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The Famed ’Man in the Arena’ Quote: A Deeper Look

How the 'Man In The Arena' Quote Turned into an E-commerce Business

A mentor of mine introduced me to Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quote when I was in college.  This powerful quote resonated with me from the first time I read it.  I have kept a copy in or on my desk ever since.  A few years ago, with this quote in mind and an image in my head, I decided to seek out an artist to put my vision on paper.  After working with multiple artists and countless renditions we arrived at the work you see today.  My original intention was to have a unique piece of art on my office wall to serve as a daily source of inspiration.  After many of my friends inquired where I purchased the Man In The Arena print I decided to start a business and launch a website. 

At first, I didn’t know there’d be a market for this sort of art – framed imagery with a powerful quote from even more powerful people. Imagine my surprise when people actually appreciated my art as much as I did. Each of my prints has been well received from customers across the country, not the least of which was Man in the Arena on canvas and wall art series.

The man in the arena quote series stood out among the rest of my other pieces. It got me thinking: “why is this man in the arena speech so clearly well-loved?” So, I set out to investigate just what it is about this quote that people can’t get enough of.

Man in the Arena Canvas Art

History of the Man In The Arena Quote

The quote itself originates from a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 entitled, “Citizenship in a Republic”. It was addressed, reportedly, to a crowd of “ministers in court dress, army and navy officers in full uniform, nine hundred students, and an audience of two thousand ticket holders.” The entire speech itself would go down in history as a massive success. It was immediately printed and widely distributed all across Europe in at least a dozen languages.

Since its words were first spoken, the speech has continued to grow in use and admiration. Richard Nixon quoted the speech in his own resignation speech, Nelson Mandela brought a copy to the captain of his native rugby team before they won the 1995 World Cup, and Mark DeRosa of the Washington Nationals reads it to himself before every big baseball game. Notable celebrities Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth even have tattoos of a portion of the Man in The Arena speech!

Meaning of the Man In The Arena Quote

Sure, the words are powerful. Fighters and blood and victory, oh my! But what do they actually mean? According to author Michael D. Sellers, the quote helped him to not live a timid life. He writes in his blog, “To me, Roosevelt’s words seemed to capture the way to go about life –be ambitious, go all out, believe in yourself, don’t take chances, seek your destiny and don’t shrink from challenges. I slipped the card [his university dining card that bore the quote on the back] into my wallet and kept it there, permanently, as a reminder to “go for it” and not be held back by insecurity or the fear of failure.”

However, the famous “man in the arena” quote from the speech is often taken out of context – such as it was on Sellers’s university dining card. When the context of the entire speech is considered, the “man in the arena” quote packs an even greater punch. Learning this has made me even more glad to have helped immortalize the famous quote with my man in the arena canvas wall art.

At the time of the speech, America had just earned her place among the gargantuan world powers. Still, she was a young country, one who stood out among the well-established cultural, intellectual, and political powerhouses like that of the Europeans he delivered the speech to. At various points in his speech, he speaks about individual citizenship, and the importance of this in both new and old worlds.

It’s the individual citizenship that changes the meaning of the quote just a bit, just enough. You see, Roosevelt wasn’t pleading for us to become the heroic, unabashed man in the arena. He’s pleading for us to adopt the action of the hero without becoming the cynic. Individual citizenship implores the responsibility that each individual has to his or her nation. Roosevelt says in the same speech, “in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average women, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional cries which call for heroic virtues.”

What he means by this is that the robust culture, intelligence, and political power of the “old world” nations are built on the backs of the average person doing things, be they average or great heroic things. But in order to do the heroic acts, we must first build up ourselves by taking care of our “ordinary, every-day affairs of life.” That’s what gives us our reason, our motivation. It’s what propels us to do heroic acts when the time comes. The “man in the arena” quote is more about not being a critic than it is about being a hero. Critics don’t take action. Critics don’t contribute. Taking action, ordinary or otherwise, does contribute.

Theodore Roosevelt compels us all to contribute to our world by teaching us that nothing stands to be gained when you’re a critic, he takes us on a journey to show that the only path to victory is by starting with action – no matter how small or rudimentary that action is. He teaches us that our actions are all in service to creating something, something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps if people understood more about this quote, they, too, would be compelled to take more action themselves. There are numerous worthy causes that could use more driving force. But for now, spreading the “man in the arena” wall art is enough. It’s enough to demonstrate that being a critic is a waste of time. I’d say he got his message across.

CLICK HERE to View our collection of Man In The Arena Prints

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