This is always the attractive course; but in certain great crises it may be a very wrong course. Compromise, in the proper sense, merely means agreement; in the proper sense opportunism should merely mean doing the best possible with actual conditions as they exist. A compromise which results in a half-step toward evil is all wrong, just as the opportunist who saves himself for the moment by adopting a policy which is fraught with future disaster is all wrong; but no less wrong is the attitude of those who will not come to an agreement through which, or will not follow the course by which, it is alone possible to accomplish practical results for good.
- These two attitudes, the attitude of deifying mere efficiency, mere success, without regard to the moral qualities lying behind it, and the attitude of disregarding efficiency, disregarding practical results, are the Scylla and Charybdis between which every earnest reformer, every politician who desires to make the name of his profession a term of honor instead of shame, must steer. He must avoid both under penalty of wreckage, and it avails him nothing to have avoided one, if he founders on the other. People are apt to speak as if in political life, public life, it ought to be a mere case of striving upward—striving toward a high peak. The simile is inexact. Every man who is striving to do good public work is traveling along a ridge crest, with the gulf of failure on each side—the gulf of inefficiency on the one side, the gulf of unrighteousness on the other. All kinds of forces are continually playing on him, to shove him first into one gulf and then into the other; and even a wise and good man, unless he braces himself with uncommon firmness and foresight, as he is pushed this way and that, will find that his course becomes a pronounced zigzag instead of a straight line; and if it becomes too pronounced he is lost, no matter to which side the zigzag may take him.
- In every community there are little knots of fantastic extremists who loudly proclaim that they are striving for righteousness, and who, in reality, do their feeble best for unrighteousness. Just as the upright politician should hold in peculiar scorn the man who makes the name of politician a reproach and a shame, so the genuine reformer should realize that the cause he champions is especially jeopardized by the mock reformer who does what he can to make reform a laughingstock among decent men. A caustic observer once remarked that when Dr. Johnson spoke of patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, "he was ignorant of the infinite possibilities contained in the word 'reform.'" The sneer was discreditable to the man who uttered it, for it is no more possible to justify corruption by railing at those who by their conduct throw scandal upon the cause of reform than it is to justify treason by showing that men of shady character frequently try to cover their misconduct by fervent protestations of love of country. Nevertheless, the fact remains that exactly as true patriots should be especially jealous of any appeal to what is base under the guise of patriotism, so men who strive for honesty, and for the cleansing of what is corrupt in the dark places of our politics, should emphatically disassociate themselves from the men whose antics throw discredit upon the reforms they profess to advocate.
- Few things hurt a good cause more than the excesses of its nominal friends.
- Strive manfully for righteousness, and strive so as to make your efforts for good count. You are not to be excused if you fail to try to make things better; and the very phrase "trying to make things better" implies trying in practical fashion. One man's capacity is for one kind of work and another man's capacity for another kind of work. One affects certain methods and another affects entirely different methods. All this is of little concern. What is of really vital importance is that something should be accomplished, and that this something should be worthy of accomplishment. The field is of vast size, and the laborers are always too few. There is not the slightest excuse for one sincere worker looking down upon another because he chooses a different part of the field and different implements. It is inexcusable to refuse to work, to work slackly or perversely, or to mar the work of others.
- No man is justified in doing evil on the ground of expediency. He is bound to do all the good possible. Yet he must consider the question of expediency, in order that he may do all the good possible, for otherwise he will do none.
- We need upright politicians, who will take the time and trouble, and who possess the capacity, to manage caucuses, conventions, and public assemblies. [...] In public life we need not only men who are able to work in and through their parties, but also upright, fearless, rational independents, who will deal impartial justice to all men and all parties. We need men who are far-sighted and resolute; men who combine sincerity with sanity. [...] It is vital that every man who is in politics, as a man ought to be, with a disinterested purpose to serve the public, should strive steadily for reform; that he should have the highest ideals. He must lead, only he must lead in the right direction, and normally he must be in sight of his followers. Cynicism in public life is a curse, and when a man has lost the power of enthusiasm for righteousness it will be better for him and the country if he abandons public life.
- We of to-day are bound to try to tread in the footsteps of those great Americans who in the past have held a high ideal and have striven mightily through practical methods to realize that ideal. There must be many compromises; but we cannot compromise with dishonesty, with sin.
- To pander to depravity inevitably means to increase the depravity.
- There can be no meddling with the laws of righteousness, of decency, of morality. We are in honor bound to put into practice what we preach; to remember that we are not to be excused if we do not; and that in the last resort no material prosperity, no business acumen, no intellectual development of any kind, can atone in the life of a nation for the lack of the fundamental qualities of courage, honesty, and common sense.
Fellow-Feeling as a Political Factor
- Published in the "Century", January, 1900. Pdf at theodore-roosevelt.com.
- FELLOW-FEELING, sympathy in the broadest sense, is the most important factor in producing a healthy political and social life. Neither our national nor our local civic life can be what it should be unless it is marked by the fellow-feeling, the mutual kindness, the mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when men take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object. A very large share of the rancor of political and social strife arises either from sheer misunderstanding by one section, or by one class, of another, or else from the fact that the two sections, or two classes, are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other's passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view, while they are both entirely ignorant of their community of feeling as regards the essentials of manhood and humanity.
- The only true solution of our political and social problems lies in cultivating everywhere the spirit of brotherhood, of fellow-feeling and understanding between man and man, and the willingness to treat a man as a man, which are the essential factors in American democracy as we still see it in the country districts.
- The chief factor in producing such sympathy is simply association on a plane of equality, and for a common object. Any healthy-minded American is bound to think well of his fellow-Americans if he only gets to know them. The trouble is that he does not know them.
- It is this capacity for sympathy, for fellow-feeling and mutual understanding, which must lie at the basis of all really successful movements for good government and the betterment of social and civic conditions. There is no patent device for bringing about good government. Still less is there any patent device for remedying social evils and doing away with social inequalities. Wise legislation can help in each case, and crude, vicious, or demagogic legislation can do an infinity of harm. But the betterment must come through the slow workings of the same forces which always have tended for righteousness, and always will.
- The prime lesson to be taught is the lesson of treating each man on his worth as a man, and of remembering that while sometimes it is necessary, from both a legislative and social standpoint, to consider men as a class, yet in the long run our safety lies in recognizing the individual's worth or lack of worth as the chief basis of action, and in shaping our whole conduct, and especially our political conduct, accordingly. It is impossible for a democracy to endure if the political lines are drawn to coincide with class lines. The resulting government, whether of the upper or the lower class, is not a government of the whole people, but a government of part of the people at the expense of the rest. Where the lines of political division are vertical, the men of each occupation and of every social standing separating according to their vocations and principles, the result is healthy and normal. Just so far, however, as the lines are drawn horizontally, the result is unhealthy, and in the long run disastrous, for such a division means that men are pitted against one another in accordance with the blind and selfish interests of the moment. Each is thus placed over against his neighbor in an attitude of greedy class hostility, which becomes the mainspring of his conduct, instead of each basing his political action upon his own convictions as to what is advisable and what inadvisable, and upon his own disinterested sense of devotion to the interests of the whole community as he sees them. Republics have fallen in the past primarily because the parties that controlled them divided along the lines of class, so that inevitably the triumph of one or the other implied the supremacy of a part over the whole. [...] The only way to provide against the evils of a horizontal cleavage in politics is to encourage the growth of fellow-feeling, of a feeling based on the relations of man to man, and not of class to class.
- As a matter of fact, the enormous mass of our legislation and administration ought to be concerned with matters that are strictly for the commonweal; and where special legislation or administration is needed, as it often must be, for a certain class, the need can be met primarily by mere honesty and common sense. But if men are elected solely from any caste, or on any caste theory, the voter gradually substitutes the theory of allegiance to the caste for the theory of allegiance to the commonwealth as a whole, and instead of demanding as fundamental the qualities of probity and broad intelligence—which are the indispensable qualities in securing the welfare of the whole—as the first consideration, he demands, as a substitute, zeal in the service, or apparent service, of the class, which is quite compatible with gross corruption outside. In short, we get back to the conditions which foredoomed democracy to failure in the ancient Greek and medieval republics, where party lines were horizontal and class warred against class, each in consequence necessarily substituting devotion to the interest of a class for devotion to the interest of the state and to the elementary ideas of morality. The only way to avoid the growth of these evils is, so far as may be, to help in the creation of conditions which will permit mutual understanding and fellow-feeling between the members of different classes. To do this it is absolutely necessary that there should be natural association between the members for a common end or with a common purpose. As long as men are separated by their caste lines, each body having its own amusements, interests, and occupations, they are certain to regard one another with that instinctive distrust which they feel for foreigners. There are exceptions to the rule, but it is a rule.
- About "party organizations" and "serious political organizations": If they are to be successful they must necessarily be democratic, in the sense that each man is treated strictly on his merits as a man. No one can succeed who attempts to go in on any other basis.
- A man who has taken an active part in the political life of a great city possesses an incalculable advantage over his fellow-citizens who have not so taken part, because normally he has more understanding than they can possibly have of the attitude of mind, the passions, prejudices, hopes, and animosities of his fellow-citizens, with whom he would not ordinarily be brought into business or social contact. Of course there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. A man who is drawn into politics from absolutely selfish reasons, and especially a rich man who merely desires to buy political promotion, may know absolutely nothing that is of value as to any but the basest side of the human nature with which his sphere of contact has been enlarged; and, on the other hand, a wise employer of labor, or a philanthropist in whom zeal and judgment balance each other, may know far more than most politicians. But the fact remains that the effect of political life, and of the associations that it brings, is of very great benefit in producing a better understanding and a keener fellow-feeling among men who otherwise would know one another not at all, or else as members of alien bodies or classes.
- If a man permits largeness of heart to degenerate into softness of head, he inevitably becomes a nuisance in any relation of life. If sympathy becomes distorted and morbid, it hampers instead of helping the effort toward social betterment. Yet without sympathy, without fellow-feeling, no permanent good can be accomplished. In any healthy community there must be a solidarity of sentiment and a knowledge of solidarity of interest among the different members. Where this solidarity ceases to exist, where there is no fellow-feeling, the community is ripe for disaster. Of course the fellow-feeling may be of value much in proportion as it is unconscious. A sentiment that is easy and natural is far better than one which has to be artificially stimulated. But the artificial stimulus is better than none, and with fellow-feeling, as with all other emotions, what is started artificially may become quite natural in its continuance. With most men courage is largely an acquired habit, and on the first occasions when it is called for it necessitates the exercise of will-power and self-control; but by exercise it gradually becomes almost automatic.
- A man who conscientiously endeavors to throw in his lot with those about him, to make his interests theirs, to put himself in a position where he and they have a common object, will at first feel a little self-conscious, will realize too plainly his own aims. But with exercise this will pass off. He will speedily find that the fellow-feeling which at first he had to stimulate was really existent, though latent, and is capable of a very healthy growth. It can, of course, become normal only when the man himself becomes genuinely interested in the object which he and his fellows are striving to attain. It is therefore obviously desirable that this object should possess a real and vital interest for every one.
- When a partizan political organization becomes merely an association for purposes of plunder and patronage, it may be a menace instead of a help to a community; and when a non-partizan political organization falls under the control of the fantastic extremists always attracted to such movements, in its turn it becomes either useless or noxious.
- It is an excellent thing to win a triumph for good government at a given election; but it is a far better thing gradually to build up that spirit of fellow-feeling among American citizens, which, in the long run, is absolutely necessary if we are to see the principles of virile honesty and robust common sense triumph in our civic life.
- Published in the "Century", October, 1900
- Undoubtedly the best type of philanthropic work is that which helps men and women who are willing and able to help themselves; for fundamentally this aid is simply what each of us should be all the time both giving and receiving. Every man and woman in the land ought to prize above almost every other quality the capacity for self-help; and yet every man and woman in the land will at some time or other be sorely in need of the help of others, and at some time or other will find that he or she can in turn give help even to the strongest. The quality of self-help is so splendid a quality that nothing can compensate for its loss; yet, like every virtue, it can be twisted into a fault, and it becomes a fault if carried to the point of cold-hearted arrogance, of inability to understand that now and then the strongest may be in need of aid, and that for this reason alone, if for no other, the strong should always be glad of the chance in turn to aid the weak.
- The average individual will not spend the hours in which he is not working in doing something that is unpleasant, and absolutely the only way permanently to draw average men or women from occupations and amusements that are unhealthy for soul or body is to furnish an alternative which they will accept. To forbid all amusements, or to treat innocent and vicious amusements as on the same plane, simply insures recruits for the vicious amusements.
- No man can be a really good citizen unless he takes a lively interest in politics from a high standpoint. Moreover, the minute that a move is made in politics, the people who are helped and those who would help them grow to have a common interest which is genuine and absorbing instead of being in any degree artificial, and this will bring them together as nothing else would.
- Anything that encourages pauperism, anything that relaxes the manly fiber and lowers self-respect, is an unmixed evil.
- In charity the one thing always to be remembered is that, while any man may slip and should at once be helped to rise to his feet, yet no man can be carried with advantage either to him or to the community. The greatest possible good can be done by the extension of a helping hand at the right moment, but the attempt to carry any one permanently can end in nothing but harm. The really hard-working philanthropists, who spend their lives in doing good to their neighbors, do not, as a rule, belong to the "mushy" class, and thoroughly realize the unwisdom of foolish and indiscriminate giving, or of wild and crude plans of social reformations. The young enthusiast who is for the first time brought into contact with the terrible suffering and stunting degradation which are so evident in many parts of our great cities is apt to become so appalled as to lose his head. If there is a twist in his moral or mental make-up, he will never regain his poise; but if he is sound and healthy he will soon realize that things being bad affords no justification for making them infinitely worse, and that the only safe rule is for each man to strive to do his duty in a spirit of sanity and wholesome common sense.
- No one of us can make the world move on very far, but it moves at all only when each one of a very large number does his duty.
Character and Success
- Published in the "Outlook", March 31, 1900
- Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character. It is true, of course, that a genius may, on certain lines, do more than a brave and manly fellow who is not a genius; and so, in sports, vast physical strength may overcome weakness, even though the puny body may have in it the heart of a lion. But, in the long run, in the great battle of life, no brilliancy of intellect, no perfection of bodily development, will count when weighed in the balance against that assemblage of virtues, active and passive, of moral qualities, which we group together under the name of character; and if between any two contestants, even in college sport or in college work, the difference in character on the right side is as great as the difference of intellect or strength the other way, it is the character side that will win. Of course this does not mean that either intellect or bodily vigor can safely be neglected. On the contrary, it means that both should be developed, and that not the least of the benefits of developing both comes from the indirect effect which this development itself has upon the character.
- Success must always include, as its first element, earning a competence for the support of the man himself, and for the bringing up of those dependent upon him. In the vast majority of cases it ought to include financially rather more than this. But the acquisition of wealth is not in the least the only test of success. After a certain amount of wealth has been accumulated, the accumulation of more is of very little consequence indeed from the standpoint of success, as success should be understood both by the community and the individual.
- Wealthy men who use their wealth aright are a great power for good in the community, and help to upbuild that material national prosperity which must underlie national greatness; but if this were the only kind of success, the nation would be indeed poorly off. Successful statesmen, soldiers, sailors, explorers, historians, poets, and scientific men are also essential to national greatness, and, in fact, very much more essential than any mere successful business man can possibly be. The average man, into whom the average boy develops, is, of course, not going to be a marvel in any line, but, if he only chooses to try, he can be very good in any line, and the chances of his doing good work are immensely increased if he has trained his mind. Of course, if, as a result of his high-school, academy, or college experience, he gets to thinking that the only kind of learning is that to be found in books, he will do very little; but if he keeps his mental balance,—that is, if he shows character,—he will understand both what learning can do and what it cannot, and he will be all the better the more he can get.
- The student in a college who "crams" in order to stand at the head of his class, and neglects his health and stunts his development by working for high marks, may do himself much damage; but all that he proves is that the abuse of study is wrong. The fact remains that the study itself is essential. So it is with vigorous pastimes. If rowing or foot-ball or base-ball is treated as the end of life by any considerable section of a community, then that community shows itself to be in an unhealthy condition. If treated as it should be,—that is, as good, healthy play,—it is of great benefit, not only to the body, but in its effect upon character. To study hard implies character in the student, and to work hard at a sport which entails severe physical exertion and steady training also implies character. All kinds of qualities go to make up character, for, emphatically, the term should include the positive no less than the negative virtues. If we say of a boy or a man, "He is of good character," we mean that he does not do a great many things that are wrong, and we also mean that he does do a great many things which imply much effort of will and readiness to face what is disagreeable. He must not steal, he must not be intemperate, he must not be vicious in any way; he must not be mean or brutal; he must not bully the weak. In fact, he must refrain from whatever is evil. But besides refraining from evil, he must do good. He must be brave and energetic; he must be resolute and persevering.
- We are bidden not merely to be harmless as doves, but also as wise as serpents. It is very much easier to carry out the former part of the order than the latter; while, on the other hand, it is of much more importance for the good of mankind that our goodness should be accompanied by wisdom than that we should merely be harmless. If with the serpent wisdom we unite the serpent guile, terrible will be the damage we do; and if, with the best of intentions, we can only manage to deserve the epithet of "harmless," it is hardly worth while to have lived in the world at all.
- Perhaps there is no more important component of character than steadfast resolution. The boy who is going to make a great man, or is going to count in any way in after life, must make up his mind not merely to overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses or defeats. He may be able to wrest success along the lines on which he originally started. He may have to try something entirely new. On the one hand, he must not be volatile and irresolute, and, on the other hand, he must not fear to try a new line because he has failed in another.
- Character is shown in peace no less than in war. As the greatest fertility of invention, the greatest perfection of armament, will not make soldiers out of cowards, so no mental training and no bodily vigor will make a nation great if it lacks the fundamental principles of honesty and moral cleanliness.
- Alike for the nation and the individual, the one indispensable requisite is character—character that does and dares as well as endures, character that is active in the performance of virtue no less than firm in the refusal to do aught that is vicious or degraded.
The Eighth and Ninth Commandments in Politics
- Published in the "Outlook", May 12, 1900
- THE two commandments which are specially applicable in public life are the eighth and the ninth. Not only every politician, high or low, but every citizen interested in politics, and especially every man who, in a newspaper or on the stump, advocates or condemns any public policy or any public man, should remember always that the two cardinal points in his doctrine ought to be, "Thou shalt not steal," and "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor".
