Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism and the Courage to Create Rather Than Tear Down
A century before Caitlin Moran cautioned that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas,” Roosevelt admonishes against “that queer and cheap temptation” to be cynical, and writes:
"The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance."
“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil, “because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”
How to prevent that cultural tragedy, which poisons the heart of a just and democratic society, is what Theodore Roosevelt examined when he took the podium at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23 of 1910 to deliver one of the most powerful, rousing, and timelessly insightful speeches ever given, originally titled “Citizenship in a Republic” and later included under the title “Duties of the Citizen” in the 1920 volume Roosevelt’s Writings.
One of the tendencies I find most troubling in contemporary culture is that of mistaking cynicism for critical thinking. This confusion seeds a pernicious strain of unconstructive and lazily destructive opprobrium. Amid this epidemic of self-appointed critics, it becomes harder and harder to remember just how right Bertrand Russell was when he asserted nearly a century ago that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”
|Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism and the Courage to Create Rather Than Tear Down
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others…