wisdom of the past

Since starting to use the internet, I’ve encountered a regular stream of quotations from well known thinkers and writers, on a variety of subjects meant to enlighten and encourage us. I’ve often felt that the quotations were false. They didn’t always fit the personality of the individual being quoted. Sometimes they quoted a person whom I’d previously read, and the quote seemed highly unlikely. Occasionally they were irrelevant, such as: “Always zip up your fly before going out” by Albert Einstein. When seeing something like that, I wonder how many people go to the source and try to understand the thoughts and intentions of the person quoted.


I got a comment from our friend Cheri a few weeks ago that included a recommendation of River Of Doubt by Candace Millard. I read a couple of reviews, and bought the book. I had long heard of Theodore Roosevelt, but had never read him. I had read about him in history books. many years ago. I knew he had written quite a bit himself. But none of his books are translated into Hebrew. Thinking about him, and this tale of an adventure of his in South America, I thought that I would rather meet him in his own words before I read the book about him. I got his autobiography. It’s very different to read a man’s account of his own life as compared to how others see him. Even as I read the forward, I felt a great respect for him. I’ve been reading about American presidents and following their speeches and decisions since the days of Eisenhower and I had never encountered anyone like him. He reminded me of Thomas Jefferson who had led that nation a hundred years before Roosevelt.

As I continued to read the autobiography, I learned to love the man. He was a true leader and teacher. A modest man, he was very aware of his faults and his limitation. He saw himself as a regular fellow. He writes of an occasion when he was toasted by the crew of a Navy vessel on which he had sailed with his wife. It was a a time when he was working with a Government Commission to revive the inland waterways of the country. At the conclusion of the trip, one of the petty officers proposed the toast as follows “Now then, men, three cheers for Theodore Roosevelt, the typical American citizen!” That was the way in which they thought of the American President, and it pleased him greatly.

As a child he had health problems, was a bit weak. As he describes it, he was neither a genius nor exceptionally gifted in talent. But he kept on working on himself, trying to learn what this life was all about and what was truly valuable. He read and studied as a youth. Often beaten by bullies, he learned how to box in order to defend himself. And as a young man, he left his comfortable environment in a well-to-do neighborhood of New York City, and went out west (in those days the Dakotas were considered part of the west), and chose to live the life of a cowboy. As he progressed in life, he sought out challenges; tried to actually live the experiences that attracted him in books. Moreover, he tried to live his life according to the values he believed in, and though he had the greatest respect and affection for the common man, he was not satisfied to go along with the crowd.

Perhaps he was overshadowed by the second President Roosevelt, but in these days, when so many Americans are disappointed by the present American President, I think it would be very helpful to read this exemplary man. For he saw that there was something wrong with the direction his country was taking, and tried to change things. And he tells us what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to make a change, trying to reform established practices. I don’t agree with all of his opinions, but I do think that what he writes about is important for all who love and care for democracy. And I believe that he presents his values well. He translated the ideas of ‘conservation’ (now called ecology), to a working plan for government, and was the first leader in the world who actually provided tools of government with which to control the abuse of the environment.

He writes:

The men who first applied the extreme Democratic theory in American life were, like Jefferson, ultra individualists, for at that time what was demanded by our people was the largest liberty for the individual. During the century that had elapsed since Jefferson became President the need had been exactly reversed. There had been in our country a riot of individualistic materialism, under which complete freedom for the individual— that ancient license which President Wilson a century after the term was excusable has called the “New” Freedom— turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak.

He writes that he often listen and consulted with those with whom he did not agree. He even deliberates on whether one should listen to the arguments of truly evil people, and says that he was able to learn even from them.

I consulted all who wished to see me; and if I wished to see any one, I sent for him … and I always finally acted as my conscience and common sense bade me act.

I would find an occasional humorous anecdote here and there, and laughed along with him as I read.

There was a big governmental job in which this leader was much interested, and in reference to which he always wished me to consult a man whom he trusted, whom I will call Pitt Rodney. One day I answered him, “The trouble with Rodney is that he misestimates his relations to cosmos”; to which he responded, “Cosmos— Cosmos? Never heard of him. You stick to Rodney. He’s your man!”

