Wisdom of Life

Theodore Roosevelt: On the Wisdom and the Meaning of Life

“For those who fight for it,

life has a flavor the sheltered will never know.”

Believe you can and you’re halfway there. Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground. The joy in life is his who has the heart to demand it.

There can be no life without change, and to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life. Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die; and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life. Both life and death are parts of the same Great Adventure. There are many forms of success, many forms of triumph. But there is no other success that in any shape or way approaches that which is open to most of the many, many men and women who have the right ideals. These are the men and the women who see that it is the intimate and homely things that count most. They are the men and women who have the courage to strive for the happiness which comes only with labor and effort and self-sacrifice, and only to those whose joy in life springs in part from power of work and sense of duty.

When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all. Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out. It was a pleasure to deal with a man of high ideals, who scorned everything mean and base, and who possessed those robust and hardy qualities of body and mind, for the lack of which no merely negative virtue can ever atone.

It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. The only man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything. Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty. Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease left a name worth remembering. I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well. 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 neither victory nor defeat.

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.

The teachings of the Bible are so interwoven and entwined with our whole civic and social life that it would be literally impossible for us to figure to ourselves what that life would be if these teaching were removed. I am no advocate of senseless and excessive cramming in studies, but a boy should work, and should work hard, at his lessons — in the first place, for the sake of what he will learn, and in the next place, for the sake of the effect upon his own character of resolutely settling down to learn it. Shiftlessness, slackness, indifference in studying, are almost certain to mean inability to get on in other walks of life.

Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character. It is true, of course, that a genius may, on certain lines, do more than a brave and manly fellow who is not a genius; and so, in sports, vast physical strength may overcome weakness, even though the puny body may have in it the heart of a lion. But, in the long run, in the great battle of life, no brilliancy of intellect, no perfection of bodily development, will count when weighed in the balance against that assemblage of virtues, active and passive, of moral qualities, which we group together under the name of character; and if between any two contestants, even in college sport or in college work, the difference in character on the right side is as great as the difference of intellect or strength the other way, it is the character side that will win.

To educate a person in the mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society. If there is one tendency of the day which more than any other is unhealthy and undesirable, it is the tendency to deify mere “smartness,” unaccompanied by a sense of moral accountability. We shall never make our republic what it should be until as a people we thoroughly understand and put in practice the doctrine that success is abhorrent if attained by the sacrifice of the fundamental principles of morality. Let the watchwords of all our people be the old familiar watchwords of honesty, decency, fair-dealing, and commonsense. We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man. We must see that each is given a square deal, because he is entitled to no more and should receive no less. The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us.

Our aim is not to do away with corporations; on the contrary, these big aggregations are an inevitable development of modern industrialism, and the effort to destroy them would be futile unless accomplished in ways that would work the utmost mischief to the entire body politic. We can do nothing of good in the way of regulating and supervising these corporations until we fix clearly in our minds that we are not attacking the corporations, but endeavoring to do away with any evil in them. We are not hostile to them; we are merely determined that they shall be so handled as to subserve the public good. We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.

Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth. Americanism is a question of principle, of idealism, of character. It is not a matter of birthplace, or creed, or line of descent.

I am an American; free born and free bred, where I acknowledge no man as my superior, except for his own worth, or as my inferior, except for his own demerit. The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price, peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first and love of soft living and the get-rich-quick theory of life. To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.

In order to succeed we need leaders of inspired idealism, leaders to whom are granted great visions, who dream greatly and strive to make their dreams come true; who can kindle the people with the fire from their own burning souls. The leader for the time being, whoever he may be, is but an instrument, to be used until broken and then to be cast aside; and if he is worth his salt he will care no more when he is broken than a soldier cares when he is sent where his life is forfeit in order that the victory may be won.

The longer I live the more I think of the quality of fortitude… men who fall, pick themselves up and stumble on, fall again, and are trying to get back up when they die.

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

“When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.”

***

~Theodore Roosevelt Jr., often referred to as Teddy Roosevelt or his initials T. R., was an American statesman, politician, conservationist, naturalist, and writer who served as the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909.

Excerpts from:

  • Theodore Roosevelt, The Roosevelt Book: Selections from the Writings of Theodore Roosevelt
  • Theodore Roosevelt, The Man in the Arena: Selected Writings
  • Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography
  • Theodore Roosevelt, The Strenuous Life, Essays and Addresses

©Excellence Reporter 2020

Categories: Wisdom of Life

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