To err is human. And bureaucratic.


Roosevelt quoteErrare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum, et tertium non datur. To err is human; to persevere in error is diabolical; there is no third option.

Bit of a tough love phrase, that one. Most of us know this as the later paraphrase of Alexander Pope: to err is humane, to forgive divine. Yes, he wrote “humane” because that’s how they wrote “human” in the early 18th century. And he was making a statement about critics, not about religion. But you get the drift.*

Pope’s phrase is a staple in politics. To err is human, and governments are composed of people. In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, in 1936, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, said those words in the image above:

Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

That’s worth repeating: Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.

Clearly others agreed, because Roosevelt was re-elected by a landslide that year. What impresses me is Roosevelt’s insistence that it is better to have a government that sometimes errs, yet cares for its constituents, than a government that doesn’t make the effort because it fears those mistakes. Or makes its decisions based on frozen ideology, rather than situational ethics, rather than looking for the greater good outside the myopic view.

Of course, we all err; we all have the benefit of hindsight that tells us what we might have done better, what we might have improved, which fork in the road would have been the better – not just the shortest or fastest – route. As Billy Wilder quipped, hindsight is always 20-20. We see the past better than the future.

In response to those armchair quarterbacks who were quick to point out the better way he might have followed, Roosevelt might have paraphrased John 8: “Let any one of you who has never made a mistake be the first to throw a stone at the decision makers.”

In his State of the Union address, almost 20 years later (Jan. 1, 1957), President Dwight Eisenhower said in a similar vein,

Our country and its government have made mistakes — human mistakes. They have been of the head — not of the heart.

Both men believed that governments should be measured by their attempts to accomplish good things; rather than on their failures or mistakes in striving to do their best. Both men knew that, “Errare humanum est.”

Roosevelt was a great believer in making the effort, to stretch the bounds and reach for what seems inaccessible, to not sitting back and waiting for what might be the politically correct solution. He was never afraid to make a decision, whether it later proved unpopular or even a mistake. In 1932, he told students at the Oglethorpe University Commencement,

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

And try he did. He will be remembered for many things, but not for being shy to try.

In his fourth and last Inaugural Address, in 1945, Roosevelt said:

We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately—but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes—but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle.

Strive to do your best: that’s what good government does, what good politicians do.

Errare humanum est***: to err is human, and politicians are very human. A popular, but unsourced quote, (often credited to Hubert Humphrey but like most mis-quotes on the internet, a mis-attribution) is:

To err is human. To blame someone else is politics.

But, like Roosevelt intimated, blame isn’t constructive; it doesn’t accomplish anything for the greater good. It’s the trying, it’s reaching for the brass ring, that matters, not the bitching about missing it. Governments should not be frozen in indifference, voters should not want to elect a government that promises glacial inaction instead of reaching for solutions.

At the risk of being repetitious (I’ve mentioned this before), here’s an excellent quote from a speech by US President Teddy Roosevelt, titled, Citizenship in a Republic, made at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1910:

“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 and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, 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 he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

PS. Not really related, but Roosevelt’s reference to Dante is intriguing, and made me wonder if he thinking of Canto III.

In the first part of the Divine Comedy, Inferno, Dante’s character enters towards Hell with his guide, Virgil. As they approach the boatman Charon, to be ferried across the Styx, Dante spies a group of tormented souls, aimlessly milling about, some chasing a banner that randomly darts around the landscape.

Various tongues,
Horrible languages, outcries of woe,
Accents of anger, voices deep and hoarse,
With hands together smote that swell’d the sounds,
Made up a tumult, that forever whirls
Round through that air with solid darkness stain’d,
Like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies.

Dante turns to Virgil and asks who they are. Virgil dismisses them:

He thus to me: “This miserable fate
Suffer the wretched souls of those, who lived
Without or praise or blame, with that ill band
Of angels mix’d, who nor rebellious proved,
Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves
Were only.**

In other words, they are those who stood for nothing, only themselves. Musa’s introduction to Canto III notes these souls are “nowhere” because of their “cowardly refusal to make a choice in life.” Choice as in taking action, not just talking about it. Choice as being part of the solution, not the problem. Choice as in choosing to be the critic, not the actor.

