The Strenuous Life

Security and Disaster:

Theodore Roosevelt, born weak and asthmatic, went west and grew strong with his country. He hunted bandits and cattle and grizzly bear, led the volunteer Rough Riders up a hill in the Spanish-American War, and led his nation to a new strength and pride of place in the world. In 1899, after the war, he gave a speech called '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.... 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 endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.
Cassandra's post of the 23rd evoked this spirit, in a fashion. She likewise finds that people are shying, not just from national greatness, but toward a life of ease. They want to be sheltered not just from hardship, but from even the sense of risk.
During the election I listened to Barack and Michelle Obama and I realized that there is a vast gulf between what they believe - their expectations - and mine. I grew up in a different America: one in which failure was always a possibility but in which there was also the promise of abundance beyond my wildest dreams. In many ways that is the world we live in now. Our homes, cars, electronic devices are newer, faster, cheaper, and more fully functional than anything I dreamed of back then.

What disturbed me about their words was the realization that they viewed struggling and uncertainty as the Enemy. Whereas I viewed those things as the means to an end; goads that made me uncomfortable but also provided the impetus to propel me from my present state into a far better existence. They made me dissatisfied but also gave me hope that tomorrow would be better than today.

I think Instapunk touched on an interesting thought in his essay. The God I grew up with was a demanding God. We were taught that man is sinful by nature and that only by constant struggle can we hope to transcend our lower selves. That was the essence and the meaning of life: constant struggle to overcome; to improve; to adapt and conquer.
Elise greatly appreciated the piece, as have others. Two things about it strike me.

First, the movement from love-of-risk to love-of-security being described has a clear model in economic theory. Joseph Schumpeter described exactly that tendency in examining why the collapse of capitalism predicted by Marx had not occurred. Marx had thought that capitalism would cause industries to trend to monopolies, which would always be able to use their capital and scale to crush startup competitors.

Not so, Schumpeter pointed out: for the big corporation will ossify. It will try to cement its position in the lead through regulations and rules and deals and alliances, and those things will slow it down. Newer competitors will be able to outperform it, because their decision cycle will be shorter and they will have less weighting their motions. (This is economics predicting the OODA loop, about fifty years before Colonel Boyd had the same realization about the importance of speedy decisions in fighter pilots.)

The Obama administration only wants to do what General Motors already did: build an unassailable system in which no one has to struggle. The CEO may make more than the union man on the factory floor, but the union man has no reason to complain: he is making a prodigious salary and has gold-plated benefits. With labor satisfied and management well-compensated, the dominance of the mighty GM machine will last forever.

It should have been edifying that one of the first tasks of the Obama administration was to bail out General Motors, to such a degree that it ended up taking an ownership position in the company. It is a failure: the model doesn't work. When it rubs up against reality, it breaks every time.

The other thing that struck me was that Cassandra doesn't share Teddy Roosevelt's love of risk and riding the ragged edge. In retrospect, she's grateful that she did, because it worked well: her children were always clean and mannerly, although-- no, because -- she was forever afraid they wouldn't be.

Roosevelt was one of my kind: he loved the risk because it was a risk. When I was reading Cassandra's essay, I was struck by her concern with "keeping up appearances." I was, I might say, shamed to admit that I never felt the impulse. There's a fine old Irish song about that:
I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home. And them that don't like me can leave me alone. I'll eat when I'm hungry and drink when I'm dry, and the moonshine don't kill me I'll live 'till I die.
Tex Ritter did a western version of that, which he called "Rye Whiskey." That's always been my model, and it's not necessarily a good one however honorable its heritage. Chesterton wrote that it is dangerous for a man to live on a mountain, because he comes to think of other people as ants. Well to look at a mountain from below, he said, and reflect on the glory of God; but among men, where you are forced to think of yourself as only one of the many. I haven't done that, but have held apart, and sought mountains and far places; that may be my failing and the source of many bad qualities.

Still, nobody is perfect, and we are lucky to know it.
[O]ne winter night I sat up in bed next to my sleeping husband with the sudden realization that I’d done terrible things. You know the kinds of regrets you periodically remember through your life, and the way they sting every time? That night I thought about how I’d cherished grudges against a difficult colleague — perhaps because news of her serious illness had arrived that day. Right on top of it came the thought that my marriage to the father of my children hadn’t lasted nearly as long as hers, and that I’d gotten divorced — more than once. Then the abortion I had in grad school came crowding in. And so on. The memories were old and familiar, but taken together they imposed a new and heavy weight. I’d cultivated my pleasure in someone else’s pain. I’d broken solemn promises to “love and honor until death do us part.” I’d even ended a human life. And so on.

Maybe it was because I’d been reading C. S. Lewis, but sitting there in the dark I realized that I had cut myself a lot of slack.
C. S. Lewis will do that to you. It's good for you, though: it was plainly good for Cassandra. And her children, who turned out very well from what I've heard.

Whether you love the risks or you don't, then, the strenuous life is the right road. For the lovers of horses and swords, song and strong beer, bright food and powerful coffee, it's just one more source of joyous encounter. For those who are nervous about the chance of failure, it's a goad to drive them to do more than they might have otherwise done. It doesn't let you cut yourself slack.

More, it keeps the nation strong. Joseph Schumpeter's theory has proven to be the most reliable law in economics. It will prove likewise to be the most reliable law in political science.

Roosevelt and Schumpeter were right. It's the bold life that counts, and builds; it's the life that risks that has a chance to win.

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