The Modern Male Ethos: Improving the Merits of the Mind

When I teach argumentation and persuasion in my English 101 course, I delve into the Grecian modes of persuasion: ethos (credibility or character), pathos (passion or emotion), logos (logic or reasoning), and kairos (timing or opportunity). I always begin, however, with a detailed analysis of ethos. The ancient Greeks believed that if an individual’s ideas and arguments were to be accepted, that individual first needed to prove that he/she was worth listening to— and one’s worth did not originate from their intrinsic participation in the human race; it was established by one’s character and moral custom. In other words, ethos. I firmly believe the same. If an individual has a reputation for corruption, corner-cutting, mediocrity, maliciousness, or the like, their ethos has been sullied— and so has any argument, idea, or perspective they may hold.

Unfortunately, as I survey the condition of the modern man, it’s painfully obvious that much of our ethos has been sullied. Week after week, I have witnessed countless men-of-status being accused of sexual misconduct (e.g. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and others). Month after month, I have watched as men and their masculine traits are labeled as “toxic,” “predatory,” and even “disposable.” And year after year, I have observed that men suffer much more than women do in rates of suicide, cardiovascular disease, life expectancy, and overall health outcomes. Men, across many of the criteria that once defined the masculine experience, have become weak and have been found wanting. For the modern man, prison populations, divorce rates, violence, and addictions have increased; and graduation rates, church attendance, and two-parent households have decreased (all data-driven observations). What has also increased is the general dissatisfaction that many women (and even men) express with modern masculinity.

My own wife, who was a deputy sheriff for ten years and tougher than many men I know, has shared her experiences with me about previously dating men with rock-hard abs but Charmin-soft egos or men that were in positions of power but severely lacked internal strength. She’s also told me about losing faith in the male population of the small town she once patrolled because she had arrested most of them. In other words, they had lost their ethos. I’d imagine if any women are reading this, you, too, have dated a handful of men who were not what they seemed; they lead with pathos, but lacked ethos and maybe even logos. This loss of faith in the ethos of men isn’t surprising to me, though, because the good majority of the women I’ve dated in my life have had fathers that either abused and/or abandoned them. Weak men, men who lack ethos—integrity, fortitude, ethics, and character— have become the unfortunate rule instead of the occasional exception. This desperately needs to change.

Who am I?

Before I go any further, let me preface the remainder of this article with the following: I am not one of those self-hating, beta males who feels he needs to apologize for all of the sins and sorrows that have been perpetuated by our sex. Nor am I one of those antagonistic armchair activists that types away at his keyboard with a misplaced sense of moral high ground because I believe I can rescue the oppressed from the world’s injustices. No, I am simply a man, cracked as I am, bumbling through this world, trying to pass down some mental inklings to my son and anyone else who would care to listen about what it means to be a man in today’s modern world. And it’s actually my cracks, as Groucho Marx one remarked, that will hopefully “let in the light,” for I know that if I am going to talk about the moral failing of men as a whole, I must also admit my own moral failings. I have been divorced; I’ve cheated; I have stolen; I’ve ignored my own code of conduct; I have lacked character; and I have, at times, corrupted my own ethos. However, it has been through my own moral failings that I have learned some of the toughest and truest lessons. One such lesson is this: character matters. My son will often forget what I say, but he will inevitably remember the example I set; he will tire of the things I buy him, but he will internalize the kind of man I am. Ethos, for men as a whole, for the man I need to be, and for the man that my son will become, matters. And I would argue that if men are to regain the confidence of the ever-growing “men-are-toxic” movements, logos (logic) and pathos (passion) will not suffice; ethos (character) is the necessary ingredient.

Boys with a Purpose

It goes without saying that not all men are morally bankrupt. There are plenty examples of men of character working to raise their children and/or carry themselves with integrity, virtue, and class. One such example is Raymond Nelson. Nelson is a student support specialist and teacher at Memminger Elementary in South Carolina. He created a “Gentlemen’s Club” for at-risk youth. Every Wednesday they dress in their Sunday best and discuss things like how to shake hands, make eye contact, and treat their elders with respect. His club has grown and is now a full-fledged organization called Boys with a Purpose. The organization’s motto is a truism that men of all ages could learn from: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I could not agree with this more, but the sad reality of the matter is that in spite of the glowing example that Nelson and others like him are setting, there are far too many broken men. This fact alone goes to show that a man is a man not by birthright alone, but by action, by character, by what he does, and by who he is. Masculinity, then, is a meritocracy; that is to say, manhood is earned and not given. Thus, in an effort to improve our collective merit, I offer some notes on and examples from men of character and of history to increase our understanding of the ethos of a healthy manhood. I will offer my first note, improving the merits of the mind, in this article. I will, however, offer more in future articles because unpacking the components of a healthy male ethos is a lengthy campaign, and a few simple paragraphs will not suffice.

Improving the Merits of the Mind

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered the commencement address to the men of Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa honor society. In the address, Emerson charged the graduates to go into the world and rely upon their newly educated ability to think deeply and act justly. He made this charge because he noted that “The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.” One hundred and eighty years later, regrettably, the minds of most men are still taught to “aim at low objects.” Objects of pleasure, entertainment, and escape (i.e. objects in the physical world) have become the primary aim for most men, and that aim inevitably destroys the mind. It destroys the mind because no matter how much pleasure, entertainment, or escape an individual gets, one will always desire more. Thus, these objects of pleasure, while not necessarily “low” in and of themselves, bring men low because of the insatiable desire that conquers their minds. Desire, which is an emotional response, is a plague to our intellectual faculties— and if that emotion is not checked, then man is a slave to his own desires. Emerson knew this; young men often do not. When men of any age are taught to aim at low objects, a mental self-destruction occurs, and that is when, as Emerson further noted, men are not men at all but mere “approximations” of what they could be, or what they should be.

Therefore, much of how we approach manhood or enact manhood begins and ends with how we, as men, think (or don’t think); our minds are our pons asinorum (or the point at which many learners fail). I’d imagine if Emerson were still alive today, he’d lament the mental self-destruction and approximated manhood that many live due to the consistent aim upon low objects and the lowering of other people into objects for one’s pleasure. The charge then from Emerson’s 1837 address is very much modern: develop the critical faculties of the mind, think deeply, and use much of that mental energy to understand one’s self. After all, this was the call of ancient Greeks: to know thyself. In fact, Socrates taught that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Sadly, I have seen too many instances of approximated men, infatuated with low objects, numbing their existence, living unexamined lives. Healthy men educate themselves, examine themselves, and improve not just themselves but those around them, too. Much of the worth of male living, then, is not in self-expression or self-aggrandizement but in self-reflection and the consequent self-understanding. There is a great moral and personal victory that comes in conquering one’s own weaknesses— and all men crave victory; we’ve simply forgotten that the greatest victory comes not in conquering one’s neighbors or one’s environment but in conquering one’s self. Thus, victory over the masculinity-naysayers and approximated manhood requires realigning the concentrations of the mind. This, in turn, will assist with mastery over one’s self and an altogether improved male ethos.

[stay tuned for parts two and three…]

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