With the passage of time, even the greatest accomplishments can be forgotten or overtaken by subsequent events. What one generation reveres, another overlooks—or takes for granted.
Theodore Roosevelt was an individual of extraordinary, historic accomplishment. The construction of the Panama Canal, which linked the Atlantic and pacific, ensured America’s strategic significance in the 20th century and beyond. The protection of millions of acres of lands from ill-conceived development arose directly from his actions. And much more….
And yet, Roosevelt’s legacy is something larger, yet, perhaps more intimate in its reach. As TR often said of others, we ultimately revere people not for what they’ve done, but for what they are.
This is surely true of TR. His living legacy is his notion of the “strenuous life.” It was the foundation on which his life—and leadership—was painstakingly built.
Vigor di Vita
In a letter to a British acquaintance in 1900, Roosevelt referred to his book The Strenuous Life as presenting “my philosophy of life.” In his Autobiography he declared it: my philosophy—of bodily vigor as a method for getting that vigor of soul without which vigor of the body counts for nothing.
Roosevelt was particularly pleased with an Italian translation, Vigor di Vita, adding that he “always wished that I had myself used ‘The Vigor of Life’ as a heading to indicate what I was trying to preach, instead of the heading I actually did use.”
The Necessity of Choice
The keystone of the “strenuous life” is the possibility—and necessity—of choice. Roosevelt viewed himself as a self-made man, in the sense that he “made” his body, simultaneously fortifying his mind and spirit. Looking back on his youth, TR felt “as if that child were not the present he, individually, but an ancestor; just as much an ancestor as either of his parents.” He added, “The child is the father to the man in the sense that his individuality is separate from the individuality of the grown-up into which he turns.”
In contrast, Charles Washburn, an admiring friend (though of differing political pedigree) from college years forward, said, “The qualities I knew in the boy are the qualities most observed in the man, and that of all the men I have known for as long a time he has changed the least.”
Was Roosevelt’s decision to craft his own life an abandonment of what came before? Or did he build upon it, even as he achieved something dramatically different, entirely expanded in scope?
Achieving an Authentic Life
Roosevelt’s and Washburn’s apparently contradictory analyses can be reconciled.
Warren Bennis, a founder of the modern study of leadership, writes of “once-borns” and “twice-borns.” The latter “generally suffer as they grow up; they feel different, even isolated. Unsatisfied with life as it is, they write new lives for themselves.” Anticipating the objection that such self-creation is contrived, Bennis continues: “To be authentic is literally to be your own author (the words derive from the same Greek root), to discover your native energies and desires, and then to find your own way of acting on them…. When you write your own life, you have played the game that was natural for you to play. You have kept your covenant with your own promise.”
TR was a writer. Literary pursuits and thinking were a key part of his chosen experience. He conceived and drafted, and continually edited and improved the artistic performance that was his own life. Every day, every hour, every moment was a decision. As his friend George Haven Putnam wrote, “He believed that life was worthwhile; that the years and days were given to a man in trust, and that it was a crime to waste even an hour.”
Roosevelt—whose credo was Action, Action—and Still More Action!—created what the explorer Wilfred Thesiger called “The Life of My Choice.”
An Integrated Personality
What does taking command of that choice involve?
In “The Choice,” William Butler Yeats wrote hauntingly of the conflict between “perfection of the life, or of the work.” It is a conflict that all of us face, in varying intensity, even poignancy.
Roosevelt’s self-created approach, the “strenuous life,” stands in willful, joyous defiance. His personality was not divided against itself. He combined intellectual adventure with physical adventure. He was a man of thought as well as a man of action. His extraordinary public leadership was complemented by a full family life.
Ultimately, the decision to undertake the “strenuous life” has a moral foundation. Otherwise, it would simply be a call to opportunistic endeavor. Roosevelt’s notion requires a compass, with fixed points to navigate.
The moral foundation of Roosevelt’s creed is service. As with other moral conduct, it may be rewarded by fulfillment.
In the long run no man or woman can really be happy unless he or she is doing service. Happiness springing exclusively from some other cause crumbles in your hands, amounts to nothing. —Theodore Roosevelt
As Roosevelt intended, those who continue to draw inspiration from his leadership are moved not only by what he did, but even more from what he was.
Adapted from Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership.
Theodore Roosevelt | The Strenuous Life