He talks about reading and books, giving great advice to the student. He might not have told all about his presidency, but he did tell how he worked to live a meaningful life. Telling that, he manages to cover numerous activities that we all engage in. And there is much to learn from his words. I could bring you many quotes from the book, but I will conclude with a short one that I found most important:

But life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living.



43 responses to “wisdom of the past

  1. Ever since I started this life, I also had a great passion for it … I will refuse to be scared of it … ya … Wishing you well, friend Shimon … Love always, cat,

  2. I love Theodore Roosevelt and very much wish someone with his moral character and resolve was in the White House. His love of, and protection for, the land, our national park system, and his willingness to face down financial bullies and monopolies alone is enough to make him one of our best Presidents.

    • One of the most impressive things about him, Kitty, was his attitude towards politics. When he first became interested in serving the public, he spoke of the need to have another productive profession, even though he had an inheritance and was relatively secure. He felt that politicians become overly attached to the positions they occupy, and this can make them susceptible to improper influence. He believed that anyone in a leadership position should be willing to leave his office at any time if he realized that he would not be able to serve according to conscience and common sense. I agree with you that his contribution to the national park system and the protection of nature and wild life was unique.

  3. Ironically Shimon, Theodore Roosevelt came to my notice through his ‘Man in the Arena’ speech. ‘It is not the critic who counts…’ A humble and gentle soul, blessed with much wisdom. Thank you for your writing about him. ❤ hugs for you. xXx

    • In my eyes, he was a modest man, but not humble. He was cautious, but sure of himself. He thought things out before action. ‘The Man In The Arena’ represented his attitude towards life, and it is most fitting that you should get to know him by way of that speech. Since you’ve mentioned it, I’ll print the famous quote here, but the whole speech is well worth reading. Thanks Jane, xxx

      “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 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”.

  4. Shimon thanks for discussing Theodore Roosevelt in your blog. He was a man of true character. His wisdom and common man approach to life is needed in our nation today. I thank him every time I visit one of our great National Parks. I am currently reading the book River of Doubt and find it a fascinating story.

    • Yes, I have a lot to look forward to. I’ll be reading that book soon, and hope to read his other books after that one. It was a great pleasure to get to know him. I really enjoy your photos, John. I was looking at them before answering you. I used to work a lot with the 4×5 format. We photographers had to transcend from one world to another with the move to the digital age. It was more than just a change of tools.

  5. I found him fascinating. His tremendous industry was amazing.

    • Don’t know if you’ve read any of his books, Ibeth, but I think he was your sort of guy… the way he lived on the day to day level. That’s what captured me… even more than his career as President.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful appraisal, Shimon. I mostly know of Roosevelt from his monumental safari in East Africa 1909-1910, though I have yet to read his own account of the trip (African Game Trails). It was funded partly by Andrew Carnegie, and the end result was the US national museums e.g. the Smithsonian, having very well stocked natural history collections.

    • Well I’m just beginning to get to know him. Up until now, I was familiar with the subject by way of reading histories in which he was not a central subject. I plan to read River of Doubt next, and then to keep on reading his own work. I look forward to learning about his African adventure. I am aware that some people see him as a racist, and others are put off by his love of the hunt. Different folks ask for different things, but I think he was an example of true leadership. Thanks Tish.

  7. The final quote has similarity to another statement. Fear of fear itself is paralysing. This little ‘quote’ originated out of the often startling and oft exaggerated media headlines and throw-away public statements which have created the societal phenomenon of the fear of crime being greater than the actualité.

    Roosevelt was, as you say, Shimon a very interesting personality.

    Shalom x

    • Franklin Roosevelt, a family member who served after him in the same office, and somehow manage to get the US started on the way out of the great depression, was famous or saying, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself”. Fear is a disastrous emotion that has done untold damage. That is what the terrorists are working for. They would like to dip humanity in fear, in order to seize control. I don’t think the media is interested in sowing fear. It does paralyze. The media is desperate for attention, and they often work more at that than at passing on objective facts to the public. Shalom to you, Menhir, and best wishes.

