The Man in the Arena: Theodore Roosevelt's Citizenship In A Republic

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better."

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Two weeks ago I shared a few excerpts from Charlie Munger’s Psychology of Human Misjudgment, and last week I pulled some thoughts from Joseph Brodsky’s Speech at the Stadium. Between both articles, subscriber count increased 10%! (For the curious, in addition to free subscribers, we now have TWO donating subscribers; if you are interested in helping increase that number by FIFTY percent, you can be awesome by taking a look at that here.)

Initially, I was surprised by the level of interest in the speech excerpts, but as I thought about it more, it makes complete sense — a witty billionaire and a Nobel Prize-winning poet are far more interesting than me!

So, I thought I would keep this article format going for at least another week — and for this week, I am pulling from Theodore Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech, given in April 1910 in France.

For those interested, the full speech transcript can be found here.

Who is Theodore Roosevelt?

Theodore Roosevelt, often referred to as T.R. or Teddy, was the 26th President of the United States, serving from 1901 to 1909. While serving as Vice President, he became the youngest person to assume the U.S. presidency at the age of 42 following the assassination of President McKinley.

Born in 1858 to a wealthy family in New York, Roosevelt was a sickly child with severe asthma. His health led to an early life spent mainly among books, but as he got older, he realized that intense physical exercise was the only way to defeat his sickliness. This focus on a “strenuous life,” as he would often refer to it, would stay with him for the rest of his life and lead to him embarking on cattle ranching business endeavors, intense hunting expeditions, military maneuvers, and boxing bouts ending in injuries to be laughed off.

He graduated from Harvard and entered politics at the age of 23 after being elected to the New York State Assembly in 1882. His early start in politics was cut short when his mother and wife (two days after giving birth to their daughter, Alice) died hours apart on February 14, 1884, from typhoid fever and kidney disease, respectively.

This double tragedy devastated Roosevelt, as it would anyone. Famous for his daily journaling, much of which still exists today, he wrote the following:

… I will hold on the rest of his biography for the moment. Later this year I might try to do a full post on his life. Let me know if that interests you at social@butwhatfor.com.

For those interested in learning more about T.R., I highly recommend Edmund Morris’ three-part biography of Theodore Roosevelt.

When Was the Speech Given?

In April 1910, as he was spending his first year after leaving office on a trip across Africa and Europe, Roosevelt stopped in Paris at the Sorbonne and, unbeknownst to him, was to give what would become quite possibly his most famous speech: The Man in the Area: Citizenship in a Republic.

According to Roosevelt’s biographer Edmond Morris, Roosevelt was “was surprised at its success, admitting to Henry Cabot Lodge that the reaction of the French was ‘a little difficult for me to understand’”. Before the end of the week, the speech had sold 5,000 copies and been translated and shared across Europe. 

Most famous for its criticism of those that cast stones at the few attempting to make progress or achieve something great, Roosevelt also touches on a plethora of wide-ranging topics around politics and personal responsibility.


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Don’t Forget to Learn from History

The pioneer days pass; the stump-dotted clearings expand into vast stretches of fertile farmland; the stockaded clusters of log cabins change into towns… the men who wander all their lives long through the wilderness as the heralds and harbingers of an oncoming civilization, themselves vanish before the civilization for which they have prepared the way…

The conditions accentuate vices and virtues, energy and ruthlessness, all the good qualities and all the defects of an intense individualism, self-reliant, self-centred, far more conscious of its rights than of its duties, and blind to its own shortcomings. To the hard materialism of the frontier days succeeds the hard materialism of an industrialism even more intense and absorbing than that of the older nations...

As the country grows, its people, who have won success in so many lines, turn back to try to recover the possessions of the mind and the spirit, which perforce their fathers threw aside in order better to wage the first rough battles for the continent their children inherit. The leaders of thought and of action grope their way forward to a new life, realizing, sometimes dimly, sometimes clear-sightedly, that the life of material gain, whether for a nation or an individual, is of value only as a foundation, only as there is added to it the uplift that comes from devotion to loftier ideals.

The new life thus sought can in part be developed afresh from what is round about in the New World; but it can be developed in full only by freely drawing upon the treasure-houses of the Old World, upon the treasures stored in the ancient abodes of wisdom and learning, such as this where I speak to-day. It is a mistake for any nation merely to copy another; but it is an even greater mistake, it is a proof of weakness in any nation, not to be anxious to learn from another, and willing and able to adapt that learning to the new national conditions and make it fruitful and productive therein.

Build-up the Individual to Build-up the Community

The success of republics like yours and like ours means the glory, and our failure the 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 of a very few men, the quality of the rulers is all-important. If, under such governments, the quality of the rulers is high enough, then the nation may for generations lead a brilliant career, and add substantially to the sum of world achievement, no matter how low the quality of the 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 with 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 woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the 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 can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.

Don’t Sit on the Sidelines

There are many men who feel a kind of twisted 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 second to achievement…

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, and 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 the 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 know neither victory nor defeat.

Build Your Character as You Build Your Mind and Body

Let those who have, keep, let those who have not, strive to attain, a high standard of cultivation and scholarship. Yet let us remember that these stand second to certain other things. There is need of a sound body, and even more need 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 in exercise for the body, always provided that we keep in mind that physical development is a means and not an end. 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. I speak to a brilliant assemblage; I speak in a great university which represents the flower of the highest intellectual development; I pay all homage to intellect, and to elaborate and specialized training of the intellect; and yet I know I shall have the assent of all of you present when I add that more important still are the commonplace, every-day qualities and virtues.

