On April 23rd, 1910, Theodor Roosevelt gave a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris. With this “Citizenship in a Republic” speech, he laid out his thoughts about the duties and responsibilities of state to citizen and citizen to state.
The speech is most known for its man in the arena passage, where he points out that the critics don’t count and that the credit belongs to the man who is in the arena.
It would be a shortcut to take this as the idea that it is only the person who leans into the work, acts, and tries that counts. What his speech does is describe in-depth how this person acts in his life and contributes to the community.
“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. […] 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.”
What Theodor Roosevelt is interested in, in his speech is to describe the culture of a nation that results from the relationship between individuals, between leadership and community, but also between nations. The responsibility is in the community as much as with the individual. The international community being yet to be established. The time of global organizations and international laws is yet to come.
But the ideas he is presenting remain relevant and might, today, even be understood as visionary. He for example is very clear about whom to admire:
“It is a bad thing for a nation to raise and to admire a false standard of success; and there can be no falser standard than that set by the deification of material well-being in and for itself.”
He keeps going with such distinctions, highlighting the consequences of forgetting to use a moral sense as a guide in choosing one’s goals. In doing he keeps the individual just as responsible as the community:
“But if a man’s efficiency is not guided and regulated by a moral sense, then the more efficient he is the worse he is, the more dangerous to the body politic. 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 those qualities and treats their possessors as heroes regardless of whether the qualities are used rightly or wrongly.”
And much of what he says can be found in our everyday activities:
“Every honorable effort should always be made to avoid war, just as every honorable effort should always be made the individual in private life to keep out of a brawl, to keep out of trouble; but no self-respecting individual, no self-respecting nation, can or ought to submit to wrong.”
It’s worth noting that the word war might just as well be replaced by conflict. It does take courage and resolution as he says, but what they allow is to act in conjunction with others. In his description, facing life with a sneer means to assume power over others. Whereas throughout his speech, Theodor Roosevelt frames the way to act as one of having moral standards leading to “acting with the other.”