  8. Thank you so much for the book review and the quotes, Mr. Shimon. I haven’t read T. Roosevelt autobiography. I know David McCullough, my favorite author, wrote a book about him, and it’s on my reading list.

    • Interesting to hear that you’re a fan of David McCullough, Amy. I’ve heard of him, but haven’t read anything of his. What was it about him that made him a favorite, I wonder. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading about Roosevelt, though. I don’t see him as such a rare type of person. But it is unusual that such a person rises to the highest office of his country.

      • He is an excellent writer and a remarkable historian, won The Pulitzer Prize twice. I did a series of book review on his “Truman” a few weeks ago. Here is the last one (I used the quotes from the book) https://wp.me/pSlDL-gOF
        Thank you for asking, Mr. Shimon.

        • Oh yes, Amy. I do remember your 3 part review of the book, and I liked it at the time. I’ll have to read something he’s written. Thanks.

  9. Theodore Roosevelt accomplished more than many American presidents, but for some reason he’s easy to overlook. Thank you for calling my attention to him. I look forward to Learning more about him.

    • It seems to me, John, that as time goes by, human activity… and ‘progress’ too, has been speeding up, and as we’re whirling around, chasing new experiences, trying as much as we can in this life so that we won’t miss any of the rides… and having to make ever increasing countless decisions between all the candies and toys pushed into our faces all the time, we’ve sort of lost the capacity to focus on things independently. But it’s still a possibility. Like yourself, I like the simple life. Thanks for coming by.

  10. I find the history of the Roosevelt family fascinating. Challenges – some organic, some created – faced with remarkable will. I so enjoy your posts Shimon, and though I’m a bit delayed in response, am no less delighted whenever I see a post of yours in my inbox. Shalom

    • Yes Mimi, history has always been a great pleasure for me to study. It gives us a different perspective of human desires, accomplishments, and failures. It was a great consolation for me in unhappy times. Please, there is absolutely no reason for an apology if you don’t notice a post right away. It’s just there in the hope that it’ll provide something interesting for others. No obligations. There are times when I read more and times when I read less on the internet…

  11. Very impressive that you read TR’s autobiography before wading into the River of Doubt. A true scholar! I look forward to your reaction to Candice Millard’s story of TR at his bravest moment.

    • I can’t thank you enough, Cheri, for introducing me to TR. I like him very much. And I’m ready now to read the book that you recommended, with the advantage of having gotten to know him first. I’ll let you know what I think of this study of the man.

      • I will look forward to your opinion. My dad loved TR. Dad and I usually agreed on these types of things. He also like Truman. I find that TR’s courage and candor, along with his morality, are empowering. Better to read about these types of people than those who are flimsy. Can’t wait to learn how you reacted to the River of Doubt.

        I feel the same way about Churchill and loved Candice Millard’s story about his experience in the Second Boer War. I find that a guy like TR is

        • Oh Cheri, what a tease… you left me hanging with that incomplete sentence. Yes, I admired Churchill too, and read his many volumes on WWII. I didn’t realize that Candice Millard wrote about him as well.

  12. He loved the country and wanted to preserve it for future generations so created more National Parks in the western part of our country. They even named the “Teddy” Bear to honor him. He is well thought of in this country.

    • Very interesting to hear that the Teddy Bear was named after him. From what I read, he wasn’t fond of this nickname. But Theodore is a long name, and maybe not everyone has the patience to pronounce it each time we consider him. It was very interesting to read his criticism of ‘tree huggers’. He loved nature, but he didn’t like sentimental anthropomorphism. One of the many things he said, that especially impressed me, was: “the uplifting of humanity, can be brought about only by those strong and daring men who with wisdom love peace, but who love righteousness more than peace”.

  13. Great post Shimon. He must have been a great human and American; very different to that excuse for a president they have now.

