The Strenuous Life by Theodore Roosevelt

This is a collection of essays by Teddy Roosevelt, America’s 26th president. Roosevelt is a fascinating character, and I have read several of his biographies, most notably the trilogy by Edmund Morris. I was first turned on to Teddy when I read his famous “Man in the Arena” quote at the beginning of John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart. Since then I’ve seen it in a number of other places, and no doubt you have seen it, too.

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.-Theodore Roosevelt

The Strenuous Life was the first opportunity I have had to read some of Roosevelt’s own writing, and I can see that the Man in the Arena quote is no outlier. He is eminently quotable. He knows how to speak to both heart and mind, rousing both the emotion and the intellect. Morris’s books made it clear, and his own writings bear it out, that Roosevelt was a genius.

If it is possible to find a theme in a selection of essays, I would say that the theme of The Strenuous Life is the necessity of character for national health. Whether writing about politics, sports, or war, Roosevelt consistently remarks on the importance of good moral character of individuals for the benefit of the nation.

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.-Theodore Roosevelt
I was struck by the similarities between the evils of his age and of our own. Though they were plagued by different vices, it seems to me that wickedness doesn’t necessarily creep so much as change shape. The sins of the early 20th century (such as monopolistic greed) are as morally reprehensible to us as our sins (such as sexual immorality) would be to them.

Roosevelt also warns against a man’s overindulgence in sports. His words on this matter are quite relevant for our own time:

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.-Theodore Roosevelt
And elsewhere:
When a man so far confuses ends and means as to think that fox-hunting, or polo, or foot-ball, or whatever else the sport may be, is to be itself taken as the end, instead of as the mere means of preparation to do work that counts when the time arises, when the occasion calls–why, that man had better abandon sport altogether.-Theodore Roosevelt
I wonder what he would think of all of our professional sports leagues, our round the clock sports media coverage, and our fantasy leagues. I think he would call them a false manliness, a distraction from the real work that men of character must accomplish in order for a nation to become great.

Theodore Roosevelt was pretty amazing. His writing is very inspiring, as you can see by this tweet:

So I’ll just leave you with one last quote:

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.-Theodore Roosevelt