The Strenuous Life

"...I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph."

Theodore Roosevelt may well be the most quoted person on this website, and for good reason. His life has inspired generations of men for more than 100 years. He was a writer, a cowboy, a rancher, a soldier, an explorer, a big game hunter, a naturalist and a president; the youngest sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. His writing was first brought to my attention when my dad was loaned a read of ‘African Game Trails’ when I was a teenager. A few years later I found a 1914 copy of ‘Through the Brazilian Wilderness’, at my local antique shop on which I unregretfully spent my last one hundred dollars. Since then, having found gainful employment in the meantime, thus giving me the means, I have amassed on my bookshelves a significant collection containing most of his writings, speeches and addresses.


One of his most influential speeches, and the subject matter of this weeks article, was a speech given to the Hamilton Club in Chicago on April 10 1899, titled, ‘The Strenuous Life’. It was a rhapsody of manliness in its highest form in 1899, and in 2019, a rhapsody it remains. In it, Roosevelt brings forth the idea that labour, bitter toil, strife and effort - which culminate in a strenuous life - are equal in importance to a nation as they are to an individual.

A life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual. I ask only that what every self-respecting American demands from himself and from his sons shall be demanded of the American nation as a whole.”

Spoken by an American, about America, but equally applicable to Australia. If I knew that the attention span of the modern man could span its length, I would quote the entire speech.

The reason I am so inclined to write about this speech - or rather the ideas therein - is that both at the individual and national level, many Australians (and Americans) do not live a strenuous life. Too many, and I count myself among them in many ways, shrink from danger and lack either desire or power to strive after great things. Work is considered a curse by many young Australians. It is a necessary nuisance which gets in the way of leisure and should be attended to a few minutes past starting time and finished no less than a few minutes before the ascribed finishing time. To many, there is no enjoyment in it, no pride, no sense that it is worthwhile. Yet the audacity still exists to blame others for our ills. To swing Roosevelt's meaning on the matter to the Australian context, our national anthem says,

“Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we’ll toil with hearts and hands, to make this commonwealth of ours renowned of all the lands.”

For those who don’t yet know, that is from where the name of this site comes. The point is this; the character of a nations individuals is indicative of the character of the nation itself. The same qualities that we demand of ourselves and of our sons, we should subsequently expect of our nation as a whole. Put simply, the same things that make a man virtuous, so too make a nation virtuous. We should toil with hearts and hands, we should teach our sons to toil with hearts and hands, and in doing so, surely we shall earn the renown of this commonwealth of ours. Nation building is not done by men in capitals. It is done with heart and hand by men of industry, men of enterprise, men of courage not scared of strife and bitter toil. The elected men who sit in capitals, provide the room for these men to do so. They encourage the markets and do not allow raw commercialism to go on unchecked at the expense of the whole. And they make provision for the defence of the nation and its way of life. But it is the afore mentioned men who build what is worth defending.


A point of pride in Australia’s history is our involvement in World War I. Many young nations fought in that war, but to my knowledge, at 13 years since federation, Australia was the youngest. But, despite the youthfulness of our nation, and despite the prospect of a war of a magnitude never before been seen by humankind and fought in ways never before imagined possible, our young country did not shrink from danger. Australia did her small bit in a world affair that is still almost too monstrous to fathom, and she did it unflinchingly. Had the sons of Australia been unwilling or scared, had our nation and our people contented ourselves within our borders, many, including ourselves, may not have been freemen today.


In a much more recent example, in 1999 Australia lead a peacekeeping force which oversaw the peaceful referendum and transition to independence from Indonesia in East Timor. A shining example of our nation refusing to shirk her responsibilities beyond our borders. In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain in Cuba (in which, in typical fashion, Theodore Roosevelt raised a volunteer cavalry regiment and resigned as assistant secretary of the navy to go and fight) and secured the independence of the island and the Cuban people. Theodore makes this point in his speech:

“If we drove out a medieval tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy, we had better not have begun the task at all.”

Likewise, had Australia packed up and came home immediately when the referendum result was announced, leaving the Timorese in the clutches of Militias sympathetic to Indonesia to work out the rest self-sufficiently, we would be accountable for every resulting death. Along similar lines, criticism of the President of the United States for withdrawing most US troops from the middle east is for this reason. You cannot drive out a medieval tyranny only to make room for savage anarchy. Roosevelt says the following to further the point:

“A man’s first duty is to his home, but he is not thereby excused from doing his duty to the state; for if he fails in this second duty it is under the penalty of ceasing to be a freeman. In the same way, while a nation’s first duty is within its own borders, it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole; and if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the peoples that shape the destiny of mankind.”

Australians typically have soft hearts and hard hands. Consequently, our nation has risen and done its duty within and without our own borders. Many have condemned and criticised our decisions to do so on many occasions. Sometimes our decisions have not been altogether wise. But to fail in doing what is good is better than no attempt at all at doing what is good. Those critics are easy to disregard, they want none of the glory yet all of the fruits of what our young nation has achieved. But those achievements and the national character required to achieve them are the result of the character of our sons. Were it not, the men who are sent, and the statesman who send them would not exist to do the work.


In closing I will quote the closing paragraph of Roosevelt’s speech and ask that all who read it translate it naturally in their minds into the context of Australia and remember it:

“I preach to you, then, my countrymen, that our country calls not for the life of ease but for the life of strenuous endeavour. The twentieth century looms before us big with the fate of many nations…”

A premonition that proved fatefully true.

“…If we stand idly by if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all that they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty boldly and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavour, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”
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