An old Theodore Roosevelt quote has become an unlikely pop culture phenomenon. Pop star Miley Cyrus has it tattooed on her arm. Basketball legend LeBron James emblazons an adaptation of it (“Man in the Arena”) on his sneakers before big games. Cadillac made a paraphrase of it (“Dare Greatly”) the basis for its advertising campaigns.
The 1910 speech they reference was a memorable one. “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,” Roosevelt said. The quote concludes, “If he fails, at least [he] fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It’s easy to see why sports superstars like it. These powerful words contain two doctrines essential to sporting success.
First, victory requires energy. Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” strives, works and toils. Throughout his lifetime, the former president venerated “the man who embodies victorious effort.”
Second, the speech celebrates one’s ability to cast off failure, to develop resilience and rebound from shortcomings. In the sports world, the capacity to forget a bad game or performance makes an athlete stronger. A Tom Brady career retrospective documentary series was called “Man in the Arena” and referred to Roosevelt’s speech as a guiding principle — to get back out there and try again.
Yet, the speech rarely elicits careful reading. Most of the time we refer to it as the “man in the arena” speech. Roosevelt called it “Citizenship in a Republic,” and the short passage we know so well has overshadowed his broader point about the need for collective responsibility in a democracy. In today’s political milieu, the speech has a profound relevance.
Roosevelt did not advocate individualism. Whether on the field of play or in the political arena, he acknowledged that a single person had tremendous power and potential but that any individual effort paled in comparison to the power of a group of like-minded people. “I am a strong individualist by personal habit,” he admitted, but he added: “It is a mere matter of common sense to recognize that the State, the community, the citizens acting together, can do a number of things better than if they were left to individual action.”
Roosevelt made the speech in Paris. After he left the presidency in 1909, he took leave of Washington and sailed to Africa to hunt game. After the safari, he traveled to Europe and lectured the Old World on empire, international relations and peace. He gave dozens of talks in Europe, with his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech in Paris deviating from these themes.
His inspiration came from the streets of the Rive Gauche — the Left Bank, which Paris’s avant-garde artists and writers called home. Roosevelt slipped out of his hotel and anonymously blended into the throngs of bustling window-shoppers and passersby along the quays of the Latin Quarter. In the early 20th century, many famous Americans resided in these neighborhoods. Artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso met in writer and poet Gertrude Stein’s apartment. Novelist Edith Wharton lived only a few blocks from Stein, and the American dancer Loie Fuller perfected her serpentine dance at the Odéon.
Roosevelt wandered in and out of the rare-book shops thinking about the historical parallels between the United States and France. Each nation shared the same system of government, and France was the only stop on his European tour without a monarch. The benefits of democracy seemed apparent to him, as they always had. Democracy provided citizens with self-determination, and popular sovereignty gave rise to personal liberty. The cultural parade he saw on the Left Bank was the product of democracy.
As he walked on, democracy’s weaknesses became equally apparent. Roosevelt plodded north, across the River Seine, through the Place Vendôme. In this part of Paris, towering monuments to Napoleon and the Paris Commune caught his attention, telling the story of the city’s dalliances with revolution and dictatorship. Democracy required vigilance and morality to survive these inevitable crises.
Such conclusions did not come to him as an epiphany. Roosevelt had preached about civic responsibility throughout his storied political career. But the Parisian experience reinforced his convictions and influenced the speech he made the following day at the Sorbonne, the city’s oldest university. There, a huge crowd clambered into an auditorium to hear the most famous American leader to talk in Paris since Ulysses S. Grant had visited the city more than 30 years prior.
The speech did not disappoint. The crowd cheered ceaselessly while members of the French academy huddled around and congratulated the former president on a rousing lecture. Still, Roosevelt could not have expected it would make the impression it did. He certainly could not have imagined it would become a sound bite for future American athletes and celebrities.
When read as a whole, the speech calls for citizens to work together to bring about social justice. Equality was the ultimate goal of democracy. Good citizens “see to it that others receive the liberty which he thus claims as his own” and in the optimum case, each person would contribute to this common good.
“The best test of true love of liberty,” Roosevelt related, “is the way in which minorities are treated in the country.” Even though he didn’t fully practice what he preached in his own political career, Roosevelt’s speech implied that race hatred, misogyny, ableism, classism, ageism and discrimination of any kind diminished the democratic experiment.
It was perhaps this passage that inspired Nelson Mandela to give a copy of the speech to South Africa’s rugby captain, François Pienaar, before the 1995 World Cup. In the film “Invictus,” Hollywood swapped Roosevelt’s speech for a British poem. That creative license obscured Mandela’s purpose. He did not give it to Pienaar to inspire victory in the game. It was meant to inspire unity off the pitch. When Mandela became president, he inherited a divided nation. These divisions were obvious in rugby, a sport dominated by White players. While in prison, Mandela applauded for any team other than the South African Springboks. Cheering the opposing team was an act of defiance in protest of his country’s apartheid practices. As president, however, Mandela sought opportunities for social cohesion and he gave Pienaar the speech in an attempt to renew South African democracy. That was Roosevelt’s intention, too.
Roosevelt’s case for good citizenship has been corrupted. Now a pithy affirmation of individualism, the frequent citations ignore the real “man in the arena” whom Roosevelt identified as the ordinary person. In Paris, he exclaimed that the heroes of a republic go to work every day. Yet, Roosevelt pointed out that the most important work is “non-remunerative in character.” Caring for children, volunteer activism, charity, helping a neighbor and other similar acts are the greatest contributions to the health of the republic — and to the vitality of democracy more broadly.
“It is not the critic who counts,” Roosevelt said in the speech. “Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.” The critic he referred to was anyone who “expresses contempt” or is “hostile to other citizens of the republic.” Beware the demagogue who breeds factions among us, Roosevelt warned.
As we move into a busy political season, and the mudslinging ramps up, it would serve us well to remember all of Roosevelt’s speech. It does not fit neatly on a pair of shoes or make for a neat tattoo, but the whole speech offers a lesson on the strengths of our democracy. It also points out where the threats exist.