- We can afford to differ on the currency, the tariff, and foreign policy; but we cannot afford to differ on the question of honesty if we expect our republic permanently to endure.
- Honesty is not so much a credit as an absolute prerequisite to efficient service to the public. Unless a man is honest we have no right to keep him in public life, it matters not how brilliant his capacity, it hardly matters how great his power of doing good service on certain lines may be.
- There are not a few public men who, though they would repel with indignation an offer of a bribe, will give certain corporations special legislative and executive privileges because they have contributed heavily to campaign funds; will permit loose and extravagant work because a contractor has political influence; or, at any rate, will permit a public servant to take public money without rendering an adequate return, by conniving at inefficient service on the part of men who are protected by prominent party leaders. Various degrees of moral guilt are involved in the multitudinous actions of this kind; but, after all, directly or indirectly, every such case comes dangerously near the border-line of the commandment which, in forbidding theft, certainly by implication forbids the connivance at theft, or the failure to punish it. One of the favorite schemes of reformers is to devise some method by which big corporations can be prevented from making heavy subscriptions to campaign funds, and thereby acquiring improper influence. But the best way to prevent them from making contributions for improper purposes is simply to elect as public servants, not professional denouncers of corporations,—for such men are in practice usually their most servile tools,—but men who say, and mean, that they will neither be for nor against corporations; that, on the one hand, they will not be frightened from doing them justice by popular clamor, or, on the other hand, led by any interest whatsoever into doing them more than justice.
- At the Anti-Trust Conference last summer Mr. Bryan commented, with a sneer, on the fact that "of course" New York would not pass a law prohibiting contributions by corporations. He was right in thinking that New York, while it retains rational civic habits, will not pass ridiculous legislation which cannot be made effective, and which is merely intended to deceive during the campaign the voters least capable of thought. But there will not be the slightest need for such legislation if only the public spirit is sufficiently healthy, sufficiently removed alike from corruption and from demagogy, to see that each corporation receives its exact rights and nothing more.
- It is, of course, not enough that a public official should be honest. No amount of honesty will avail if he is not also brave and wise. The weakling and the coward cannot be saved by honesty alone; but without honesty the brave and able man is merely a civic wild beast who should be hunted down by every lover of righteousness. No man who is corrupt, no man who condones corruption in others, can possibly do his duty by the community.
- Great is the danger to our country from the failure among our public men to live up to the eighth commandment, from the callousness in the public which permits such shortcomings. Yet it is not exaggeration to say that the danger is quite as great from those who year in and year out violate the ninth commandment by bearing false witness against the honest man, and who thereby degrade him and elevate the dishonest man until they are both on the same level. The public is quite as much harmed in the one case as in the other, by the one set of wrong-doers as by the other. "Liar" is just as ugly a word as "thief," because it implies the presence of just as ugly a sin in one case as in the other. If a man lies under oath or procures the lie of another under oath, if he perjures himself or suborns perjury, he is guilty under the statute law. Under the higher law, under the great law of morality and righteousness, he is precisely as guilty if, instead of lying in a court, he lies in a newspaper or on the stump; and in all probability the evil effects of his conduct are infinitely more wide-spread and more pernicious. The difference between perjury and mendacity is not in the least one of morals or ethics. It is simply one of legal forms.
- We need fearless criticism of dishonest men, and of honest men on any point where they go wrong; but even more do we need criticism which shall be truthful both in what it says and in what it leaves unsaid—truthful in words and truthful in the impression it designs to leave upon the readers' or hearers' minds.
- We need absolute honesty in public life; and we shall not get it until we remember that truth-telling must go hand in hand with it, and that it is quite as important not to tell an untruth about a decent man as it is to tell the truth about one who is not decent.
The Best and The Good
- Published in the "Churchman", March 17, 1900
- Mere desire to do right can no more by itself make a good statesman than it can make a good general. Of course it is entirely unnecessary to say that nothing atones for the lack of this desire to do right.
- Military power is at an end when the honor of the soldier can no longer be trusted; and, in the right sense of the word, civic greatness is at an end when civic righteousness is no longer its foundation. But, of course, every one knows that a soldier must be more than merely honorable before he is fit to do credit to the country; and just the same thing is true of a statesman. He must have high ideals, and the leader of public opinion in the pulpit, in the press, on the platform, or on the stump must preach high ideals. But the possession or preaching of these high ideals may not only be useless, but a source of positive harm, if unaccompanied by practical good sense, if they do not lead to the effort to get the best possible when the perfect best is not attainable—and in this life the perfect best rarely is attainable. Every leader of a great reform has to contend, on the one hand, with the open, avowed enemies of the reform, and, on the other hand, with its extreme advocates, who wish the impossible, and who join hands with their extreme opponents to defeat the rational friends of the reform.
