[Paleopsych] Harvey Mansfield: The manliness of Theodore Roosevelt

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Harvey Mansfield: The manliness of Theodore Roosevelt

    The most obvious feature of Theodore Roosevelt's life and thought is
    the one least celebrated today, his manliness. Somehow America in the
    twentieth century went from the explosion of assertive manliness that
    was TR to the sensitive males of our time who shall be and deserve to
    be nameless.

    TR appeals to some conservatives today for his espousal of big
    government and national greatness, and all conservatives rather relish
    his political incorrectness. As a reforming progressive he used to
    appeal to liberals, but nowadays liberals are put off by the political
    incorrectness that conservatives rather sneakily enjoy. Conservatives
    keep their admiration under wraps because they fear the reaction of
    women should they celebrate his manliness. Liberals have delivered
    themselves, in some cases with discernible reluctance (I am thinking
    of President Clinton), to the feminists. Yet they too are concealing
    an embarrassment. Nothing was more obvious than Roosevelt's manliness
    because he made such a point of it not only in his own case but also
    as necessary for human progress. It was being a progressive that made
    him so eager to be manly. Here is gristle to chew for liberals and
    conservatives, both of whom--except for the feminists--have abandoned
    manliness mostly out of policy rather than abhorrence. With the
    Library of America's publication of his Letters and Speeches and The
    Rough Riders, An Autobiography, let's see how Roosevelt's manliness
    was at the center of his politics.[3][1]

    We can begin from the pragmatism of William James, who was one of
    Roosevelt's professors at Harvard. Pragmatism too is favored by both
    conservatives and liberals today, particularly those conservatives
    like President Bush the First because they distrust "the vision
    thing," and liberals like Richard Rorty because they believe in the
    vision thing but do not want to defend it with reasons. But pragmatism
    as James presented it was very much a philosophy for the tough-minded,
    the manly, as opposed to optimistic rationalists with tender
    temperaments. Roosevelt and James did not get on together. When
    Roosevelt praised the "strenuous life," James said that he was "still
    mentally in the Sturm und Drang period of early adolescence." And
    though Roosevelt took James's course at Harvard, he was not a disciple
    of James, who might have fallen into the category of "educated men of
    weak fibre" whom Roosevelt was pleased to excoriate. The point of
    James's criticism was his distaste for the Spanish-American war, which
    Roosevelt liked so much. Yet the two agreed on manliness. Roosevelt,
    had he taken note of pragmatism, would have been happy to begin from
    James's notion of "tough-minded."

    Roosevelt's first thought would have been to make James's tough-minded
    philosophers tougher by emphasizing determination and will-power over
    opinions about the universe. "In this life we get nothing save by
    effort," he said, dismissing God and nature by which we have the
    faculties that make possible our kind of effort. Roosevelt was a
    sickly, asthmatic child who, by the advice of his father and with
    constant exercise, made himself fit not only for survival but for
    feats of manly aggression. His father's advice had been to lengthen
    the reach of his mind by strengthening his body, using sheer
    will-power. Roosevelt did just that. He went in for boxing, a skill
    that enabled him to knock people around, that must have fed his love
    of rivalry, and that could easily have encouraged him to exaggerate
    the power of will-power. He spoke frequently of "character," but by
    this he meant just one character, the energetic character--forgetting
    other forms of determination to set one's own course in life. He
    concentrated not so much on the mind as on the instrument of the mind.

    Today, following James and TR, we are in the habit of calling someone
    tough-minded if he looks at things empirically--meaning not wishing
    them to be better than they are--and weak-minded if he reasons or
    rationalizes things as he wants them to be. Of course, if temperament
    controls the mind (as James argued), you are more in control when you
    are tough rather than tender or weak or wishful or wistful; so under
    that condition the advantage goes to manliness. And it also goes to
    men rather than women, because will-power in this view requires a
    stronger, more athletic body.

    Thus, according to TR, manliness is in the main a construction, an
    individual construction of one's own will-power. To make the
    construction, a man should engage in "the manly art of self-defense"
    against other men, but he should also seek encounters with nature in
    the form of dangerous animals. He must hunt. "Teddy" got his nickname
    from all the bears he shot, all the cubs he made orphans. A New Yorker
    by birth, he went to the Wild West, and became a Westerner by
    deliberate intent, or sheer will-power. He became a cowboy by
    impressing the other cowboys, a loner among loners certified with
    their stamp of approval. In this way the individual construction
    becomes social: after you have proved yourself. The theorists today
    who say masculinity is a social construction often give the impression
    that there's nothing to it; society waves a wand and a nerd is made
    manly. No, it takes effort to become manly, as Teddy Roosevelt says.
    The more manliness is constructed, the more effort it takes. The more
    we admire effort like TR's rather than the beautiful nature and noble
    ease of Homer's Achilles, the more we admire will-power manliness and
    the more we depend on it.

