Theodore Roosevelt on the Two Pillars of Good Citizenship and the Most Dangerous Enemy of Democracy
By Maria Popova
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success,” Thoreau wrote in his lovely case for defining you own success. But in the century and a half between his time and ours, we have increasingly shifted our definitions of success from the immaterial to the material, from the interior to the exterior, from the private to the public. And in that shift, we have incurred a peculiar and perilous blindness to the moral and humanistic dimensions of success — to how being a good human being and a good member of a community, of a society, of humanity itself factors into being a successful individual.
A mighty antidote to the blind cult of success came from Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858–January 6, 1919) in his superb Sorbonne address, originally delivered in Paris on April 23 of 1910 under the title “Citizenship in a Republic” and later published as “Duties of the Citizen” in the 1920 volume Roosevelt’s Writings (public library) — the same twenty-seven-page masterpiece of a speech that gave us Roosevelt on the cowardice of cynicism and the courage to create rather than tear down.
The qualities Roosevelt ascribes to good citizenship are the selfsame qualities that define success in any meaningful realm of human endeavor, be it art or science or entrepreneurship:
The good citizen in a republic must realize that he ought to possess two sets of qualities, and that neither avails without the other. He must have those qualities which make for efficiency; and that he also must have those qualities which direct the efficiency into channels for the public good. He is useless if he is inefficient. There is nothing to be done with that type of citizen of whom all that can be said is that he is harmless. Virtue which is dependent upon a sluggish circulation is not impressive. There is little place in active life for the timid good man. The man who is saved by weakness from robust wickedness is likewise rendered immune from robuster virtues. The good citizen in a republic must first of all be able to hold his own. He is no good citizen unless he has the ability which will make him work hard and which at need will make him fight hard. The good citizen is not a good citizen unless he is an efficient citizen.
And yet efficiency alone, Roosevelt cautions, is not only insufficient but can even be dangerous to society if aimed at an ethically unsound end. To borrow Schopenhauer’s excellent distinction between talent and genius — “Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target… which others cannot even see.” — the genius of the good citizen and the successful individual, for Roosevelt, is predicated not merely on hitting the target well, but on hitting the right kind of target in a moral sense. He writes:
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 these qualities and treats their possessors as heroes regardless of whether the qualities are used rightly or wrongly. It makes no difference as to the precise way in which this sinister efficiency is shown. It makes no difference whether such a man’s force and ability betray themselves in a career of money-maker or politician, soldier or orator, journalist or popular leader. If the man works for evil, then the more successful he is the more he should be despised and condemned by all upright and far-seeing men. To judge a man merely by success is an abhorrent wrong; and if the people at large habitually so judge men, if they grow to condone wickedness because the wicked man triumphs, they show their inability to understand that in the last analysis free institutions rest upon the character of citizenship, and that by such admiration of evil they prove themselves unfit for liberty.
Nearly a century before Carl Sagan called for moving beyond “us” vs. “them” by bridging conviction with compassion, Roosevelt adds:
In a republic, to be successful we must learn to combine intensity of conviction with a broad tolerance of difference of conviction. Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.
With an eye to the most dangerous embodiment of success as self-interest unmoored from social and moral responsibility, Roosevelt issues an admonition of chilling prescience in the context of a Trumped society:
Of one man in especial, beyond any one else, the citizens of a republic should beware, and that is of the man who appeals to them to support him on the ground that he is hostile to other citizens of the republic, that he will secure for those who elect him, in one shape or another, profit at the expense of other citizens of the republic… It makes no difference whether he appeals to class hatred or class interest, to religious or antireligious prejudice. The man who makes such an appeal should always be presumed to make it for the sake of furthering his own interest. The very last thing an intelligent and self-respecting member of a democratic community should do is to reward any public man because that public man says that he will get the private citizen something to which this private citizen is not entitled, or will gratify some emotion or animosity which this private citizen ought not to possess… If a public man tries to get your vote by saying that he will do something wrong in your interest, you can be absolutely certain that if ever it becomes worth his while he will do something wrong against your interest.
Complement this particular portion of Roosevelt’s Writings with Georgia O’Keeffe on success and public opinion, Dostoyevsky on creative integrity and success, and Victorian novelist Amelia E. Barr’s nine rules for success, then revisit Susan Sontag on what it means to be a decent human being.
Published June 11, 2018