- It is a great mistake to think that the extremist is a better man than the moderate. Usually the difference is not that he is morally stronger, but that he is intellectually weaker. He is not more virtuous. He is simply more foolish. This is notably true in our American life of many of those who are most pessimistic in denouncing the condition of our politics. Certainly there is infinite room for improvement, infinite need of fearless and trenchant criticism; but the improvement can only come through intelligent and straightforward effort. It is set back by those extremists who by their action always invite reaction, and, above all, by those worst enemies of our public honesty who by their incessant attacks upon good men give the utmost possible assistance to the bad.
- A revolution is sometimes necessary, but if revolutions become habitual the country in which they take place is going down-hill.
- We must never compromise in a way that means retrogression. But in moving forward we must realize that normally the condition of sure progress is that it shall not be so fast as to insure a revolt and a stoppage of the upward course.
Promise and Performance
- Published in the "Outlook", July 28, 1900
- "Compromise" is so often used in a bad sense that it is difficult to remember that properly it merely describes the process of reaching an agreement. Naturally there are certain subjects on which no man can compromise. For instance, there must be no compromise under any circumstances with official corruption, and of course no man should hesitate to say as much.
- Softness of heart is an admirable quality, but when it extends its area until it also becomes softness of head, its results are anything but admirable. It is a good thing to combine a warm heart with a cool head.
- In the last analysis it is the thrift, energy, self-mastery, and business intelligence of each man which have most to do with deciding whether he rises or falls.
- No man should be held excusable if he does not perform what he promises, unless for the best and most sufficient reason. This should be especially true of every politician.
- When a man in public life pledges himself to a certain course of action he shall as a matter of course do what he said he would do, and shall not be held to have acted honorably if he does otherwise.
- Throughout the history of the world the nations who have done best in self-government are those who have demanded from their public men only the promise of what can actually be done for righteousness and honesty, and who have sternly insisted that such promise must be kept in letter and in spirit.
- A man is worthless unless he has in him a lofty devotion to an ideal, and he is worthless also unless he strives to realize this ideal by practical methods. He must promise, both to himself and to others, only what he can perform; but what really can be performed he must promise, and such promise he must at all hazards make good.
The American Boy
- Published in the "St. Nicholas", May, 1900
- OF course what we have a right to expect of the American boy is that he shall turn out to be a good American man. Now, the chances are strong that he won't be much of a man unless he is a good deal of a boy. He must not be a coward or a weakling, a bully, a shirk, or a prig. He must work hard and play hard. He must be clean-minded and clean-lived, and able to hold his own under all circumstances and against all comers. It is only on these conditions that he will grow into the kind of American man of whom America can be really proud.
- We cannot expect the best work from soldiers who have carried to an unhealthy extreme the sports and pastimes which would be healthy if indulged in with moderation, and have neglected to learn as they should the business of their profession. A soldier needs to know how to shoot and take cover and shift for himself—not to box or play foot-ball.
- A boy needs both physical and moral courage. Neither can take the place of the other. When boys become men they will find out that there are some soldiers very brave in the field who have proved timid and worthless as politicians, and some politicians who show an entire readiness to take chances and assume responsibilities in civil affairs, but who lack the fighting edge when opposed to physical danger. In each case, with soldiers and politicians alike, there is but half a virtue. The possession of the courage of the soldier does not excuse the lack of courage in the statesman and, even less does the possession of the courage of the statesman excuse shrinking on the field of battle.
- A coward who will take a blow without returning it is a contemptible creature; but, after all, he is hardly as contemptible as the boy who dares not stand up for what he deems right against the sneers of his companions who are themselves wrong.
- Ridicule is one of the favorite weapons of wickedness, and it is sometimes incomprehensible how good and brave boys will be influenced for evil by the jeers of associates who have no one quality that calls for respect, but who affect to laugh at the very traits which ought to be peculiarly the cause for pride.
- There is no need to be a prig. There is no need for a boy to preach about his own good conduct and virtue. If he does he will make himself offensive and ridiculous. But there is urgent need that he should practise decency; that he should be clean and straight, honest and truthful, gentle and tender, as well as brave. If he can once get to a proper understanding of things, he will have a far more hearty contempt for the boy who has begun a course of feeble dissipation, or who is untruthful, or mean, or dishonest, or cruel, than this boy and his fellows can possibly, in return, feel for him. The very fact that the boy should be manly and able to hold his own, that he should be ashamed to submit to bullying without instant retaliation, should, in return, make him abhor any form of bullying, cruelty, or brutality.
- Bullies do not make brave men; and boys or men of foul life cannot become good citizens, good Americans, until they change; and even after the change scars will be left on their souls.
- The boy can best become a good man by being a good boy—not a goody-goody boy, but just a plain good boy. I do not mean that he must love only the negative virtues; I mean he must love the positive virtues also. "Good," in the largest sense, should include whatever is fine, straightforward, clean, brave, and manly. The best boys I know—the best men I know—are good at their studies or their business, fearless and stalwart, hated and feared by all that is wicked and depraved, incapable of submitting to wrong-doing, and equally incapable of being aught but tender to the weak and helpless. A healthy-minded boy should feel hearty contempt for the coward, and even more hearty indignation for the boy who bullies girls or small boys, or tortures animals. One prime reason for abhorring cowards is because every good boy should have it in him to thrash the objectionable boy as the need arises.
- Of course the effect that a thoroughly manly, thoroughly straight and upright boy can have upon the companions of his own age, and upon those who are younger, is incalculable. If he is not thoroughly manly, then they will not respect him, and his good qualities will count for but little; while, of course, if he is mean, cruel, or wicked, then his physical strength and force of mind merely make him so much the more objectionable a member of society. He cannot do good work if he is not strong and does not try with his whole heart and soul to count in any contest; and his strength will be a curse to himself and to every one else if he does not have thorough command over himself and over his own evil passions, and if he does not use his strength on the side of decency, justice, and fair dealing.
- In short, in life, as in a foot-ball game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don't foul and don't shirk, but hit the line hard!
Military Preparedness and Unpreparedness
- Published in the "Century", November, 1899
- The national trait of "smartness," used in the Yankee sense of the word, has very good and very bad sides. Among the latter is its tendency to create the belief that we need not prepare for war, because somehow we shall be able to win by some novel patent device, some new trick or new invention developed on the spur of the moment by the ingenuity of our people. In this way it is hoped to provide a substitute for preparedness—that is, for years of patient and faithful attention to detail in advance. It is even sometimes said that these mechanical devices will be of so terrible a character as to nullify the courage which has always in the past been the prime factor in winning battles. Now, as all sound military judges knew in advance must inevitably be the case, the experience of the Spanish war completely falsified every prediction of this kind. We did not win through any special ingenuity. Not a device of any kind was improvised during or immediately before the war which was of any practical service. The "bombs enveloped in petroleum" had no existence save in the brains of the Spaniards and their more credulous sympathizers. Our navy won because of its preparedness and because of the splendid seamanship and gunnery which had been handed down as traditional in the service, and had been perfected by the most careful work. The army, at the only point where it was seriously opposed, did its work by sheer dogged courage and hard fighting, in spite of an unpreparedness which almost brought disaster upon it, and would without doubt actually have done so had not the defects and shortcomings of the Spanish administration been even greater than our own.
- We won the war in a very short time, and without having to expend more than the merest fraction of our strength. The navy was shown to be in good shape; and Secretary Root, to whom the wisdom of President McKinley has intrusted the War Department, has already shown himself as good a man as ever held the portfolio—a man whose administration is certainly to be of inestimable service to the army and to the country. In consequence, too many of our people show signs of thinking that, after all, everything was all right, and is all right now; that we need not bother ourselves to learn any lessons that are not agreeable to us, and that if in the future we get into a war with a more formidable power than Spain, we shall pull through somehow. Such a view is unjust to the nation, and particularly unjust to the splendid men of the army and of the navy, who would be sacrificed to it, should we ever engage in a serious war without having learned the lessons that the year 1898 ought to have taught.
- Crews cannot be improvised. To get the very best work out of them, they should all be composed of trained and seasoned men; and in any event they should not be sent against a formidable adversary unless each crew has for a nucleus a large body of such men filling all the important positions.
- If disaster comes through lack of preparedness, the fault necessarily lies far less with the men under whom the disaster actually occurs than with those to whose wrongheadedness or short-sighted indifference in time past the lack of preparedness is due.
- But in war it is unsafe to trust to the blunders of the adversary to offset our own blunders.
- But the appropriation of money and the building of ships were not enough. We must keep steadily in mind that not only was it necessary to build the navy, but it was equally necessary to train our officers and men aboard it by actual practice. If in 1883 we had been able suddenly to purchase our present battle-ships, cruisers, and torpedo-boats, they could not have been handled with any degree of efficiency by our officers and crews as they then were. Still less would it be possible to handle them by improvised crews. In an emergency bodies of men like our naval militia can do special bits of work excellently, and, thanks to their high average of character and intellect, they are remarkably good makeshifts, but it would be folly to expect from them all that is expected from a veteran crew of trained man-of-war's-men. And if we are ever pitted ship for ship on equal terms against the first-class navy of a first-class power, we shall need our best captains and our best crews if we are to win.