    Will-power manliness can also appear to have an air of desperation or
    can be said to be desperate underneath despite an air of confidence on
    the surface. Some would interpret TR's manliness as too emphatic to be
    true, because true manliness has more quiet in its confidence, less
    stridency in its assertiveness. Yet if all we know is based on social
    construction, meaning that all we know is contingently based on how
    society is now--and so manliness is impermanent and will pass away in
    our gender-neutral society--then it is reasonable to feel anxiety
    instead of confidence. And it might be reasonable to cover up one's
    anxiety with loud bluffing, like TR, because some kind of society is
    better than nothing.

    For all that TR may have absorbed from Charles Darwin and William
    James in favor of will-power and thus against the reliability and
    reassurance that nature might provide to human designs, he was
    certainly, we would say today, an environmentalist. He believed as we
    do that nature left alone is valuable to humans. Though he believed in
    will-power, he also believed in a nature that deserves to be preserved
    despite our will-power. He did not use the neutral word "environment,"
    an evasion that does not disclose what the environment surrounds or in
    what measure it nurtures or harms what it surrounds. He liked to speak
    of "the Strenuous Life" lived outdoors and testing oneself in
    situations of challenge and risk.

    Whereas environmentalists today do their best to exclude human
    intervention in nature--"nature" for them means what is non-human--and
    thus to confine human beings to the role of concerned and caring
    observers, Roosevelt wanted us to live with nature and react to it. He
    loved birds but he didn't object to shooting them. We should, within
    limits, be hunters, for hunting adds "no small value to the national
    character." Nature does need to be protected from depletion, and there
    must be game wardens, "men of courage, resolution and hardihood"--not
    lecturers full of moral urgency passing out lists of small
    prohibitions as one meets in the National Parks today. TR's program of
    conservation was like William James's moral equivalent of war, quite
    contrary to environmentalism today, which desires universal peace,
    seeks no moral equivalent of war, and on its fringe (did you know that
    TR invented the phrase "lunatic fringe"?) wants to extend the welfare
    state from needy humans to all the presumed unfortunates of subhuman

    "Conservation" is for the purpose of conserving nature, which is for
    the purpose of conserving manliness. Manliness wants risk, not comfort
    and convenience. Roosevelt had his own, brazenly exclusive moralism;
    he liked being "in cowboy land" because it enabled him to "get into
    the mind and soul of the average American of the right type." His
    democracy satisfies not merely the average American but one of the
    right type. "Life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is
    the fear of living." Who would say now that visiting a National Park
    is a great adventure? Yellowstone, where TR gave one of his most
    famous speeches in 1903, is now no more, perhaps less, an adventure
    than visiting Disneyland with its artificial thrills. Yellowstone, he
    said, would ensure to future generations "much of the old-time
    pleasure of the hardy life of the wilderness and of the hunter in the
    wilderness ... kept for all who have the love of adventure and the
    hardihood to take advantage of it."

    To challenge the manliness of average Americans of the right type,
    nature is not chaotic but scenic. To gaze on it is wondrous or
    sublime; nature does not coddle you but it is not an abyss you must
    leap across. TR was tough-minded but not a nihilist because being
    tough-minded requires that you have the right degree of challenge,
    enough to give you a charge but well short of inducing despair.

    The manly reaction to the great outdoors that Roosevelt expected was
    not to live the life of a woodsman, but to seek positive
    responsibility for society. His own trip to the Wild West enabled him
    to become one of the cowboys and then prompted him to return East with
    energy refreshed. One can certainly question whether it is more manly
    to be alone and self-sufficient or to be responsible and political.
    One might make the case that a scholar like William James, however
    incapable of boxing and hunting, is more manly by himself than is TR
    with his need to be admired and elected to office by average people of
    the right sort. In a notable chapter of his Autobiography entitled
    "Outdoors and Indoors," Roosevelt says that love of books and love of
    outdoors go hand in hand, both being loners' occupations and neither
    requiring wealth. He himself loved both, but he seems to regard them
    as preparation for politics rather than attractive mainly for

    TR is at his most emphatic in urging a man to enter politics. Not for
    him a bland, mollycoddle word like our "participation." Finding no
    positive term strong enough to please him, he repeats negative verbs,
    his favorites being shirk and shrink, to show his contempt for those
    who abstain from politics. To be efficient and practical a man must
    ready himself "to meet men of far lower ideals than his own" and not
    be content "to associate merely with cultivated, refined men of high
    ideals and sincere purpose to do right." Politics is struggle, and "it
    is sheer unmanliness and cowardice to shrink from the contest." You
    see what I mean about shrink; and note how vices are magnified with
    sheer in front of them. Not for TR the use of weasel words, another
    phrase he coined or made his own.

