Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Man In The Arena

The quality Teddy Roosevelt is speaking of here is not quite the same as the adaptability I have been speaking of, but it is related. Roosevelt, in his speech to the Sorbonne, stresses the striving, the action, the taking of consequences. He clearly likes the image of struggle, of daring great things. Rarrrgh.

Does the ability to stand back and change sets, to realise that the current theory is not reliable, come only by experience, by trial-and-error? I hope not. I hope that there is a cast of mind that can be taught, and a generation brought up on it. Especially as those who make decisions, even many decisions in a variety of situations, often still do not learn the skill.

But it is one way to get there, however unreliable, and Roosevelt’s 1910 speech at the Sorbonne is rousing, at any rate. You are probably familiar with this most famous section.
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.
Teddy restates the theme in the section immediately following.
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 or 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.
In fact, he pretty much repeats that theme throughout the full speech.The style is of another era, long, vivid to the point of purplish prose in places, but there are some great sections. Even better, he is saying this to the French! French academics! For that alone TR deserves to be on Rushmore.
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 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 to second achievement.
A little later
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.
And best of all
There are well-meaning philosophers who declaim against the unrighteousness of war. They are right only if they lay all their emphasis upon the unrighteousness. War is a dreadful thing, and unjust war is a crime against humanity. But it is such a crime because it is unjust, not because it is a war. The choice must ever be in favor of righteousness, and this is whether the alternative be peace or whether the alternative be war. The question must not be merely, Is there to be peace or war? The question must be, Is it right to prevail? Are the great laws of righteousness once more to be fulfilled? And the answer from a strong and virile people must be "Yes," whatever the cost. Every honorable effort should always be made to avoid war, just as every honorable effort should always be made by the individual in private life to keep out of a brawl, to keep out of trouble; but no self-respecting individual, no self-respecting nation, can or ought to submit to wrong.

1 comment:

Carl said...

Slate's Timothy Noah today stopped just short of calling TR a socialist in an unusually odd critique of McCain's economic policies. Of course, Noah mentioned neither TR's "big stick" foreign policy nor--as you quote--his anything-but-collectivist individuality.