- The best man alive, if allowed to rust at a three-company post, or in a garrison near some big city, for ten or fifteen years, will find himself in straits if suddenly called to command a division, or mayhap even an army-corps, on a foreign expedition, especially when not one of his important subordinates has ever so much as seen five thousand troops gathered, fed, sheltered, manoeuvered, and shipped.
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph. – Theodore Roosevelt
In our last post, we discussed the way Theodore Roosevelt threw off his sickly nature and through willpower and hard work became a strapping young man. His dedication to living “the strenuous life” became the guiding principle of his life.
His hard work and enthusiasm allowed him to accomplish all of the following things during his 60 years of life:
1. Work as state legislator, police commissioner, and governor in New York
2. Own and work a ranch in the Dakotas
3. Serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy
4. Fight as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War
5. Serve as President for two terms, then run for an unprecedented third term
6. Become the first President to leave the country during his term in order to see the building of the Panama Canal
7. Write 35 books
8. Read tens of thousands of books-several a day in multiple languages
9. Explore the Amazonian rainforests
10. Discover, navigate, and be named after a completely uncharted Amazonian river over 625 miles long
11. Volunteer to lead a voluntary infantry unit into WWI at age 59.
In addition to all of these tangible accomplishments, Roosevelt infused vitality into every aspect of his life. He practically bounded from room to room, giving hearty handshakes, slapping backs, and grinning ear to ear. Even as he got involved in politics, he exercised regularly and took up boxing, tennis, hiking, rowing, polo, and horseback riding. As President he took visiting leaders and dignitaries on long hikes and up rock faces in the parks around DC. As governor of New York, he boxed with sparring partners several times a week, a practice he regularly continued as President until one blow detached his left retina, leaving him blind in that eye. Thereafter, he practiced jujutsu and continued his habit of skinny-dipping in the Potomac River during winter.
One of the best examples of Roosevelt’s unflagging enthusiasm came when he was campaigning for a third term as president. In Milwaukee, WI, he stood in the back of a railway car waving to the crowd. A man shot him in the chest, knocking him back into the car. Three presidents had been assassinated in his lifetime and TR had always prepared for such a moment. He put his fingers to his lips and since blood was not coming out of his mouth he knew the bullet hadn’t perforated his lung. The bullet, slowed by a steel eyeglasses case and a copy of a speech, lodged in his rib. Roosevelt insisted on proceeding to the auditorium where 10,000 people were waiting to hear his speech. Mounting the stage he showed the audience his bloody shirt and said:
“I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”
TR then talked for 90 minutes, before finally consenting to be taken to a hospital.
Clearly, Theodore Roosevelt did not just spout platitudes about living the strenuous life; he absolutely embodied and lived the principles he espoused.
Why Live The Strenuous Life
The strenuous life gives you confidence
A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world.
Taking on responsibility and overcoming challenges is the best way to increase your manly confidence. Don’s sit on your butt all day playing X Box. Get out of the house and look for challenge. That’s how TR built up his confidence. He actively sought hard tasks and took them on.
Start living the strenuous life today and increase your confidence by taking on a challenging goal. Do something that you have often thought about, but have never followed through with.
The strenuous life makes you a better husband and father
The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him.
Sadly, many men are shirking the responsibilities of family. The strenuous life requires that you be the best husband and father you can be. Work so you can provide a comfortable living for those who depend on you. Give the emotional support your wife needs. Be an active participant in your children’s lives.
The strenuous life makes your country stronger
In the last analysis a healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk.
Americans have gotten lazier and dumber. The success of a democratic republic like the United States depends on an educated and engaged citizenry. Sadly, most Americans don’t know what’s going on in the world, let alone their own country. Fewer American are engaged in their community. Shirking our civic duties will only make our country weaker.
Take on the challenge of being an engaged citizen. Keep up with current events not only in America, but also the rest of the world. And don’t just settle with watching the fluff news on Fox and CNN. Check out publications like The Economist or The Atlantic Monthly. They provide far more in-depth analysis of what’s going on in the world today. Also, get involved in your community. Attend town hall meetings. Join a civic group like the Rotary Club or a young professionals organization. Will it be hard to find time to do these things? Of course. But that’s what living the strenuous life is all about. Taking on challenges and overcoming them.
No country can long endure if its foundations are not laid deep in the material prosperity which comes from thrift, from business energy and enterprise, from hard, unsparing effort in the fields of industrial activity; but neither was any nation ever yet truly great if it relied upon material prosperity alone.
Overcoming the fear of failure and criticism
In your quest to live the strenuous life you will undoubtedly meet failure and criticism. Don’t let this hold you back from living the life of vigor. Failure and criticism are just obstacles for you to conquer as you seek to live a life of greatness. We leave you with a famous portion of TR’s speech, “The Man in the Arena.”
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.
Last updated: November 22, 2017