    Here is where the professors like William James go wrong; they consort
    with one another, cherish their ideals, and shirk their duty to join
    the actual battle that is less pleasant than discussion with friends
    over tea. The tough-minded manly man not only accepts pain but
    actually does his best to avoid pleasure. Yet isn't manliness for all
    its risks and trials pleasant for the manly man? And not only at the
    end of the day? Roosevelt wants his manly man in politics to
    accommodate himself to the rough and coarse and the selfish, and this
    would seem to compromise rather than fulfill his manliness by making
    it depend on success in his relations with others beneath himself. He
    might become a team player or an organization man, hardly roles for a
    manly man. So we must not forget the manly loner and the argument to
    be made on his behalf. The loner would be contemptuous of bookish
    professors, but he shares with them a taste for solitude.

    Roosevelt, however, would insist on the superiority of manly
    responsibility to manly aloofness, of which one sign is his attitude
    towards women. As if speaking closer to today, he declares that "women
    [must be put] on a footing of complete and entire equal rights with
    men," including "the right to enter any profession she desires on the
    same terms as a man." Yet normally, he adds, "the woman must remain
    the housemother, the homekeeper, and the man must remain the
    breadwinner." That is because we must not live in a regime of rights
    abstracted from the performance of duty with "indulgence in vapid
    ease." In effect, women are not equal to men according to TR, but both
    above and below them. Women receive the bread won for them by men, and
    delivered to them with gallantry. But they are models of effeminacy,
    the very thing a man must avoid.

    Roosevelt's remarks on American motherhood tell us something about the
    preference of the manly man for duty over virtue. Impelled by the
    self-drama of manliness, which posits risk and challenge at every
    turn, Roosevelt turns away from the American, constitutional notion of
    rights to embrace a sterner "sense of duty" that appears more Germanic
    and Kantian. Even virtue might be too undemanding for him, for the
    virtuous person finds virtue to be pleasantly harmonious with his
    inclination, does not worry about his will-power, and does not
    struggle to be good. Roosevelt does speak of manly virtues, but these
    are habits of the zestful performance of duty. Duty gives shape to
    will-power, directing and checking it; and society--not the
    loner--defines duty.

    TR's manliness appears also in his advocacy of equality of
    opportunity, a phrase not be found in the founders of liberalism that
    he and his friend Herbert J. Croly were perhaps the first to use.
    Today "equality of opportunity" is a conservative slogan opposed to
    the liberals' "equality of result." For TR, equal opportunity is not
    the passive policy of a neutral government that watches benignly over
    the rivalry of talented people as they compete to succeed. Nor is it
    like the mixture of hard work and shrewd manipulation set forth in
    Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography by which an individual can rise to
    public esteem without challenging society's prejudices. Neither is it
    Thomas Jefferson's "aristocracy of talents," which assumes that in a
    free country talent will find the means to propel itself to the top.
    Instead, equal opportunity shows both concern for virtue and
    affirmative action by government. It requires that individuals accept
    a duty to grasp opportunity and to go as far as they can. Lack of
    interest in success--goofing off on long vacations, relaxing in early
    retirement, or indulging in refined leisure of any sort--is not an
    option. And equal opportunity results from the use of government to
    equalize opportunity by making things harder for the rich (with a
    graduated income tax and an inheritance tax) and thus easier for the
    poor. But Roosevelt would not use government to reduce the effort
    required of the poor. They should be manly too. Manliness is
    preferable to any life of ease or riskless routine.

    TR as president was a great promoter of assertiveness in the exercise
    of executive power. His notion of the president's duty was not bound
    to actions authorized in the actual words of the Constitution. In a
    notable exchange with his Republican rival William Howard Taft, who
    held that belief, Roosevelt declared that the president is "the
    steward of the people, bound actively and affirmatively to do all he
    could for the people, and not to content himself with the negative
    merit of keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin." The American
    founders made an executive power strong enough to stand up to popular
    opinion and to withstand the temptation to seek popularity, but
    progressives like Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made the president into
    a "leader"--that is, on occasion a follower--of public opinion. TR,
    for all his promotion of positive merit (in which he borrows words of
    the Gospel), is still a steward--and how manly is that? Who is more
    manly: George Washington, a man of dignity not to be trifled with, or
    Teddy Roosevelt, steward of the people, who sees humiliating
    constraint in the Constitution but not in popular favor? Here we
    detect a soft core to TR's blustering, outer toughness.

