Notes from The Strenuous Life
by Theodore Roosevelt
After reading Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, I was hungry to devour more of his writing so I picked up this book and I wasn’t displeased. As a matter of fact, now I intend to jump into The Rough Riders. I admire the type of man he was and it’s fascinating to read his documentation of manhood.
That manliness is now lost or, at least, blurred so badly by bad machismo and the antics of jackasses that, unless we seek out and read the clear words of great men like Roosevelt and begin to put original meaning back in place. Strength with tenderness, protection of the weak are lost at present. I want it back so I’m learning and teaching. Here are some quotes from the book:
Work is essential whether it’s physical or mental. If, what we do is for mere enjoyment is not satisfactory.
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.
I don’t think this next quote would float well at many social events. One thing is sure, it would start a conversation.
When men fear work or fear righteous war, when women fear motherhood, they tremble on the brink of doom; and well it is that they should vanish from the earth, where they are fit subjects for the scorn of all men and women who are themselves strong and brave and high-minded.
After all the reading of Roosevelt’s books I’ve done lately, it’s clear to me that he is still a major influence over our foreign policy.
The guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago left us echoes of glory, but they also left us a legacy of duty. If we drove out a medieval tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy, we had better not have begun the task at all. It is worse than idle to say that we have no duty to perform, and can leave to their fates the islands we have conquered.
I see this in the two factions of Progressivism (Republicans & Democrats) these days.
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.
When a partisan 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-partisan political organization falls under the control of the fantastic extremists always attracted to such movements, in its turn it becomes either useless or noxious.
This quote is particularly interesting in light of the conservative, anti-higher education movement going on at present. Interestingly, the advocates for avoiding higher education are not taking their own advice concerning their own children. A particularly interesting point made by T.R. in this quote is his comment on “boys of weak fiber…may be seriously damaged” in college. Agreed, college can be indoctrination of the weak-minded if you are not prepared for it.
There are any number of men, however, priding themselves upon being “hard-headed” and “practical,” who sneer at book-learning and at every form of higher education, under the impression that the additional mental culture is at best useless, and is ordinarily harmful in practical life. Not long ago two of the wealthiest men in the United States publicly committed themselves to the proposition that to go to college was a positive disadvantage for a young man who strove for success. Now, of course, the very most successful men we have ever had, men like Lincoln, had no chance to go to college, but did have such indomitable tenacity and such keen appreciation of the value of wisdom that they set to work and learned for themselves far more than they could have been taught in any academy. On the other hand, boys of weak fiber, who go to high school or college instead of going to work after getting through the primary schools, may be seriously damaged instead of benefited. But, as a rule, if the boy has in him the right stuff, it is a great advantage to him should his circumstances be so fortunate as to enable him to get the years of additional mental training. The trouble with the two rich men whose views are above quoted was that, owing largely perhaps to their own defects in early training, they did not know what success really was. Their speeches merely betrayed their own limitations, and did not furnish any argument against education.
T.R. shows how having a good character requires one to live up to the duty to do good, not simply abstain from doing bad things.
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. The Bible always inculcates the need of the positive no less than the negative virtues, although certain people who profess to teach Christianity are apt to dwell wholly on the negative. 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.
Honesty is the prerequisite of any politician.
No community is healthy where it is ever necessary to distinguish one politician among his fellows because “he is honest.” Honesty is not so much a credit as an absolute prerequisite to efficient service to the public.
Somebody tell Rush Limbaugh!
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.
The necessity of a virtuous citizenry.
“Who shuns the dust and sweat of the contest, on his brow falls not the cool shade of the olive,” and “A free State exists only in the virtue of the citizen.” We all accept these statements in theory; but if we do not live up to them in practice, then there is no health in us. Take the two together always.
What’s most interesting to me in this quote is the contrast he paints with the references to the weaknesses of the Greek and the Roman forms of government. The Greeks are extreme local government and the Romans are extreme national, both failed. Maybe because of their extreme approaches.
Under any governmental system which was known to Europe, the problem offered by the westward thrust, across a continent, of so masterful and liberty-loving a race as ours would have been insoluble. The great civilized and colonizing races of antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans, had been utterly unable to devise a scheme under which when their race spread it might be possible to preserve both national unity and local and individual freedom. When a Hellenic or Latin city sent off a colony, one of two things happened. Either the colony was kept in political subjection to the city or state of which it was an offshoot, or else it became a wholly independent and alien, and often a hostile, nation. Both systems were fraught with disaster. With the Greeks race unity was sacrificed to local independence, and as a result the Greek world became the easy prey of foreign conquerors. The Romans kept national unity, but only by means of a crushing centralized despotism.
