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Lucas Watson
Lucas Watson


In modern usage, ethos denotes the disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, corporation, culture, or movement. For example, the poet and critic T. S. Eliot wrote in 1940 that "the general ethos of the people they have to govern determines the behavior of politicians".[5] Similarly the historian Orlando Figes wrote in 1996 that in Soviet Russia of the 1920s "the ethos of the Communist party dominated every aspect of public life".[6]


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Ethos may change in response to new ideas or forces. For example, according to the Jewish historian Arie Krampf, ideas of economic modernization which were imported into Palestine in the 1930s brought about "the abandonment of the agrarian ethos and the reception of...the ethos of rapid development".[7]

In a sense, ethos does not belong to the speaker but to the audience and it's appealing to the audience's emotions. Thus, it is the audience that determines whether a speaker is a high- or a low-ethos speaker. Violations of ethos include:

Although Plato never uses the term "ethos" in his extant corpus, scholar Collin Bjork;[10] a communicator, podcaster, and digital rhetorician,[11] argues that Plato dramatizes the complexity of rhetorical ethos in the Apology of Socrates.[12] For Aristotle, a speaker's ethos was a rhetorical strategy employed by an orator whose purpose was to "inspire trust in his audience" (Rhetorica 1380). Ethos was therefore achieved through the orator's "good sense, good moral character, and goodwill", and central to Aristotelian virtue ethics was the notion that this "good moral character" was increased in virtuous degree by habit (Rhetorica 1380). Ethos also is related to a character's habit as well (The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, 2018). The person's character is related to a person's habits (The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, 2018). Aristotle links virtue, habituation, and ethos most succinctly in Book II of Nicomachean Ethics: "Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching [...] while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name ethike is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit)" (952). Discussing women and rhetoric, scholar Karlyn Kohrs Campbell notes that entering the public sphere was considered an act of moral transgression for females of the nineteenth century: "Women who formed moral reform and abolitionist societies, and who made speeches, held conventions, and published newspapers, entered the public sphere and thereby lost their claims to purity and piety" (13).[13] Crafting an ethos within such restrictive moral codes, therefore, meant adhering to membership of what Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner have theorized as counter publics. While Warner contends that members of counter publics are afforded little opportunity to join the dominant public and therefore exert true agency, Nancy Fraser[14] has problematized Habermas's conception of the public sphere as a dominant "social totality"[15] by theorizing "subaltern counter publics", which function as alternative publics that represent "parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs" (67).[16]

Though feminist rhetorical theorists have begun to offer ways of conceiving of ethos that are influenced by postmodern concepts of identity, they remain cognizant of how these classical associations have shaped and still do shape women's use of the rhetorical tool. Johanna Schmertz draws on Aristotelian ethos to reinterpret the term alongside feminist theories of subjectivity, writing that, "Instead of following a tradition that, it seems to me, reads ethos somewhat in the manner of an Aristotelian quality proper to the speaker's identity, a quality capable of being deployed as needed to fit a rhetorical situation, I will ask how ethos may be dislodged from identity and read in such a way as to multiply the positions from which women may speak" (83).[17] Rhetorical scholar and professor Kate Ronald's claim that "ethos is the appeal residing in the tension between the speaker's private and public self", (39)[18] also presents a more postmodern view of ethos that links credibility and identity. Similarly, Nedra Reynolds and Susan Jarratt echo this view of ethos as a fluid and dynamic set of identifications, arguing that "these split selves are guises, but they are not distortions or lies in the philosopher's sense. Rather they are 'deceptions' in the sophistic sense: recognition of the ways one is positioned multiply differently" (56).[19]

Rhetorical scholar Michael Halloran has argued that the classical understanding of ethos "emphasizes the conventional rather than the idiosyncratic, the public rather than the private" (60). Commenting further on the classical etymology and understanding of ethos, Halloran illuminates the interdependence between ethos and cultural context by arguing that "To have ethos is to manifest the virtues most valued by the culture to and for which one speaks" (60).[20] While scholars do not all agree on the dominant sphere in which ethos may be crafted, some agree that ethos is formed through the negotiation between private experience and the public, rhetorical act of self-expression. Karen Burke LeFevre's argument in Invention as Social Act situates this negotiation between the private and the public, writing that ethos "appears in that socially created space, in the 'between', the point of intersection between speaker or writer and listener or reader" (45-46).[21]

