To me, one of the greatest and most evocative enjoyments in life is to listen to a great speech. I don’t mean just an informative speech full of crucial data needed to navigate the perils of an uncertain life. Nor do I mean those inarticulate and desperate pleas that try and move me to some sort of action. Rather a well-designed well-delivered rhetorical masterpiece is a constant source of wonder and amazement to me. And a reader of the Word of God knows that words are powerful and mysterious things, imbued by our Creator with both endurance and emotion. Those who master their use, those who wield words with precision and timing and proper force, can create whole worlds in the lives of their hearers. They can bring about peace on the one hand and inspire rebellion and violence on the other. A great speech can speak to generations far beyond its original intended hearers.
There is one speech that I find myself returning to repeatedly. It still inspires me and still possesses that creative power to motivate and encourage me despite my current situation and my present struggles. It is actually a portion of a much larger speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in Paris on April 23, 1910. The section that I love so has been simply titled “The Man in the Arena” and it goes as follows,
“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 the 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. Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves, there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still, less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of the 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. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and the valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who ‘but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier.’” Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic
Now if you’ve read this speech before and just glassed over the paragraph, read it again. Or if you’ve never heard of this famous quote, take a moment to really let his words sink in. If there was ever a time that we needed to hear these words, this is it. If there was ever a moment when we needed to be reminded of the difference between the man in the arena and the critic who stands on the sidelines, truly it is our age.
Somehow, we have managed to get everything turned upside down and backward. The critic gets all the attention, all the respect, all the honor. The whole machine of cancel culture is driven by the sidelines and never by the one bloodied in the arena. The banality of social media gives the critic unprecedented power. And it is having a devastating effect. Something that we all should lament, something that will destroy art, philosophy, science, and theology. It is creating an age where there are no more men willing to get into the arena.
Roosevelt’s words resonate today because what he saw in its infancy has finally come of age. And so his words encourage our spirit and enflame our passion for action in a time that no longer seems to value it. Let us dare again to quell the storm and ride the thunder!