I noticed back in 2017 that ethos has been lacking in modern political dialogue:
Aristotle held that there were three aspects of rhetoric: Ethos, what is usually translated as personal qualification; pathos, that which stirs people’s emotions; and logos, what we might think of as oral demonstration of truth.
Let me begin with ethos.
Ethos is usually translated as the qualifications that make you someone worth listening to, but it is far more than mere credentials. Aristotle said, of ethos, “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech [is] so spoken as to make us think him credible.” In other words, ethos is about more than just the individual. In fact, as it’s used today, ethos is really best thought of as the characteristic spirit of a group. You may hear of the ethos of doctors, derived from the Hippocratic oath, or the ethos of the US Marines. It’s not a coincidence that our word “ethics” comes from ethos; you can’t have a systematic framework for judging right action without a group with shared goals and values. When Aristotle talks about ethos, he’s talking about the speaker’s demonstration that he holds and adheres to the values and characteristic spirit of the audience. He’s demonstrating that he’s on their side, and can be trusted because they share a common identity, if not a common interest. That’s what makes him qualified and trustworthy. That’s what makes him persuasive.
Today’s problem is that in a globalized world where everyone is presumed to be equal and valuable, there is no basis for discriminating between who is and is not worth listening to. Everyone understands that many people — perhaps most people, perhaps even almost all people — are not trustworthy enough to listen to. Our goals and values shape and filter our entire lives and our perception of the world; if someone else’s goals and values are different than ours, then what they say might not be helpful to us, even if it is factually true. In fact, their words may actually harm us, leading us down another path, away from our true aims, and closer to theirs.
We can try to create ad hoc ideological standards, but the problem with this is that it is very easy for anyone to simply say the right thing, thus either gaining a listener’s trust in a predatory fashion, or else eroding our trust in other’s speech generally.
It is much less common and more difficult, however, to live deceptively.
Enter the phenomenon of “post physique.”
As far as I am aware, Marcus “The Golden One” Follin is the originator of this simple test, which functions in the following manner:
If you don’t post pictures of your physique, no one has to listen to your opinion.
To the modern, Redditing, New York Times-reading, NPR-listening political participant, this little litmus test sounds not only strange, but like a total non-sequitor. What on earth does one’s physique have to do with political beliefs and opinions? Why would my fitness determine whether or not what I say is correct?
Obviously, there is no direct connection. But, as I said before, the factual correctness of a claim doesn’t necessarily make a claim useful or helpful. In fact, true “facts” can be used to manipulate and deceive just as easily as falsehoods — perhaps even more effectively.
What is truly necessary for trust and for effective rhetoric is a demonstration of shared values and goals — ethos. Such a demonstration forms a foundation from which truths are trusted, and the occasional falsehood is treated as an honest mistake, and not a manipulative or malicious deception. It has this effect because this demonstration of shared values and goals puts the speaker’s skin in the listener’s game. The speaker and listener are in this together, and if the speaker is wrong, he shares some of the costs.
Nassim Taleb’s excellent book Skin in the Game describes the speaker without ethos as an “intellectual yet idiot“:
…he doesn’t know that there is no difference between “pseudointellectual” and “intellectual” in the absence of skin in the game […]
But a much easier marker: he doesn’t even deadlift.
As a rhetorical technique, “post physique” does three things:
- It establishes physical fitness as a positive and high value
- It discriminates between those who are actively, consistently, and effectively pursuing fitness and those who are not
- It emphasizes the importance of individual pursuit of positive values
The overall effect is that “post physique” excludes people from the conversation who don’t share your values, freeing up valuable mental space and, paradoxically, permitting you to trust more wholeheartedly.
Naturally, physique is not the only positive value one should hold. In all reality, it is probably not even in the top two or three (religion, family, work, and health — which is not the same as fitness — usually rank slightly higher, perhaps along with values such as freedom, honor, and mastery). But whereas the details of these other values may vary from individual to individual — my God may not be your God; my family almost certainly is not your family, and my dedication to these may therefore appear differently — valuing masculine strength appears universal to virtually all men in all societies. This makes it a useful point of focus in the meta-political context within which people like Marcus Follin attempt to alter the culture, given the global and democratic current state of things.
So, in solidarity and shared valuation — and to remain congruent with my own support of this invaluable rhetorical tool — I post physique:
I am certainly no body-builder, but my body nevertheless demonstrates my dedication to the value in question.
But the important takeaway here isn’t the value of working out per se. What is more useful is understanding the rhetorical tool at work here, which is ethos: asking for (as the listener) or providing (as the speaker) proof of investment in the values presumed in logos — the logical argument — and appealed to in pathos — the emotional argument. Perhaps, if you are looking for gardening advice, you ask to see the garden of the person who may be offering training; perhaps if you are looking to learn a martial art, you ask to spar with the instructor, to ensure that what you are learning isn’t bullshit. If someone says that they are a Christian, ask them how often they pray, or if they have been baptized, or how often they help the poor.
And if someone offers an opinion online, detached from their real name or face — let alone any other form of skin in the game — ask yourself if their opinion is even worth reading, let alone taking seriously.
This Post Has 8 Comments
p2 Mar 2020
Never trust fatties.
Anonymous16 Dec 2020
Excellent article. I held this same idea in more condensed and less articulate form. It seems to me that the stronger and more well developed a person’s physique is, the more capacity for courage exists in him.
post body10 Feb 2021
actually, it originate from bodybuilding forums and misc, it basically mean”if you looks like you don’t lift, then how are you going to give me advice on lifting “
C.B. Robertson10 Feb 2021
Interesting… and makes sense.
George Tasker29 May 2021
In one of my fields of discussion interest (Christianity) I employ a different kind of filter especially to those who hate Christianity.
I challenge them with the following question. “What right do you as a heathen have to lecture me, a Christian, on what my moral values should be?”
The conversation ends pretty much right then and there.
C.B. Robertson29 May 2021
Right, and vice-versa would hold as well
Chris3 Jun 2021
That seems unnecessarily defensive. Of course there is no “right” to challenge another, but because we must help others grow, we must be challenged. It also strengthens, so to speak, argument.
C.B. Robertson3 Jun 2021
Doesn’t that seem like holding one ethos standard for yourself, but delegitimitizing the same kind of standard when someone else does it too? Why would it not be unnecessarily defensive for a Christian to challenge a non-Christian’s right to debate with you about morality?
Different visions of life entail different obligations, as pertaining to whom we will converse with. But given the Christian’s dual obligations to both spread the good news and to give a defense to everyone who asks for a reason for the hope you have, it seems a bit ballsy to say other people shouldn’t have the right to give their opinion, while expecting them to listen to you.