Theodore Roosevelt’s “Strenuous Life” Speech Today

By Simon Maass

Reading Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “strenuous life” speech nowadays elicits, mainly, two reactions. Firstly, one is struck by the strength of the late statesman’s character – Roosevelt’s biography leaves no doubt as to his sincerity in expounding “the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife.” Secondly, one cannot but notice how antiquated and bizarre this oration would appear if delivered in our time. The tough, exacting ethos it defends has long since fallen from grace in this age when it is considered cruel to punish criminals for their transgressions, bigoted to uphold hard work and discipline, and kind to lower standards in education.

Maybe the most clarion voice of opposition to this cultural drift in the recent past has been Amy Chua’s 2011 memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which set out to defend her aggressively demanding East Asian style of parenting. “When an entire nation reacts so strongly to something, you know you have hit a nerve,” commented Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people that year, a place on which the memoir had earned its author. The great attention accorded to this work is itself interesting, as the book is not very good. Chua relies almost exclusively on her experiences in raising her own two daughters, and the title overpromises in that it ends up being unclear what conclusions her observations actually warrant. For instance, she mentions that her husband, Yale professor Jed Rubenfeld, was parented very liberally. This raises the question of whether her daughters’ success confirms the merits of her tough-love tactics, given that her spouse became a high achiever as well despite the radically different treatment he received as a boy. As if to add annoyance to frustration, Chua’s reminiscences overflow with dull fluff about her two dogs. In short, Sandberg seems to have been correct. The interest in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” was likely due more to a widespread sense that modern child-rearing was too lax than to the book’s own merits.

Having noted this, we can consider a series of psychological and societal phenomena which are relevant to our culture’s general mollification. The following is a loose collection of elements of the human experience, banded by the common denominator that there exists certain evidence which suggests the (partial) superiority of the “tougher,” “darker” view of the subject over the more conventional, “softer” view.

In a brand new academic article in Kyklos, authors Alberto Chong and Marco Z. Chong present trailblazing new findings about the effects of fear of failure on performance. The scholars’ systematic analysis of every episode of the television show MasterChef across ten years reveals a connection between contestants’ brushes with failure, including disqualification, and “an increase of two to four positions in the final placement of the cooking competition,” as the abstract puts it. Using narrow escapes from a calamity as a proxy for fear of failure, and refining their study by considering whether or not a participant explicitly voiced anxiety over possible fiasco and disgrace, the two academics conclude that being afraid of failing can improve one’s achievement. Although they acknowledge that the relationship they have discovered could be caused by some other factor, it is clear that they do not consider this a probable explanation. Chong and Chong’s results go against the grain of most of the previous research on fear of failure, which generally suggests that such dread is detrimental to performance. The twain readily admits this fact, however, arguing that much-existing literature on the subject is based on subjective measures, a defect which their approach avoids. Moreover, they write, that some more recent contributions support their interpretation of their evidence by indicating that fear of failure has the potential to increase accomplishment. My experience leads me to favor a perspective that they briefly mention, crediting a 2016 paper with it: “Fear of failure may be motivating for highly ambitious individuals that can deal with intense competition but demotivating for the less ambitious.”

A 2017 article for the Wharton School reports that, in defiance of “the commonly accepted wisdom,” a study of nearly 800 financial consultancy professionals revealed that workaholism was not always a health risk. While the compulsion led to the affliction known as metabolic syndrome in some cases, it was only a subset of the addicts of toil that was at risk. According to the author, “workaholics who reported being highly engaged and fulfilled in their jobs stayed healthy.”

Even happiness itself may not be as important as is widely believed. Most people probably assume that misery shortens lives. However, it is not clear that this is true. For instance, a 2016 study concluded that “happiness and related measures of wellbeing do not appear to have any direct effect on mortality.” Instead, the semblance that they did came about because unhappiness could be caused by problems with health.

Some more caveats about happiness should be remembered. How it is to be measured is far from clear. Throughout history, what people have meant by it has changed substantially. Even how much of it is desirable is hard to say. “Mankind does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does,” Nietzsche famously maintained. And who could forget that masterful scene in “Little Miss Sunshine” about how hard times are what makes life interesting?

The above discussion has been rather loosely related to Roosevelt’s timeless disquisition. Still, I think the general point is warranted that our current culture is too “soft,” and that a great deal of the speech’s merit resides in its contrasting “hardness.” It is worth recalling how much our, and the world’s, civilization owes to the ancient Romans, a nation whose spirit was strikingly similar to the vision set forth by that great American leader who, on the other hand, gave his name to the Teddy bear. To discern the resemblance we need to look no further than Edith Hamilton’s “The Roman Way.”

It suffices to compare Roosevelt’s words (“A life of ignoble ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual”) to those of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” where Jupiter proclaims: “To the people of Romulus I set no fixed goal to achievement” (quoted on page 148 of the 2017 Norton paperback edition). “We do not admire the men of timid peace,” avers Roosevelt, and Hamilton writes: “High honor and love of country that made nothing of torture and death was what the Romans set first as the greatest thing of all” (ibid.,p. 154). “If you are rich and worth your salt,” Roosevelt says, “you will teach your sons that though they may have leisure, it is not to be spent in idleness,” and Hamilton explains that “ingrained in [the Romans] was the idea of discipline, the soldier’s fundamental idea” (ibid., p.148).

How far we have fallen away from the ideals of the “strenuous life” speech is easily observable in our politics. On the left, the fact is too obvious to require further elaboration, but we see it on the right – or what passes for the right – as well. The president’s inspiring monologue is nowadays mostly remembered for its advocacy of certain principles for individual life. Shabana Bachu, writing for the history website The Archive, mainly views the text against the background of Roosevelt’s extensive history with athletics. The speech has even inspired a lifestyle website called Strenuous Life. However, reading past the first three paragraphs of the Commander in Chief’s stern lecture reveals that its central thesis is about foreign policy. “If in 1861 the men who loved the Union had believed that peace was the end of all things, and war and strife the worst of all things,” we read, “and had acted up to their belief, we would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, we would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars.” Roosevelt makes it abundantly clear that he wishes to see “the mighty American republic […] as a helmeted queen among nations.” 123 years later, many of his fellow Republicans are balking, not at the deployment of American soldiers to Ukraine, but merely at the provision of military aid to that country. In previous articles, I have shed some light on the deceitfulness of the right-wing anti-interventionist movement. Its use of such arguments based on blatant falsehoods as I discussed in those essays indicate that the problem is deeper than an intellectual error. It is a cultural error that distorts perceptions as generally as the green-tinted glasses in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

How to remedy this deep-seated ailment? One avenue is provided by Christianity. A theological paradigm that would serve this purpose well is laid out by J. Daryl Charles in his rebuttal of Gregory A. Boyd’s treatise “Crucifixion of the Warrior God.” Through extensive argument intimately following scriptural accounts, Charles supports his understanding of Christ as “the Lion of Judah, [even though his] claws are now effectively shorn and [his] character is rendered meek and mild so as not to offend our contemporary sensibilities.” Similarly, Roosevelt was guided in his thinking by “turn-of-the-century muscular Christianity,” as Professor Fred Colby Hobson has written (quoted in this paper, p.21). Other approaches to solving our cultural degradation would undoubtedly work as well. The main point is that something must be done.

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