Judge the Action Instead of the Action’s Reward

That is why I decline to recognize the mere multimillionaire, the man of mere wealth, as an asset of value to any country; and especially as not an asset to my own country. If he has earned or uses his wealth in a way that makes him of real benefit, of real use—and such is often the case—why, then he does become an asset of worth.

But it is the way in which it has been earned or used, and not the mere fact of wealth, that entitles him to the credit… It is a good thing that they should have ample recognition, ample reward. But we must not transfer our admiration to the reward instead of to the deed rewarded; and if what should be the reward exists without the service having been rendered, then admiration will come only from those who are mean of soul.

The truth is that, after a certain measure of tangible material success or reward has been achieved, the question of increasing it becomes of constantly less importance compared to other things that can be done in life. It is a bad thing for a nation to raise and to admire a false standard of success; and there can be no falser standard than that set by the deification of material well-being in and for itself… the man who, having far surpassed the limit of providing for the wants, both of body and mind, of himself and of those depending upon him, then piles up a great fortune, for the acquisition or retention of which he returns no corresponding benefit to the nation as a whole, should himself be made to feel that, so far from being a desirable, he is an unworthy, citizen of the community; that he is to be neither admired nor envied; that his right-thinking fellow countrymen put him low in the scale of citizenship, and leave him to be consoled by the admiration of those whose level of purpose is even lower than his own.

A Combination of Practicality and Idealism is Needed

The citizen must have high ideals, and yet he must be able to achieve them in practical fashion. No permanent good comes from aspirations so lofty that they have grown fantastic and have become impossible and indeed undesirable to realize. The impracticable visionary is far less often the guide and precursor than he is the imbittered foe of the real reformer, of the man who, with stumblings and shortcomings, yet does in some shape, in practical fashion, give effect to the hopes and desires of those who strive for better things. Woe to the empty phrase-maker, to the empty idealist, who, instead of making ready the ground for the man of action, turns against him when he appears and hampers him as he does the work!…

Let him remember also that the worth of the ideal must be largely determined by the success with which it can in practice be realized. We should abhor the so-called "practical" men whose practicality assumes the shape of that peculiar baseness which finds its expression in disbelief in morality and decency, in disregard of high standards of living and conduct. Such a creature is the worst enemy of the body politic. But only less desirable as a citizen is his nominal opponent and real ally, the man of fantastic vision who makes the impossible better forever the enemy of the possible good.

Beware of Those that Take from Others for Your Benefit

Of one man in especial, beyond any one else, the citizens of a republic should beware, and that is 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…

Let me illustrate this by one anecdote from my own experience. A number of years ago I was engaged in cattle-ranching on the great plains of the western United States. There were no fences. The cattle wandered free, the ownership of each being determined by the brand; the calves were branded with the brand of the cows they followed. If on the round-up an animal was passed by, the following year it would appear as an unbranded yearling, and was then called a maverick. By the custom of the country these mavericks were branded with the brand of the man on whose range they were found.

One day I was riding the range with a newly hired cowboy, and we came upon a maverick. We roped and threw it; then we built a little fire, took out a cinch-ring, heated it at the fire; and the cowboy started to put on the brand. I said to him, "It is So-and-so's brand," naming the man on whose range we happened to be. He answered: "That's all right, boss; I know my business." In another moment I said to him: "Hold on, you are putting on my brand!" To which he answered: "That's all right; I always put on the boss's brand."

I answered: "Oh, very well. Now you go straight back to the ranch and get what is owing to you; I don't need you any longer." He jumped up and said: "Why, what's the matter? I was putting on your brand." And I answered: "Yes, my friend, and if you will steal for me you will steal from me."

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.


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Take care and have a great rest of the week,

— EJ


See here for an archive of recent newsletter articles

A few selected examples…

We Only Ever Talk About the Third Attack on Pearl Harbor

“It was a winter Sunday morning and the island of Oahu was asleep — its military at Pearl Harbor less alert than they might have been any other day of the week.

The winter trade winds blow steadily from the northeast against the Hawaiian island, rushing along and then up and over the 3,000-foot Koolau Range, with the moisture they carry being wrung out along the way. That moisture often forms into towering clouds, creating a dark wall of rain and weather.”

Planning the Attack on Pearl Harbor

The successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, but prevailing wisdom in Japan at the time said that the entrance was an inevitable eventuality. Many feared that a full-on attack by the United States had the potential to hobble Japanese war efforts elsewhere and even bring about a Japanese defeat. Thus, the attack was more of a desperate gamble to buy Japan time to secure a larger geography from which to extract natural resources and defend itself.

Japan’s strategy in the lead up to the December 7th attack was as impressive as the attack itself, providing a reminder that underestimating what you are up against, as the United States did with Japan at the time, can give the other side an advantage over you.”

Perseverance is Great, But Don’t Forget to Prepare

“After numerous terrorism incidents in the 1970s, the United States realized its armed forces had a blind spot when it came to counterterrorism. Green Beret Colonel Charlie Beckwith, who had served alongside the British Army's counter-terrorism unit the Special Air Service (also known as "SAS") in Malaysia, had been pushing for such a group since the 1960s.

Now that terrorism was a proven threat killing Americans and the opportunity to be proactive had passed, the U.S. Army decided it was a good time to commission its own SAS-like force - namely, Delta Force.

It is in the lead-up to the formation of Delta Force that we meet Eric Haney.”


But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting


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