The Strenuous Life

The Strenuous Life is both the name of a speech Roosevelt gave in 1899 and a personal philosophy he lived by.

He opens with:
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.

Kind of sounds like “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” doesn’t it?

We admire the man who embodies victorious effort; the man who never wrongs his neighbor, who is prompt to help a friend, but who has those virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life. It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past. A man can be freed from the necessity of work only by the fact that he or his fathers before him have worked to good purpose. If the freedom thus purchased is used aright, and the man still does actual work, though of a different kind, whether as a writer or a general, whether in the field of politics or in the field of exploration and adventure, he shows he deserves his good fortune. But if he treats this period of freedom from the need of actual labor as a period, not of preparation, but of mere enjoyment, even though perhaps not of vicious enjoyment, he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth’s surface, and he surely unfits himself to hold his own with his fellows if the need to do so should again arise.

Victorious effort means more than just “winning.” It means being a good person. If you have things easy it’s because other people before you put in effort – he acknowledges that being born into wealth means you personally didn’t have to put in any effort. If you are born into wealth, you still have a duty to do something useful with your life.

Children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them; not to seek ease, but to know how to wrest triumph from toil and risk. The man must be glad to do a man’s work, to dare and endure and to labor; to keep himself, and to keep those dependent upon him. The woman must be the housewife, the helpmeet of the homemaker, the wise and fearless mother of many healthy children.

Yeah, there’s crap like this in here. It was 1899. Women couldn’t even vote yet.

The guns that thundered off Manila and Santiago left us echoes of glory, but they also left us a legacy of duty. If we drove out a medieval tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy, we had better not have begun the task at all.

This sounds familiar: if we invade another country to establish democratic rule then we have to actually hang around after all the death to help … establish democratic rule.

Then he goes on to talk at length about the wars of his day, blames much of the failure and death on lack of leadership (rather than the effort of the ground soldiers) and proposes re-organizing the military.

This was both a national philosophy in terms of raising a “be all you can be” generation and a personal philosophy. He was constantly working. It wasn’t a hardship or burden, it was just his way of life. The way that seemed correct and normal to him.

If you are a child of the 80’s, it’s somewhat akin to John Keating’s “carpe diem” philosophy. If you are a child of the 90’s/00’s, think YOLO but without all the jerky/selfish crap.

You can read his whole speech, verbatim, here.

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