    • Thanks Peter, That’s the way I see him. There are deep thinkers and moralists in every generation, and fortunately, we also have the many thoughts and narratives of great men through the ages. But one of the disadvantages of democracy, is that basically it’s a popularity contest. And when the most popular and talked about people are celebrities, I suppose it’s to be expected that we’ll get someone like that as a national leader. But then the advantage of the same system is that we get to approve or disapprove the choice every few years.

  14. Indeed, life is an adventure, and if we can encourage each other to seize it with both hands, even though it might not be what we wish, we will be a bolder community. That’s not enough, of course: and my longing is for people who will live by their ethics and principles, in mutual respect. Utopia, perhaps – or perhaps not!

    • It’s true that we haven’t yet found the design of society that would provide happiness for all its members. Though I had such hopes and dreams in my youth, I’ve been forced to acknowledge that the dream is not a reasonable expectation. But like yourself, the longing still remains… and what you ask for, ethics and mutual respect, does not seem too much to hope for. I believe it’s within our reach. Our biggest problem, it seems to me, is that when we are convinced that something is right and justified, we are liable to become too enthusiastic, and offend others with our surety. This business of politically correct speech seems an example of the problem. We wish to be more sensitive and empathetic towards those who at times are a small minority among us, but at the same time not to offend others by forcing them to accept our style of expression. Thanks for your comment, Gill.

  15. I have to say I know little of Roosevelt so really enjoyed reading this! If only the current President adopted some of his views, especially re conservation.
    Ah yes, the fear of living does seem to cripple a lot of people, especially each new generation. Wonderful post!xxx

    • It was a great pleasure for me too, Dina, to discover the unique personality of TR. He was truly an example of a leader worthy of respect. There were so many aspects of his leadership, and his behavior on a personal level that impressed me. Though he was a reformer, and worked hard to change the system, and repair the faults of the establishment, he was respectful towards his opponents; a moderate man. I believe that what he did and wrote a hundred years ago, has much to offer us today. Thanks for your comment. xxx

  16. I admire your wanting to go to the source, being a man who thinks for himself, that makes sense. I’m sure you’ve read more American history than I have, as I’m not a history reader….still, I appreciate your words here, and Roosevelt’s. He’s greatly admired out here because of his important work with national parks and preserving land, especially the Olympic National Park, a very special place. As for comparing him to the person holding that office now, well, it’s just too painful! .

    • For me Lynn, history has been both a fascinating study and a consolation at times when life was very discouraging. It helped me regain perspective. I can’t compare the two of them. The current president reflects the level of popular culture. He comes to us from Reality TV. It saddens me that the progressives of today missed an opportunity to act out the very best we have to offer. What an educational message it would have been if democrats had responded with respect and moderation to the election, and given him the traditional 100 days of grace. Thanks so much for your comment.

  17. Actually, I avoid political topics, or at least, I try to.
    For me, politic is the most dangerous venom created by men. And after that, religion, social distinction, the color of the skin, language… a bunch of non-ethical misjudgments which created wars and pain.
    Maybe I’m naive, but as long as we have uncivilized and idiots on top of the governments of the world, things may only get worse.
    I’m not so intelligent to read complicated books about great men and women of the past…
    But I deeply respect the subjective judgment of others. As I said time ago, I really try to put into action the Buddhist philosophy, which, I think, is the only one to give deep respect to each sentient being, uncluding those we simply call animals.
    In an era of high technology, the stresses of life, and an interminable idiosyncrasy… there is very little left for the hearth and soul-deep expression of love, towards our enemies as well.
    Hugs 🙂 claudine

    • I agree with you Claudine, that there are a lot of distasteful things that we can run into when we follow politics; and in discussing the subject we can encounter dogma. This is true of religion too. But I see Buddhism as religion too. It’s true that it has a philosophical outlook, which is true of other religions too, but it is primarily a faith. And were it not for freedom of religion and a basic respect for all, we would not have the opportunity to follow it. As far as I understand, politics is the system by which people in society cooperate for the sake of order. In an orchestra, we accept the signals of the director, and each player knows his duty. But in society there is a constant flux of wills, and politics is the manner by which the members of society agree on doing things. There are better political organizations and worse, but I don’t think that we humans can do without it. Moreover, the leaders usually reflect the same level of awareness common in that society. I think idiots are uncommon, but madmen and corrupt people do get to the top at times. As for loving our enemies, I believe only very few humans are able to rise to such awareness. Thanks for your comment.