Our form of government reflects the virtues of the citizenry.
Woe to all of us if ever as a people we grow to condone evil because it is successful. We can no more afford to lose social and civic decency and honesty than we can afford to lose the qualities of courage and strength. It is the merest truism to say that the nation rests upon the individual, upon the family—upon individual manliness and womanliness, using the words in their widest and fullest meaning.
It seems our honor has been lost in international policy. We will as readily make treaties with tyrannical dictators as we will with legitimate governments for the sake of expediency.
For the sake not only of ourselves but of our children and our children’s children we must see that this nation stands for strength and honesty both at home and abroad. In our internal policy we can not afford to rest satisfied until all that the government can do has been done to secure fair dealing and equal justice as between man and man. In the great part which hereafter, whether we will or not, we must play in the world at large, let us see to it that we neither do wrong nor shrink from doing right because the right is difficult; that on the one hand we inflict no injury, and that on the other we have a due regard for the honor and the interest of our mighty nation; and that we keep unsullied the renown of the flag which beyond all others of the present time or of the ages of the past stands for confident faith in the future welfare and greatness of mankind.
Do not envy the willfully idle.
Sometimes we hear those who do not work spoken of with envy. Surely the wilfully idle need arouse in the breast of a healthy man no emotion stronger than that of contempt—at the outside no emotion stronger than angry contempt. The feeling of envy would have in it an admission of inferiority on our part, to which the men who know not the sterner joys of life are not entitled.
It’s sad how common this is these days. People are completely, voluntarily ignorant of too many important issues. They don’t even know how their government is supposed to be structured and operate. Pitiful.
Poverty is a bitter thing; but it is not as bitter as the existence of restless vacuity and physical, moral, and intellectual flabbiness, to which those doom themselves who elect to spend all their years in that vainest of all vain pursuits—the pursuit of mere pleasure as a sufficient end in itself.
Our duty to our family (children) is to teach them to work and to live up to their own duties.
Every father and mother here, if they are wise, will bring up their children not to shirk difficulties, but to meet them and overcome them; not to strive after a life of ignoble ease, but to strive to do their duty, first to themselves and their families, and then to the whole State; and this duty must inevitably take the shape of work in some form or other.
The world is not ruled by the intelligent or the benevolent but the cunning. It is time to shackle cunning.
No hard-and-fast rule can be laid down as to where our legislation shall stop in interfering between man and man, between interest and interest. All that can be said is that it is highly undesirable, on the one hand, to weaken individual initiative, and, on the other hand, that in a constantly increasing number of cases we shall find it necessary in the future to shackle cunning as in the past we have shackled force.
Hey, Boston, you need to know this:
[T]here are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting; and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words his position becomes absolutely contemptible.
Does anyone these days think of the trade unions and get a sense of wholesomeness? Or, does it bring thoughts of corruption and brutality?
[I]f managed unwisely, the very power of such a union or organization makes it capable of doing much harm; but, on the whole, it would be hard to over-estimate the good these organizations have done in the past, and still harder to estimate the good they can do in the future if handled with resolution, forethought, honesty, and sanity.
It’s so heartwarming to see these words of encouragement concerning working and service to family and community. It’s what I believe in spite of anything taught by our society in this age.
Every good citizen, whatever his condition, owes his first service to those who are nearest to him, who are dependent upon him, to his wife, and his children; next he owes his duty to his fellow-citizens, and this duty he must perform both to his individual neighbor and to the State, which is simply a form of expression for all his neighbors combined. He must keep his self-respect and exact the respect of others. It is eminently wise and proper to strive for such leisure in our lives as will give a chance for self-improvement; but woe to the man who seeks, or trains up his children to seek, idleness instead of the chance to do good work.
The vice of envy. It seems to be the driving force in most people nowadays. Understand that envy is a “confession of inferiority.”
To break the Tenth Commandment is no more moral now than it has been for the past thirty centuries. The vice of envy is not only a dangerous but also a mean vice, for it is always a confession of inferiority.
Sigh…what else is there anymore?
Woe to us as a nation if we ever follow the lead of men who seek not to smother but to inflame the wild-beast qualities of the human heart!
I like the comment, “must be hunted out of it.” I agree.
Craft unaccompanied by conscience makes the crafty man a social wild beast who preys on the community and must be hunted out of it. Gentleness and sweetness unbacked by strength and high resolve are almost impotent for good.