    The same might be said of Roosevelt's imperialism. TR was no "chicken
    hawk," no armchair, theoretical imperialist whose main concern is with
    the ist or ism at the end of the word, and whose only action is egging
    others on. Quite the contrary! Having got himself named Assistant
    Secretary of the Navy by President William McKinley in 1897, he was in
    office when the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of
    Havana in February 1898. But of course he was not the Secretary of the
    Navy. So he waited ten days until his boss took the afternoon off for
    a massage; then, having been routinely designated Acting Secretary, TR
    sprang into action--summoning experts, sending instructions around the
    world for the Navy to be ready for war, ordering supplies and
    ammunition, and requesting authorization from Congress for unlimited
    recruitment of seamen. In four hours he created momentum toward war
    that neither his hapless superior nor the President could stem.

    After war was declared on April 19, Roosevelt, his alacrity now
    red-hot zeal, was offered command of a cavalry troop to be formed of
    frontiersmen, dubbed by him Rough Riders. He declined the command for
    lack of experience, but took second-in-command as being an office he
    knew how to work from. In short order Roosevelt formed the troop
    consisting of cowboys leavened with polo players, having them ready by
    the end of May. At considerable personal risk, TR led his troops in
    the famous charge up San Juan Hill and, when he reached the top, shot
    and killed one of the enemy. After the action he was recommended for
    the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest decoration for
    bravery in battle. When he did not receive the medal, he was not too
    proud to lobby for it, anxious as he was to prevent the War Department
    from doing an injustice.

    In all this Roosevelt grasped his opportunities, or as we would say in
    his spirit, faced his responsibilities. Responsibilities as we use the
    word often attach to an office, and they might seem to be particular
    to it--whether president, assistant secretary, or a nonpolitical
    office such as parent. But TR's will-power manliness looks at the
    office as an excuse for action rather than the source of a duty
    imposed on the officeholder. It was manly of TR to seek the office,
    which he did eagerly rather than dutifully. Yet we cannot overlook the
    fact that taking on a responsibility is--nonetheless for its
    enthusiasm--accepting a duty. And it is a duty to those less competent
    and willful than oneself, hence a compromise of one's own freedom and
    independence. Again we can ask whether it is more manly to be a loner
    or a take-charge guy. It takes will-power to withdraw as well as to
    commit oneself; either way could be condemned or praised as willful.
    To be sure, TR tries to make it appear that one who shirks or shrinks
    from his responsibility lacks the will-power of a man, but that is not
    necessarily so. Even in the form of an opportunity, responsibility is
    a constraint on one's will. It is a self-constraint, perhaps, yet
    still a constraint--and thus not pure will-power. It reflects a desire
    to meet the legitimate expectations of society.

    Pragmatism is an idea with this same ambivalence in its dichotomy
    between the tough-minded who want to be assertive and the
    tender-minded who want to fit in. These two contrary temperaments
    reflect two moods in the use of the word. In American English,
    pragmatism means getting it done ("let's be pragmatic"), implying
    active energy, and taking satisfaction in less ("you have to be
    pragmatic"), implying a degree of resignation. To be pragmatic is
    optimism that our problems can be solved, but how can we solve them,
    given the doubt we are taught by pragmatism in the efficacy of reason?
    Reason is disdained by pragmatism as being prompted by the tender wish
    that things will somehow fit together on their own. Progress under
    pragmatism requires an addition of will-power, of manly assertiveness,
    to reason so that reason, in the form of science, does not construct a
    boring, peaceable civilization that appeals only to mollycoddles and
    fails to meet the ambition of humans who want dignity more than peace.
    The trouble is that the manliness needed to express confidence depends
    on doubt of reason, yet reason is the source of our confidence in
    better things to come. When you add manliness to reason so as to make
    reason more capable, you also subtract from the capability of reason.
    The danger to progress is that manliness, instead of endorsing reason,
    will get the better of reason.

    Contrary to what you might first think, pragmatism is a philosophy,
    not the dismissal of philosophy. And Teddy Roosevelt was more a
    philosopher than he knew. His advocacy of manliness reflects the
    difficulties of pragmatism and tells us something about our situation
    today. We have abandoned--not reason for manliness like the
    pragmatists, nor manliness for reason like their tender-minded
    opponents--but both reason and manliness. We want progress without a
    rational justification and without the manliness needed to supply the
    lack of a justification.

    Harvey Mansfield is a Professor of Government, Harvard University. His
    essay is excerpted from a book on manliness forthcoming from Yale
    University Press.

    [4]Go to the top of the document.

     1. Letters and Speeches, by Theodore Roosevelt; Library of America,
        915 pages, $35. Rough Riders, An Autobiography, by Theodore
        Roosevelt; Library of America, 895 pages, $35. [5]Go back to the

>From The New Criterion Vol. 23, No. 7, March 2005


    1. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/23/mar05/mansfield.htm
    2. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/23/mar05/mansfield-books.htm

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