In The Arena: Words of Inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt

Trying to make the political process serve the public interest is hard work, and most of the time, good people will fail. Whether at the level of town councils or national governments, I have seen many people who entered as idealists and left cynical as they were crushed by experienced lobbyists, deceived, saw their message intentionally distorted and mocked, or were shoved aside in favor of someone who could write a six figure campaign contribution check.

What adds to the difficulty for such people is those chatterers who have made a virtue of political disengagement: “If you were as sophisticated as I am, you would see it’s all a big game, but alas, you poor child, you tried to stand up for what was right. How quaint.”

These words of T.R. are for all those who keep on trying:

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 and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, 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 he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “In The Arena: Words of Inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt”

  1. Like the quote!

    It seems Dear Teddy knew what many of our modern politicos seem to lack: Complaining is the easiest thing any human can do! Actually reporting, governing, and representing “the people” is too difficult for most “public” figures these days! I can hear the mouths of media punditry whining wherever I go, and I’d complain if I felt lazy!

  2. And ask the dead of the Philippines what good he made of that!

    In the short run, it is not the critic who counts; or not the critic alone. I actually have a lot of sympathy with TR’s view here, if not with the places it took him. But sometimes worth belongs to the person who, alarmed by the critic’s shrill outcry, realizes what the strong man is doing, and joins hands with her peers to tell him, “No!”. Legitimate democratic authority, or none of it. Teddy, put that big stick down!

    Courage and wholeheartedness within your authority is good; and stepping over your boundaries as a human among human fellows is evil; and sometimes it is the devil of a line between them. Disengage? No. Call a rigged game when you see it? Yes. And when the sneering jaded chatterers laugh that it is the only game in town –

    Prove that it is not!

    I do not, in most ways, know how. Nobody honestly knows how to do a thing that has not been done before. But, in the truest spirit of your quote, that would be a miserable excuse to shrink from trying in the teeth of need.

  3. Gray Woodland said: But, in the truest spirit of your quote, that would be a miserable excuse to shrink from trying in the teeth of need

    Gosh, I wish I’d said that – you are one fine writer.

  4. Milton, Areopagitica:

    “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is triall, and triall is by what is contrary. That vertue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evill, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank vertue, not a pure”

    Adrienne Rich, Virginia 1906:

    “I am tired of innocence and its uselessness.”

    My grandma:

    “It is not worthy of humanity to give up.”

  5. Sadly, your quote reminded me of Governor Walker talking exuberantly and defiantly to pseudo-Koch…
    There was no surrender in that monkey…

  6. “Actually reporting, governing, and representing “the people” is too difficult for most “public” figures these days! I can hear the mouths of media punditry whining wherever I go, and I’d complain if I felt lazy!”

    There is another way to look at this, which I think is perfectly valid, namely: IF your public are going to treat you this way, if they are willing to accept the obvious lies and stupidities of hucksters, the cruelty pedaled by “strong men”, the short term-ism of “economic thinkers”, then why exactly sweat blood to help them? Let them get what they damn well deserve, and maybe that’ll have them thinking a little more carefully about the next round of leaders they choose to follow.

  7. Keith Humphreys: Thank you! The subject is dear to my heart, and I spend a deal of time telling stories about it one way and another. May I note in return that this is also looking to me like one fine site?

    Maynard Handley:

    “If your public are going to treat you this way, if they are willing to accept the obvious lies and stupidities of hucksters, the cruelty pedaled by “strong men”, the short term-ism of “economic thinkers”, then why exactly sweat blood to help them?”

    Because I, and people I love, are also among my public? Or because I would rather lose good things through an excess of bounty, than through a ratcheting drive to the bottom? I don’t boast this stance for my own – I am neither very energetic nor exceptionally brave – but I do admire it, and seek to imitate it within my own powers.

    Still, I think you have a good insight here, within a narrower channel. People behave differently in different contexts and institutions. The way they behave in our present governmental and corporate institutions has just the sort of issues you complain of. I think that’s a sound reason for working mainly defensively within those contexts, and channelling really creative and convivial energies into other ones. Easy to say and hard to do – and hard, too, to be the ones fighting as the forlorn hope in powerful institutions gone bad. Harder yet, without the comfort of believing that those institutions are reformable. Perhaps parts of them are. But buying into them altogether – that has to be wickedly tempting. And that done, and people’s behaviour within them registered, it is just too short a step from there to keeping the institutions, and throwing the people aside in disgust.

    I think the misdirection of institutional despair towards people, by both political operator and public patient, is a big part of the mutual misbehaviour.

  8. Adding on to Gray’s comment:

    Because every blow delivered to a people *might* teach them to seek better, or it might ‘teach’ them to cringe faster, or to submit meekly and hope that somebody else will be hit this time.

  9. If good people fail most of the time, then the system is already broke and is going to fail at some point. Needing to have the fortitude of a saint in order to get anything worthwhile done is not likely to lead to a good long term solution. TR’s words are wonderful, but if good people loose 4 out of 5 over 30 or so years then you get what we have now. An oligarchy just as inhumane as that which our country lived through in the 1770’s.

  10. Alan,
    I’m sure in the Weimar Republic, TR’s words would be very hollow, given that the powers of the time did not want representative government to succeed in Berlin. If you took office and then saw one of your colleagues assassinated the next week after, your point would be very clear. (I note with much cynicism that those who are screaming loudest about “Weimar” are those who would be secretly happy to bring everything in Weimar about, including the Freikorps and worse yet.)

    I still have the hate and the burning resentment for those ideologues for which political engagement is beneath them.

    No, I’m not going to just say “work within the system” (or is that “kiss up to the system”?), but what else is there? I hope that “what else” for me is just non-violent protest. We all hope.

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