Pete Hegseth’s In the Arena

In the late ninth century, in his preface to his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, England’s King Alfred the Great wrote that a king must have the support of men who pray, men who fight, and men who work.  He meant the clergy, soldiers, and farmers, merchants, and artisans.  Those ideals of faith, fighting, and productivity were extolled by Theodore Roosevelt and have a new champion in Pete Hegseth.

Only in his mid-thirties, Hegseth has had a full life:  from a small town in Minnesota, where his father was a public school teacher and his mother worked at home and at several part-time jobs; to studies at Princeton and Harvard; a job at Bear Stearns; service in the United States Army National Guard, taking him on tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay.  He has married twice, the first ending in divorce, and he has three sons.  Incisive and articulate, he shares his intelligence and experience in articles for National Review and television appearances on Fox.

This book derives from the inspiration Hegseth finds in a quotation from a speech made in April, 1910, at the Sorbonne by former president Theodore Roosevelt.  The quote:

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.

Throughout his three deployments, Hegseth carried a black framed copy of that quote in his duffle bag.  In this book’s eight chapters, Hegseth looks at major themes found in Roosevelt’s speech, “Citizenship in a Republic,” the full text of which appears as an appendix.

Clear and direct, Hegseth is aware of Roosevelt’s flaws and his own.  Regarding Roosevelt, he says, “While I proudly count Roosevelt as my fellow countryman, I recognize his unfortunate political metamorphosis.”  As for himself, he is candid without indulging in the sort of details lapped up by people who used to watch Oprah:  “I have failed—professionally and personally—at every turn of my life; saved only by the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ.”

As that confession indicates, Hegseth is a man of faith as well as a man of action, but he wants his readers to avoid “misplacing their moral energy toward smaller, self-righteous, and socially conservative causes, rather than mustering the courage to fight the larger battles for goodness and truth.”  To that end, he says, “Give me a cursing, drinking, and mistake-making sinner willing to fight for America over a self-important, insular, and irrelevant saint any day of the week.”

It is a sentiment worthy of hearty applause.  Within a monastic context, sometimes one hears of a young monk who decides that the fast-track to sanctity is to go barefoot and never wear a watch, never to shower or shave, and always to try to talk in a dreamy tone of voice in words reminiscent of a pastel holy card.  It was the sort of superficial and self-absorbed piety (really, vanity) disapproved of even in the fourteenth century by the now anonymous author of The Cloud of Unkowing.

Like that anonymous spiritual writer, Hegseth encourages steady growth (and regular pruning) in virtue.  Despite his seemingly dismissive use of the phrase, there is much in this book for a social conservative to endorse.  Like Roosevelt, Hegseth sees good character as the basis for good citizenship and thus for the strength of a republic.  “Courage, faith, honor, self-restraint, common sense, individual responsibility, and resolve,” Hegseth writes, “all are used by Roosevelt to describe character, and all are in shorter supply in today’s America.”

Those characteristics are running low, Hegseth, believes, because, “From fifth-place trophies to . . . helicopter parents . . . we are raising a society of entitled, coddled, sheltered, feeble, and emasculated future citizens.”  He notes that fathers and mothers used to teach their children “to be virile, to value strength, vigor, and victory.”  Lest he be mistaken for a chest-thumping lout, he defines his terms.  “Being a virile people,” he explains, “doesn’t mean being brutes or barbarians—it means raising citizens physically and morally capable of defending the freedom they’ve inherited.”

Once again following Roosevelt’s lead, Hegseth finds four “root causes” for the current social weakening.  Roosevelt addressed an audience of thousands at Paris’s foremost university, and he meant his message as a warning not only for the French republic, but also for his own.  While Hegseth’s book is addressed primarily to Americans, the four root causes he diagnoses can also apply elsewhere.  They are:  “Rights overtaking duties, the destructive pursuit of utopia, pervasive moral relativism, and class warfare.”  Two symptoms of society going askew, says Hegseth, are students, such as his little brother, being taught “their Native American ‘spirit names,’ but not the names of their American founders.”  Likewise, something has gone wrong when “Earth Day is a huge deal, D-Day not so much.”

That Hegseth’s brother, a descendant of Norwegian immigrants, could have a Native American “spirit name” is doubtful.  To teach him that name and not those of the Founding Fathers is as absurd as if a Catholic college were to sponsor a Hijab Day so students could learn about Muslim traditions, when it would be considered retrograde to hold a Mantilla Day to teach them about Catholic traditions.

Whatever one’s place on the political spectrum, Hegseth’s book challenges on every page.  As he says of Roosevelt’s speech, Hegseth’s book is “largely about cultivating good and gutsy citizenship in order to maintain a robust and free republic.”  Since human nature never changes, it is a universal and enduring ideal.  Even beyond republics, a Christian king like Alfred the Great wanted integrity and self-discipline to enliven his praying, fighting, and working people.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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