When I was a senior in High School, I was a football player who was fortunate enough to be considered for scholarships by a handful of colleges, including Brown University in Rhode Island. I liked Brown . . . it was Ivy League but had a certain outlier quality to it that appealed to me.   It was al title rough around the edges and without the affect of some of the more ‘upscale’ Ivies.   It was a rainy weekend in December, made memorable by a simple discovery that on something as humble as the dining hall pass they gave me was, there was, on the back, a quotation that spoke to my 18 year old spirit and resonated for many years within an optimistic and adventurous soul.  The back of the card bore this:

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

I was young then, full of myself and the possibilities of life that stretched before me without limit. What would life hold?  What high achievements would be mine? I had no idea and that was the beauty of it. To me, Roosevelt’s words seemed to capture the way to go about life –be ambitious, go all out, believe in yourself, don’t take chances, seek your destiny and don’t shrink from challenges. I slipped the card into my wallet and kept it there, permanently, as a reminder to “go for it” and not be held back by insecurity or  the fear of failure.

It’s 40 years later now, and I still have that dining hall card, and I can honestly say that what I took as meaning from that card helped me live a life in which I have indeed “dared greatly” and   “known the great enthusiasms” . . .and “strived valiantly”.     I have not led a timid life.  “High achievement” has eluded me,  except perhaps for a brief period in my youth in which I served our country honorably, but I took comfort because in Roosevelt’s formulation the consolation prize was that if I had failed, I had done so “while daring greatly”,  and thus I was not consigned to being one of those “cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

But was I reading the passage correctly?  Was I  keeping faith with Roosevelt’s true meaning as revealed through the context of his entire speech?  Or was I taking a sound bite, out of context, and projecting my own convenient meaning onto it?  Lately, as life has caught up with me and mistakes in judgment may end up defining me more than having the will and nerve to seek high achievement, I found myself wondering about the rest of the speech.  I knew the title of the full speech was “Citizenship in a Republic”, and I had read it at least once or twice “back in the day”.  But I had sailed through it on cruise control, taking little.  Now I suddenly found myself wanting to drill down into it in search of deeper meaning than the facile quote that had stirred a young man’s passions.


Roosevelt was speaking at the Sorbonne, in Paris, the oldest and most storied center of learning in the country that was widely regarded as the highest seat of culture and scholarship in Europe.  The date was April 23, 1910, and ex-President Roosevelt was on his way back to America after a yearlong African expedition undertaken on behalf of the Smithsonian.  America was still newly  power on the world stage.  In fact it had been a mere 12 years earlier when Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had telegraphed Commodore George Dewey in Hong Kong  with the news that America and Spain were at war, and Dewey was to proceed  to the Spanish colony of the Philippines and engage the Spanish fleet there.  World opinion favored Spain, a global naval power for hundreds of years, over the upstart Americans.  Yet the young, muscular (and armored) American squadron decimated the Spanish fleet with almost no casualties on the Amercian side, and as the magnitude of the American victory became known, the realization that America was now suddenly a world power would begin to sink in.  Twelve years late as Roosevelt addressed the Sorbonne, the idea of America as a player of equal stature on the world stage as the great powers of Europe was still a novel one, and a difficult one for ‘old Europe’ to accept.  Roosevelt knew this, and he approached the speech carefully.

As Roosevelt spoke, America was on the one hand a newly minted world power — but it was also true that America was less than a lifespan removed from the Civil War, and even a shorter span removed from the  struggle to settle and stabilize the western half of the country and, in so doing, achieve its “Manifest Destiny” to expand and control its borders from its Atlantic to Pacific shores.   It had been a  “rugged individual” spirit that defined frontier America — and as Roosevelt stood before the intellectual elite of Europe, he was the embodiment of that spirit which shook in stark contrast to the old guard and the Old World.

So, other than the famous passage, what did he say?

Roosevelt began speaking of himself as “a man from the New World” who feels a certain awe to be speaking at a seat of learning that was “the most famous university of mediaeval Europe at a time when no one dreamed that there was a New World to discover.” He then references the challenge that the taming of America represented — how to “conquer a continent” from hostile forces of man an nature meant that “The primaeval conditions must be met by the primaeval qualities which are incompatible with the retention of much that has been painfully acquired by humanity as through the ages it has striven upward toward civilization. In conditions so primitive there can be but a primitive culture.” Rather, America’s needs were for a “hard-driven, sinewy folk” capable of taming “savage men and savage nature”.

