The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses

Theodore Roosevelt

Book cover

I had very high hopes for this book. A friend of mine, with whom I often discuss political and philosophical issues, had suggested to me that I’d like Teddy Roosevelt (based on some affinities in world-views), and I had read and enjoyed a few of his speeches.

The main thing I like about TR’s outlook is his constant emphasis on individual virtue as the foundation of success and greatness for the nation. I think that today, it’s pretty rare for politicians to talk in these terms–especially liberal politicians. I’m quite persuaded by MacIntyre-style arguments that in modernity we have lost the concepts of “virtue” and “the good,” so I appreciate reading someone who talks in those very terms.

That TR is apparent in some places throughout these essays/speeches. My very favorite from this volume is “Fellow-Feeling as a Political Factor.” In it, he argues persuasively that the root of many social problems is the simple failure of people from different backgrounds to interact with one another. “A very large share of the rancor of political and social strife arises either from sheer misunderstanding by one section, or by one class, of another, or else from the fact that the two sections, or two classes, are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view, while they are both entirely ignorant of their community of feeling as regards the essentials of manhood and humanity,” he writes. And later: “The chief factor in producing such sympathy is simply association on a plane of equality, and for a common object. Any healthy-minded American is bound to think well of his fellow-Americans if he only gets to know them. If the banker and the farmer never meet, or meet only in the most perfunctory business way, if the banking is not done by men whom the farmer knows as his friends and associates, a spirit of mistrust is almost sure to spring up.” TR wrote this at a time of extreme inequalities of wealth, not unlike today, and I think his diagnosis is right on.

So, to the problems. Several of the essays in this volume are on foreign policy, which is the area in which TR and I most strongly disagree. He is of course a major proponent of “gunboat diplomacy,” of the supposedly beneficial “civilizing influence” of American military occupation in places such as the Philippines, and of the Spanish-American War in general. It especially bothers me to read TR making these arguments, then turning around and talking up Christianity. He even explicitly criticizes Tolstoy by name for his pacifistic vision of Christianity. Although I was no huge fan of Tolstoy’s book, I do agree with him that Christianity is fundamentally pacifistic. TR’s version of Christianity is a classic example of the Constantinian accord between Christianity and the state, to the detriment of both. TR is also quite sexist, talking a lot about how a woman’s duty in the world is to raise many healthy children. In a way I can’t fault him for that because of the time he lived in, but I guess he was progressive on many other things so I expected better of him.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars