Keep Your Eyes On the Stars, But Your Feet On the Ground

Theodore Roosevelt? Oscar Wilde? William Allen Harper? Ayn Rand? Casey Kasem?

Dear Quote Investigator: High aspirations should be combined with a practical spirit to achieve greatness. This notion can be expressed with the following adage:

Keep your eyes on the stars, but your feet on the ground.

This statement has been attributed to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: In 1900 New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech in Chicago, Illinois during which he signaled that he did not wish to be the Vice President of the U.S. The speech closed with the following words reported in “The Daily Inter Ocean” newspaper of Chicago. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The head-in-the-air theorists will not succeed in politics any more than in law, or physics, or dry goods. We’ve got to face facts. An uncomfortable truth is a safer companion than the most attractive falsehood. Strive mightily for high ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but don’t forget that your feet are necessarily on the earth.

Roosevelt employed different versions of the saying about stars and feet in several speeches over the years. He served as U.S. President from 1901 to 1909.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1869 a newspaper in Louisiana published an article filled with advice under the title “Talks With Young Men”. The figurative phrase “keep your eyes on the stars” was used negatively to suggest that a person with distracting dreams might miss practical opportunities to gain wealth and success: 2

Judge others by what they have done, not by what they are going to do! Don’t keep your eyes on the stars and stumble over nuggets. Black your own boots and bid every man to black his. Keep your own hands in your own pockets. Pay cash, take cash.

In 1879 several U.S. newspapers published a passage that employed the phrase “keep your eyes on the stars” positively: 3

It is the business of every man to look up. Business is looking up, and so ought we all. It is better to keep your eyes on the stars and to stumble over a clod now and then than to look down so persistently that you are not aware that the stars exist. As Jerold says, if we did not come into this world to better ourselves we might as well have stayed where we were.

Famous wit Oscar Wilde included a quip mentioning the stars in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 4

DUMBY
I don’t think we are bad. I think we are all good, except Tuppy.

LORD DARLINGTON
No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Wilde’s remark served as a precursor, but its meaning differed from Roosevelt’s later guidance. Lying in the gutter indicated a flawed or fallen state while standing on the earth indicated practicality.

In 1900 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of Brooklyn, New York also reported on the speech of Theodore Roosevelt and presented the following excerpt: 5

You must face facts as they are; you must face men as they are, and having faced the actual conditions you are bound to work for a betterment of those conditions and to work for civic righteousness. Keep your eyes on the stars, but don’t forget your feet are necessarily on the earth.

In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt addressed the students at the Groton School in Massachusetts, and his speech appeared in “The Grotonian”. Roosevelt employed the saying again, but he used a different phrasing: 6

Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground. Be truthful; a lie implies fear, vanity or malevolence; and be frank; furtiveness and insincerity are faults incompatible with true manliness.

In 1906 Roosevelt addressed the young women of the National Cathedral School of Washington, D.C., and he used a concise version of the saying: 7

I have no sympathy with the orations of graduating exercises that put out a fantastic ideal before students, which no one proposes to realize. A serious harm is received by any one who is aroused to a high conception which he fails to apply.

Live up to a high ideal. Have ideals that you can reach. Keep your eyes on the stars, but your feet on the ground. Never fall short of what you actually can do.

In 1908 William Allen Harper published a piece in a religious periodical called “The Herald of Gospel Liberty” that included the following: 8

Keep your eyes on the stars, but keep your feet on the earth and your hands at your task. Whatsoever your hands find to do, do it with all your might—this is to lead the contented life, this is to attain to the more abundant life.

The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand wrote about a variant statement in her 1971 book “The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution”: 9

You have all heard the old bromide to the effect that man has his eyes on the stars and his feet in the mud. It is usually taken to mean that man’s reason and his physical senses are the element pulling him down to the mud, while his mystical, supra-rational emotions are the element that lifts him to the stars.

This is the grimmest inversion of many in the course of mankind’s history. But, last summer, reality offered you a literal dramatization of the truth. It is man’s irrational emotions that bring him down to the mud; it is man’s reason that lifts him to the stars.

In 1982 a columnist in a Louisiana newspaper mentioned a motto employed by a popular radio broadcaster: 10

Casey Kasem, a well known television and radio personality in the recording industry, closes each show’s remarks by saying, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” Kasem has managed to summarize in a concise phrase the ideal plan for discovering your true potential. Strive at all times to improve your fitness level with calculated short and long range goals but never lose touch with reality.

Also, in 1982 the collection “Good Advice” compiled by Leonard Safir and William Safire included a concise version of the saying attributed to Roosevelt. This instance used the conjunction “and” instead of “but”: 11

Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.
—Theodore Roosevelt

In conclusion, Theodore Roosevelt should be credited with the sayings he spoke in 1900, 1904, and 1906. Partially matching expressions were circulating in the 1800s, but their meanings were distinct. In more recent decades Casey Kasem voiced a variant saying.

Image Notes: Illustration of a person looking up into a starry sky from Free-Photos at Pixabay

(Great thanks to Alex Schmidt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Schmidt mentioned the sayings attributed to Theodore Roosevelt and Casey Kasem.)

Notes:

  1. 1900 April 27, The Daily Inter Ocean, Roosevelt Says No, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1869 January 9, The Bossier Banner, Talks With Young Men, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Bellevue, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1879 August 6, The Minnesota Tribune, Tea-Table Gossip, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 92, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1900 April 27, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mr. Roosevelt Will Not Accept Vice Presidency, Quote Page 15, Column 7, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1904 May, The Grotonian, Volumes 20, Number 8, The Address of the President on Prize Day, Start Page 211, Quote Page 216, Published by The Groton School, Groton, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1906 June 7, The Washington Post, President to Girls, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1908 April 23, The Herald of Gospel Liberty, The More Abundant Life by Prof. W. A. Harper (William Allen Harper), Start Page 518, Quote Page 522, Column 2, Dayton, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1975 (1971 First Printing), The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution by Ayn Rand, Revised Edition, Apollo and Dionysus, Start Page 57, Quote Page 80 and 81, (Endnote specifies date: December 1969 – January 1970), A Signet Book: New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1982 January 22, Alexandria Daily Town Talk, Fitness Talk: Just Be Yourself Best Fitness Rule by Johnny Yates, Quote Page B3, Column 2, Alexandria, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1982, Good Advice, Compiled by Leonard Safir and William Safire, Topic: Idealism, Quote Page 164, Published by NYT Times Books, New York. (Verified on paper)