Lancaster, SC. A little over one hundred years ago, on April 23, 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at one of the oldest universities in existence. He had arrived in Paris just days before with his entourage in the midst of a whirlwind tour across Europe and Africa that included everything from visits to major capitals and heads of state, to expeditions into African jungles to collect specimens for the Smithsonian Institute. The public was fascinated with his trip and Scribner’s Magazine pounced on the opportunity by financing the trip in exchange for rights to a series of articles Roosevelt wrote during the trip. There in Paris, at the Sorbonne in the Grand Amphitheater of the ancient University of Paris, Roosevelt delivered an oration he entitled “Citizenship in a Republic,” but which the world would soon come to call “The Man in the Arena.” The amphitheater was packed with professors, nine-hundred plus students, ministers of state in courtly attire, navy officers in full uniform, and an additional two thousand ticket-holders. As Roosevelt prepared to begin, the vice-rector of the Sorbonne announced that the greatest voice in the New World was about to speak, and as he looked at Roosevelt, his final words of introduction epitomized the man: “you unite morality with politics, and right with might.” The address that followed would attempt to do just that. And so, Roosevelt began:
Strange and impressive associations rise in the mind of a man from the New World who speaks before this august body in this ancient institution of learning. Before his eyes pass the shadows of mighty kings and war-like nobles, of great masters of law and theology; through the shining dust of the dead centuries he sees crowded figures that tell of the power and learning and splendor of times gone by; and he sees also the innumerable host of humble students to whom clerkship meant emancipation, to whom it was well-nigh the only outlet from the dark thralldom of the Middle Ages.
With this vivid image painted in his listeners’ minds, he launched into an address of perennial significance and astounding breadth. His original listeners must have been struck by Roosevelt’s sheer versatility and wide-ranging intelligence, unpacking topics as disparate as work, education, truth, family, politics, journalism, community, and more all in one speech. These diverse issues could have easily led to a confusing and disjointed address, but with Roosevelt’s unified worldview built on moral absolutes, there are deep connections between every topic.
Each year I am reminded again of the amazing scope, integrated worldview, and stunning prescience of Theodore Roosevelt during a roundtable discussion I have with my high-school history students after they have read “Citizenship in a Republic.” Every fresh reading of the speech brings something new into bold relief. To be sure, interpretations and opinions of Roosevelt the man and the politician are varied. But Roosevelt’s insights into education, family, and politics remain timeless and timely.
Education: Words and Deeds
Speaking at such a prestigious university, Roosevelt accurately diagnosed the failures of the elites and intellectuals in the crowd, and a message of action, duty, and absolute truth was the prescription. He cut right to the chase about the dangers of comfort bred by the Industrial Age and its narrative of Progress. In his view, modern society “accentuates vices and virtues, energy and ruthlessness, all the good qualities and all the defects of an intense individualism, self-reliant, self-centered, far more conscious of its rights than of its duties, and blind to its own shortcomings.”
Such a world calls for action, and by that Roosevelt does not mean activism. Rather, he means active participation in the real world of productive labor and ordinary family life. The educated elite must fight against the “temptation to pose . . . as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are one.” Roosevelt sniffs out the root problem of relativism and the apathy it engenders. Roosevelt then, in the most oft-quoted portion of the speech, urges his hearers to get “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.
The message that humans are meant to involve themselves in productive tasks still needs to be heard today. Many students—and adults for that matter—tend to avoid challenge for fear of failure, interpreting failure as lack of intelligence. Instead, Roosevelt issues a call to embrace challenges, praising the lessons learned from failure. Also in this call is an antidote to the permanent adolescence of today’s boomerang generation. As Roosevelt states: “the average man must earn his own livelihood . . . and he should be trained to feel that he occupies a contemptible position if he does not do so; that he is not an object of envy if he is idle, at whichever end of the social scale he stands, but an object of contempt, an object of derision.”
For Roosevelt, education plays a central role en route to adulthood, as he sees it not primarily as information transmission, but human formation in the unity of knowledge and virtue. Without truth and virtue, education only increases one’s abilities to extend self-interest, and if “not guided and regulated by a moral sense, then the more efficient he is the worse he is, the more dangerous to the body politic.” He advises,
There is need of a sound body, and even more of a sound mind. But above mind and above body stands character—the sum of those qualities which we mean when we speak of a man’s force and courage, of his good faith and sense of honor. I believe, of course, in giving to all the people a good education. But the education must contain much besides book-learning in order to be really good. We must ever remember that no keenness and subtleness of intellect, no polish, no cleverness, in any way make up for the lack of the great solid qualities. Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution – these are the qualities which mark a masterful people. Without them no people can control itself, or save itself from being controlled from the outside.