Dante’s lost souls stood on the sidelines of their lives, their communities, their times: like most sideliners they were likely critical, castigating, caustic about the choices of others; but not taking up the banner themselves to do something positive, something to make a better world on their own. And as a result, they are doomed to chase the ghostly fluttering banner over the barren plains, never even able to enter the gates of Hell.

And I, who looked again, beheld a banner,
Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,
That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;

And after it there came so long a train
Of people, that I ne’er would have believed
That ever Death so many had undone.

The banner represents a cause or goal they failed to pursue in their lives; now reduced to a flapping, meaningless flag they futilely chase across the plain.


* The line comes from his long poem, An Essay on Criticism, which you can read in its entirety here. Two stanzas are worth repeating (emphasis added) because it’s all about context:

If Wit so much from Ign’rance undergo,
Ah let not Learning too commence its Foe!
Of old, those met Rewards who cou’d excel,
And such were Prais’d who but endeavour’d well:
Tho’ Triumphs were to Gen’rals only due,
Crowns were reserv’d to grace the Soldiers too.
Now, they who reached Parnassus’ lofty Crown,
Employ their Pains to spurn some others down;
And while Self-Love each jealous Writer rules,
Contending Wits becomes the Sport of Fools:
But still the Worst with most Regret commend,
For each Ill Author is as bad a Friend.
To what base Ends, and by what abject Ways,
Are Mortals urg’d thro’ Sacred Lust of praise!
Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.

But if in Noble Minds some Dregs remain,
Not yet purg’d off, of Spleen and sow’r Disdain,
Discharge that Rage on more Provoking Crimes,
Nor fear a Dearth in these Flagitious Times.
No Pardon vile Obscenity should find,
Tho’ Wit and Art conspire to move your Mind;
But Dulness with Obscenity must prove
As Shameful sure as Importance in Love.
In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease,
Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv’d with large Increase;
When Love was all an easie Monarch’s Care;
Seldom at Council, never in a War:
Jilts rul’d the State, and Statesmen Farces writ;
Nay Wits had Pensions, and young Lords had Wit:
The Fair sate panting at a Courtier’s Play,
And not a Mask went un-improv’d away:
The modest Fan was liked up no more,
And Virgins smil’d at what they blush’d before–
The following Licence of a Foreign Reign
Did all the Dregs of bold Socinus drain;
Then Unbelieving Priests reform’d the Nation,
And taught more Pleasant Methods of Salvation;
Where Heav’ns Free Subjects might their Rights dispute,
Lest God himself shou’d seem too Absolute.
Pulpits their Sacred Satire learn’d to spare,
And Vice admir’d to find a Flatt’rer there!
Encourag’d thus, Witt’s Titans brav’d the Skies,
And the Press groan’d with Licenc’d Blasphemies–
These Monsters, Criticks! with your Darts engage,
Here point your Thunder, and exhaust your Rage!
Yet shun their Fault, who, Scandalously nice,
Will needs mistake an Author into Vice;
All seems Infected that th’ Infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the Jaundic’d Eye.

I love those lines… And the Press groan’d with Licenc’d Blasphemies/ These Monsters, Criticks! with your Darts engage,/ Here point your Thunder, and exhaust your Rage!

** Mark Musa’s excellent translation (Penguin Classics Book) says they are the souls who “lived a life… with no blame and with no praise. They are mixed with that repulsive choir of angels neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God, who undecided stood for themselves.”

*** Wiktionary tells us rather mixed snippet:

Errare (Errasse) humanum est, sed in errare (errore) perseverare diabolicum.”, attributed to Seneca. which translates to: “To err is human, but to persist in error (out of pride) is diabolical.”

That’s Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or Seneca the Younger, but you probably knew that. And diabolical is also translated in other places as “devilish.”

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