Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism and the Courage to Create Rather Than Tear Down
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.”
By Maria Popova
“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”
How to prevent that cultural tragedy, which poisons the heart of a just and democratic society, is what Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858–January 6, 1919) examined when he took the podium at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23 of 1910 to deliver one of the most powerful, rousing, and timelessly insightful speeches ever given, originally titled “Citizenship in a Republic” and later included under the title “Duties of the Citizen” in the 1920 volume Roosevelt’s Writings (public library).
A century before Caitlin Moran cautioned that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas,” Roosevelt admonishes against “that queer and cheap temptation” to be cynical, and writes:
The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.
One of the tendencies I find most troubling in contemporary culture is that of mistaking cynicism for critical thinking. This confusion seeds a pernicious strain of unconstructive and lazily destructive opprobrium. Amid this epidemic of self-appointed critics, it becomes harder and harder to remember just how right Bertrand Russell was when he asserted nearly a century ago that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”
With an eye to those lazy critics — the dead weight of society — Roosevelt offers:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. 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; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat… The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.
The entire twenty-seven-page speech, found in Roosevelt’s Writings and on par with JFK’s superb speech on the artist’s role in society, is a masterpiece of thought and feeling, replete with insight into what it means to be a good citizen, a good leader, and a complete human being. Complement this particular fragment with Leonard Bernstein on the countercultural courage of resisting cynicism, Goethe on the only criticism worth voicing, and philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to criticize with kindness, then revisit Eleanor Roosevelt on how uncynical personal conviction powers social change.
Published April 30, 2018