Throughout the address, Roosevelt assumes of his hearers a classical curriculum of sorts, taking for granted a significant level of cultural literacy with references to history’s Roland and Charlemagne, Shakespeare’s Hotspur and Scripture’s Gamaliel and Paul. Roosevelt himself personified the education he put forward as he was a man of broad knowledge, firm conviction, and moral absolutes; a man of words and deeds, knowledge and virtue, intellect and action. Worthy of imitation is the man who was as much at home on the frontier roping cattle as he was in the library writing one of his many books.
Family: Married and Fruitful
Roosevelt’s insights into family are also relevant and strikingly prescient. His remarks could just as easily be a critique to current cultural narratives surrounding marriage, family, and children, when he states:
Even more important than ability to work…is to remember that the chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. It was the crown of blessings in Biblical times; and it is the crown of blessings now. The greatest of all curses is the curse of sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility. The first essential in any civilization is that the man and the woman shall be father and mother of healthy children, so that the race shall increase and not decrease. If this is not so, if through no fault of the society there is failure to increase, it is a great misfortune. If the failure is due to deliberate and willful fault, then it is not merely a misfortune, it is one of those crimes of ease and self-indulgence, of shrinking from pain and effort and risk, which in the long run Nature punishes more heavily than any other. If we of the great republics, if we, the free people who claim to have emancipated ourselves from the thralldom of wrong and error, bring down on our heads the curse that comes upon the willfully barren, then it will be an idle waste of breath to prattle of our achievements, to boast of all that we have done. No refinement of life, no delicacy of taste, no material progress, no sordid heaping up of riches, no sensuous development of art and literature, can in any way compensate for the loss of the great fundamental virtues; and of these great fundamental virtues the greatest is the race’s power to perpetuate the race.
Modern cultural messaging encourages those physically able to bear children to avoid the possibility at all costs through a wide range of devices and medications, all the while emboldening them to engage in the very act that creates children and by its very nature communicates, “I want to have a baby with you.” Sacred beauty, commitment, intimacy, and vulnerability are traded away for a brief rush of individualistic pleasure. The current cultural narrative animates a further delay of child bearing until extended education is complete, career is in order, and debts are paid. Then, perhaps, if one wants commitment, one can think about marriage, and only children as an afterthought. Yet as young people reach their thirties, many of them realize too late that it was all a lie. In 1910, Roosevelt was already critical of such a mindset of “willful sterility,” calling it a crime of “self-indulgence,” and foreseeing the personal and societal problems it creates.
Roosevelt’s robust view of the family fights against such cultural forces. For him, there is an inherent beauty and power in the family as the life-generating force of society. In it, men and women are molded for the present and future, as it brings humans outside of themselves into the deeper satisfactions of sacrifice that develop human character. With the fruitful family as the central unit of society, everyone is “in the arena” actively involved and participating in meaningful tasks of human formation, productively contributing to human society. This counterbalances the “change the world” and “make a difference” dreams of many young people, which are nearly impossible to accomplish, difficult to measure, and abstract in nature, and which usually result in jaded young adults. The real way to “change the world” is to bring new people into the world, called children, and to raise and mold them to live meaningful lives in return. Roosevelt states:
The man’s foremost duty is owed to himself and his family. . . . He must pull his own weight first, and only after this can his surplus strength be of use to the general public. . . . Contempt is what we feel for the being . . . who wishes to do great things for humanity in the abstract, but who cannot keep his wife in comfort or educate his children.
What Roosevelt calls “the homely virtues” allow male and female to flourish fully in the context of family, and beyond. This family-centric view of society fights against the individualistic consumerism so prevalent today, one that was already emerging in Roosevelt’s day.
Politics: Truth and Community
Roosevelt’s understanding of the family informs his view of political community. From within the context of the family, men and women are best prepared for citizenship in a republic, which entails a set of duties first, then rights. Roosevelt sees no public life/private life dichotomy that so many politicians use to excuse their private failings. The human being is a unity that cannot be so easily partitioned into spheres. Therefore, the traits forged in the crucible of the family prepare the way for meaningful service in community based on the same values and choices made first in the context of the home. In order to function properly, this all requires ultimate commitments to truth, integrity, and one another.
In classic Roosevelt fashion, he illustrates the point with a manly story, this time from his days on the American frontier cattle ranching. Upon riding the range one day with a newly hired cowboy, a maverick cow was found on someone else’s property, and custom dictated that it should be branded with that property owner’s insignia. Instead, the new cowboy tried to brand it with Roosevelt’s mark. Roosevelt promptly fired the cowboy, explaining, “If you will steal for me then you will steal from me.” Even alone on the Great Plains, virtue was calling, and Roosevelt would not live by two standards, one public, one private. What a stinging critique of the deceitful duplicity of living a hidden, secret life by different standards. He turns the screws further:
Now, the same principle which applies in private life applies also in public life. If a public man tries to get your vote by saying that he will do something wrong in your interest, you can be absolutely certain that if ever it becomes worth his while he will do something wrong against your interest.