He then notes how America has evolved from that original set of conditions into a culture which still derives its identify from it .. that Roosevelt’s America is a country whose “conditions accentuate vices and virtues, energy and ruthlessness, all the good qualities and all the defects of intense individualism, self-reliant, self-centered, far more conscious of its rights than its duties, and blind to its own shortcomings.”

But now, at this moment, a decade after merging on the world stage, Americans are a people in search of culture and intellect which “their fathers throw aside in order better to wage the first rough battles for the continent”, and have a willingness to sit at the feet of the Old World scholars: “then, if we have the right stuff in us, we can show that Paul in his turn can become a teacher as well as a scholar.”

It is in this context, then, that Roosevelt turns to his subject of individual citizenship — a subject which he interprets to be of equal importance to those of the New World and the Old World. He makes the case that while under many systems the quality of the elite of society determines much; in the great “social experiment” of the democratic republics, “in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average women, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional cries which call for heroic virtues.”

It is at this point that Roosevelt begins to deliver a message that is clearly heartfelt, carefully thought out, and designed to be provocative, given the audience. He takes on the elite’s tendency toward cynicism:

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 twister 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 cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness.

And it is this, then that provides the context for his shout-out to The Man in the Arena, and his disdain for the critic who in context is actually the cynic. He restates his argument for the doer almost as eloquently as the famous passage when he says:

“There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength.”

Speaking in France, Roosevelt praises France for its leadership in “arms and letters”, noting that the two are not incompatible and may in fact derive sustenance from one another, and lauds a striving for a “high standard of cultivation and scholarship”, but:

Let us remember that these stand second to certain other things. 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 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.

Roosevelt continues his recipe for citizenship; he speaks of he need for “the will and power to work, to fight at need, and to have plenty of healthy children” — the last an acknowledgment of the task still before a growing America. But then he makes an argument regarding material wealth and success which, coming in the “Golden Age” in which the industrialists of the day occupied a position analogous to movie stars a century later, is a compelling one:

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 a real benefit, of real use- and such is often the case- why, then he does become an asset of real 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 here that Roosevelt makes a point which resonates as deeply, and more bitingly, than the “Man in the Arena” — and which in fact balances that portion in a critical way that I frankly wish I had understood better — a point about the “moral sense” that must be the underpinnings of the great efforts and devotions of the Arena:

Courage, intellect, all the masterful qualities, serve but to make a man more evil if they are merely used for that man’s own advancement, with brutal indifference to the rights of others. It speaks ill for the community if the community worships these qualities and treats their possessors as heroes regardless of whether the qualities are used rightly or wrongly. It makes no difference as to the precise way in which this sinister efficiency is shown. It makes no difference whether such a man’s force and ability betray themselves in a career of money-maker or politician, soldier or orator, journalist or popular leader. If the man works for evil, then the more successful he is the more he should be despised and condemned by all upright and far-seeing men. To judge a man merely by success is an abhorrent wrong; and if the people at large habitually so judge men, if they grow to condone wickedness because the wicked man triumphs, they show their inability to understand that in the last analysis free institutions rest upon the character of citizenship, and that by such admiration of evil they prove themselves unfit for liberty. The homely virtues of the household, the ordinary workaday virtues which make the woman a good housewife and housemother, which make the man a hard worker, a good husband and father, a good soldier at need, stand at the bottom of character.


Contemplated now, forty years later, this last section of Roosevelt’s speech to the Sorbonne resonates more powerfully than the one that guided me previously. Sadly and belatedly, I come to the conclusion that the effort to strive for great things must be tempered with a reason to do so.  If once possesses courage, intellect, or any other “masterful quality” — using them simply for advancement, whether monetary or in some other currency, is not the “high achievement” that Roosevelt was speaking about.  Fame and wealth don’t qualify as worthy objects in themselves — they must be in the service of something more meaningful, and they must be accomplished without “brutal indifference to the rights of others”.

Is it too late to right the course?  I don’t think so.  I have plenty of fight left in me, and a yearning for deeper sense of purpose than that which has occupied me recently.  A worthy cause is what is needed, and self-advancement for its own sake is not.  I am blessed with, it eels, robust health and a student mentality that seems immune to ossification .  I can still learn.  I can still do.   I won’t waste what I hope will be a long autumn of life — I’ll understand the simple virtues that stand at the ‘bottom of character’ and attend to them, and such great enterprises as I might be tempted to undertake will be undertaken for better reasons, or not at all.