One Bully Speech

You’ve probably been inspired by Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech. He actually delivered it 102 years ago this week, at the Sorbonne, in Paris on April 23, 1910; and the section of it that everybody seems to have read is this:

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.

Now that was some oratory. Yet that is just one short paragraph from an excellent speech that is full of such powerfully constructed sentiments. Why, consider this paragraph, on why the quality of the individual citizen matters to a representative republic more than to a monarchy or other absolutist or oligarchical state:

Today I shall speak to you on the subject of individual citizenship, the one subject of vital importance to you, my hearers, and to me and my countrymen, because you and we are great citizens of great democratic republics. A democratic republic such as ours – an effort to realize its full sense government by, of, and for the people – represents the most gigantic of all possible social experiments, the one fraught with great responsibilities alike for good and evil. The success or republics like yours and like ours means the glory, and our failure of despair, of mankind; and for you and for us the question of the quality of the individual citizen is supreme. Under other forms of government, under the rule of one man or very few men, the quality of the leaders is all-important. If, under such governments, the quality of the rulers is high enough, then the nations for generations lead a brilliant career, and add substantially to the sum of world achievement, no matter how low the quality of average citizen; because the average citizen is an almost negligible quantity in working out the final results of that type of national greatness. But with you and us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average women, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.

Yes, the President did write long paragraphs, and articulate complete thoughts, didn’t he?

Did you know that the famous “man in the arena” paragraph cited above is not the whole paragraph. Indeed, it’s perhaps a third. Do you dare to read the whole thing? The commonplace part of the quote is italicized below.

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. Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who “but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier.”

Now, we can reach into his other paragraphs and excise from their logical firmament a few more heady lines. These thoughts immediately precede the famous Man in the Arena paragraph, and yes, this forbidding block of text is just half of one of TR’s paragraphs :

Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.

Reading that paragraph, one is struck that it was delivered in 1910, not 2010. “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer.” Roosevelt speaks to us from beyond the grave. Will we listen?

Theodore Roosevelt did not only speak those words, he lived them. “Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world,” was not only something he said, but a principle he lived his entire life by. “The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary,” TR says, and you’re suddenly stricken with desire not to wear one of those three labels. Whether as a police official, a soldier, or the President of the United States, Roosevelt — to this day the only man to be awarded the Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize — was ever one “of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”

This speech illustrates why he remains a great inspiration to us all — a WeaponsMan for the ages. Some of his Progressive ideas haven’t survived the intervening century (and the uses to which they were put by later progs) all that well, but his patriotism, his pugnaciousness and his sheer joie de vivre mean that he will be remembered long after most of the dull presidents of recent decades. Nothing dull about TR.

You can get the complete text of the Man in the Arena speech here, or download a .pdf here, at the Almanac of Theodore Roosevelt. That was also the source of the images.

2 thoughts on “One Bully Speech

  1. John Gall

    Thank you for pointing me toward the full text of the speech. I think it should be required reading for all us Americans, perhaps several times a year.

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