According to Nedra Reynolds, "ethos, like postmodern subjectivity, shifts and changes over time, across texts, and around competing spaces" (336). However, Reynolds additionally discusses how one might clarify the meaning of ethos within rhetoric as expressing inherently communal roots. This stands in direct opposition to what she describes as the claim "that ethos can be faked or 'manipulated'" because individuals would be formed by the values of their culture and not the other way around (336). Rhetorical scholar John Oddo also suggests that ethos is negotiated across a community and not simply a manifestation of the self (47). In the era of mass-mediated communication, Oddo contends, one's ethos is often created by journalists and dispersed over multiple news texts. With this in mind, Oddo coins the term intertextual ethos, the notion that a public figure's "ethos is constituted within and across a range of mass media voices" (48).

In "Black Women Writers and the Trouble with Ethos", scholar Coretta Pittman notes that race has been generally absent from theories of ethos construction and that this concept is troubling for black women. Pittman writes, "Unfortunately, in the history of race relations in America, black Americans' ethos ranks low among other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. More often than not, their moral characters have been associated with a criminalized and sexualized ethos in visual and print culture" (43).[22]

The ways in which characters were constructed is important when considering ethos, or character, in Greek tragedy.[23] Augustus Taber Murray explains that the depiction of a character was limited by the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were presented. These include the single unchanging scene, necessary use of the chorus, small number of characters limiting interaction, large outdoor theatres, and the use of masks, which all influenced characters to be more formal and simple.[24] Murray also declares that the inherent characteristics of Greek tragedies are important in the makeup of the characters. One of these is the fact that tragedy characters were nearly always mythical characters. This limited the character, as well as the plot, to the already well-known myth from which the material of the play was taken. The other characteristic is the relatively short length of most Greek plays.[25] This limited the scope of the play and characterization so that the characters were defined by one overriding motivation toward a certain objective from the beginning of the play.[26]

Ethos, or character, also appears in the visual art of famous or mythological ancient Greek events in murals, on pottery, and sculpture referred to generally as pictorial narrative. Aristotle even praised the ancient Greek painter Polygnotos because his paintings included characterization. The way in which the subject and his actions are portrayed in visual art can convey the subject's ethical character and through this the work's overall theme, just as effectively as poetry or drama can.[39] This characterization portrayed men as they ought to be, which is the same as Aristotle's idea of what ethos or character should be in tragedy. (Stansbury-O'Donnell, p. 178) Professor Mark D. Stansbury-O'Donnell states that pictorial narratives often had ethos as its focus, and was therefore concerned with showing the character's moral choices. (Stansbury-O'Donnell, p. 175) David Castriota, agreeing with Stansbury-O'Donnell's statement, says that the main way Aristotle considered poetry and visual arts to be on equal levels was in character representation and its effect on action.[40] However, Castriota also maintains about Aristotle's opinion that "his interest has to do with the influence that such ethical representation may exert upon the public". Castriota also explains that according to Aristotle, "[t]he activity of these artists is to be judged worthy and useful above all because exposure of their work is beneficial to the polis".[40] Accordingly, this was the reason for the representation of character, or ethos, in public paintings and sculptures. In order to portray the character's choice, the pictorial narrative often shows an earlier scene than when the action was committed. Stansbury-O'Donnell gives an example of this in the form of a picture by the ancient Greek artist Exekia which shows the Greek hero Ajax planting his sword in the ground in preparation to commit suicide, instead of the actual suicide scene. (Stansbury-O'Donnell, p. 177.) Additionally, Castriota explains that ancient Greek art expresses the idea that character was the major factor influencing the outcome of the Greeks' conflicts against their enemies. Because of this, "ethos was the essential variable in the equation or analogy between myth and actuality".[41] 041b061a72


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