      • Dear Shimon, I agree that there is a lot of discussions about Buddhism being a “religion”. It depends what you see under the word “religion”… I dare say it is subjective, and each one doesn’t use the same standards and criteria.
        I didn’t go to higher schools; my very humble and poor family couldn’t pay for that. My life is my school and I learned so much during my travels and getting the chance to meet people from all over the world.
        I was told that Buddhism is a matter of transcending egocentric selfishness, which is typical for us humans. We all are too caught in ourselves that we can’t see with our “compassionate heart” the real condition of others. Sometimes we feel deeply sorry but we can’t do anything else to help. This is our real world. We see and are perfectly aware about sufferance but can do very little to change it, and we suffer because of it.
        Even the most important part of the Buddhist philosophy which is meditation, is became a mere “performance” to calm ourselves, which isn’t the right goal. Thus, if Buddhist practice is seen as ethical preparation, it may offer an ultimate reality, bringing you into a sort of interior freedom. Moreover, the transformation by this experience is a valid reason to get into it, somehow this “way of life” isn’t imposed, it’s your own choice.
        This way of life is a sort of investigation, a spiritual quest, not blind faith; an exploration which bring us happiness if we want to achieve this. A very little example: go into the street, smile to somebody you don’t know and say “hallo”. See what happens. Help somebody in difficulty without being asked… see what happens. This is a demonstration of unconditioned love toward another sentient being (and most of all what we simply call “animals” belongs to this point of view too)
        We are much attached to the “material world” without realizing that nothing of it we may take with us. There is a question: shall we be born into this planet only to experience suffering, grow old and then die? Is there a meaning in it?
        For me, following this Life philosophy doesn’t mean to decline my “old” religion: I’m Christian still 🙂 and I go sometime to church to pray. I like to bring my old mom to the Christian sanctuaries (last I spent wonderful days with her in Fatima).
        I’m very open, and I’m convinced that the Saints, Jesus, Mary, Siddhartha, Moses and thousand other are holy humans, are great bodhisattvas and they gave us the examples to follow.
        Again, I’m pretty sure that only unconditioned love will save our planet from self-destruction… where you may get this state of mind, really doesn’t matter. Each human being has the chance to choose his/her “Path to freedom”.
        I wish you serenity, hugs and love 🙂 claudine

  18. One of my favorite stories about Roosevelt involves the incident that helped give rise to the Teddy Bear. Coincidentally, it’s a story that also raises questions about any so-called racism on his part. There’s a great summation of that 1902 hunting trip here which I think you’ll enjoy.

    I had the pleasure of traveling that part of Mississippi a few years back. One of the most interesting aspects of the trip was encountering expressions of lingering resentment over Roosevelt’s willingness to treat blacks equally. Certainly my experience was limited, but in that part of the state, the man seemed to be honored for precisely the qualities you outlined above.

    I enjoyed this post tremendously, Shimon. I’ve been doing a bit of traveling to visit family in the midwest. It was enjoyable, but I’m glad to be home where I can catch up a bit, re-establish some routines, and have time for a little reading of my own.

    • I did enjoy the story of the 1902 hunting trip. Though I have personally avoided all opportunities to hunt for sport, I am able to accept his enthusiasm for the sport. I believe that he did have some racist opinions. Racism is a complicated issue, and I don’t believe we have really resolved the problem for ourselves. We live in a time when democracy and egalitarianism have become a popular faith. Racism has been identified with inter-racial hatred. All rational people reject hatred as being destructive and evil. but there is still a dispute regarding racial profiles, whether personalities are learned or inherited, and whether races might have common personality characteristics. As I said earlier, I have great respect and affection for TR, even though I don’t agree with all of his tastes or opinions. It pleases me that he is still remembered fondly in some places in America.

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