His concern on this point extends further into what seems to be a warning against the dangers of identity politics:
citizens of a republic should beware . . . of the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him, in one shape or another, profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic. It makes no difference whether he appeals to class hatred or class interest, to religious or anti-religious prejudice. The man who makes such an appeal should always be presumed to make it for the sake of furthering his own interest. The very last thing that an intelligent and self-respecting member of a democratic community should do is to reward any public man because that public man says he will get the private citizen something to which this private citizen is not entitled, or will gratify some emotion or animosity which this private citizen ought not to possess.
A quick perusal of modern politics reveals all too many examples of what Roosevelt warns against.
Roosevelt applies this same standard to journalism; good journalism serves the public good honestly, while bad journalism inflames selfish emotions for the sake of profit. Roosevelt understood well the growing power of the media in his day and channeled its power quite successfully, but his growing concern was the emergence of a journalism disconnected from truth. He says,
The power of the journalist is great, but he is entitled neither to respect nor admiration because of that power unless it is used aright. He can do, and he often does, great good. He can do, and he often does, infinite mischief. . . . Mendacity, slander, sensationalism, inanity, vapid triviality, all are potent factors for the debauchery of the public mind and conscience. The excuse advanced for vicious writing, that the public demands it and that the demand must be supplied, can no more be admitted than if it were advanced by the purveyors of food who sell poisonous adulterations.
Roosevelt perceived the media’s significant power to influence culture and morality. This relationship between the media and the public creates a feedback loop of sorts, where the media provides an information-product, and if enticing or outlandish enough, the public displays interest, which the media interprets as an endorsement of the product in designing their next product. With each iteration, the media product must become more extreme to get the same response, causing increasing moral decay over time. Roosevelt calls on journalists to stop the cycle and elevate their writing, tastes, and topics to those worthy of deeper human reflection. In his view, journalists aren’t beholden to the whims of the public, but have a duty to elevate the tastes of the public.
In close connection, Roosevelt sees a republic’s success hinging on meaningful human reflection and the actual free exchange of ideas. He states,
In a republic, to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.
Roosevelt’s pairing of intensity of conviction and diversity of conviction are a vital combination. Intensity of conviction implies ultimate commitments to ideas and principles, and in a society beholden to relativism this is an important reminder. Diversity of conviction implies different ideas openly debated in the public sphere. In a society burdened by political correctness and with few salutary models of meaningful, congenial debate and conversation, this also is an essential point. Living in community requires a shared sense of moral truths to allow for meaningful conversation, accurate journalism, and a trustworthy political process. This is the republic Roosevelt envisions and encourages.
As Roosevelt concluded, his French audience were overwhelmed by the challenge this representative of the New World had presented them with. What they witnessed was a bold, unified worldview from the most famous man on the planet. It was not a lofty, idealistic agenda of “change the world” or “dream big” as some such famous celebrity might speak today. Rather, it was a message of everyday action, productive work, and earthy grit, grounded in the great virtues formed in the family and molded by a classical education. Within a few short days, copies of the speech had been sent to every school teacher in France, and translations appeared in cities across the European continent. The speech quickly became known as simply, “The Man in the Arena,” and how fitting, for Roosevelt was the very man he described. What made the speech so powerful was that the ideas put forward were embodied in the speaker: a man powerful in words and deeds thanks to his education in knowledge and virtue, a man married and fruitful despite great personal family tragedies, and a man who devoted his life to sustaining meaningful political community. These themes are always relevant, thus making Roosevelt’s speech worth returning to, time and again.
- Nancy Whitelaw, Theodore Roosevelt Takes Charge (Illinois: Albert & Whitman Company, 1992), 155-156. ↑
- Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2010), 46. ↑
- Joy Pullman, “The Feminist Life Script Has Made Many Women Miserable. Don’t Let It Sucker You,” December 11, 2018. ↑
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013). ↑
- Investigative Journalist Douglas Rushkoff unpacks this point regarding the media and teenagers stating, “Who is mirroring whom? Real life and TV life have begun to blur. Is the media really reflecting the world of kids, or is it the other way around? The answer is increasingly hard to make out. And that’s when it hit me: It’s a giant feedback loop. The media watches kids and then sells them an image of themselves. Then kids watch those images and aspire to be that… And the media is there watching them do that in order to craft new images for them, and so on. Is there any way to escape the feedback loop?” Merchants of Cool, Program #1911, Original Airdate: February 27, 2001,Produced by Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin, Directed by Barak Goodman, Written by Rachel Dretzin, Correspondent and Consulting Producer, Douglas Rushkoff ↑
- Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2010), 45. ↑
- Ibid., 47-48. ↑