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Ethos (11px /ˈθɒs/ or /ˈθs/) is a Greek word meaning "character" that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. The Greeks also used this word to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer's emotions, behaviors, and even morals.[1] Early Greek stories of Orpheus exhibit this idea in a compelling way. The word's use in rhetoric is closely based on the Greek terminology used by Aristotle in his concept of the three artistic proofs.

Etymology and origin

Ethos (ἦθος, ἔθος, plurals: ethe (ἤθη), ethea (ἤθεα)) is a Greek word originally meaning "accustomed place" (as in ἤθεα ἵππων "the habitat of horses", Iliad 6.511), "custom, habit", equivalent to Latin mores.

Ethos forms the root of ethikos (ἠθικός), meaning "moral, showing moral character". Late Latin borrowed it as ethicus, the feminine of which (ethica, for ἠθική φιλοσοφία "moral philosophy") is the origin of the modern English word ethics.

Current usage

Ethos can simply mean the disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement. The Ethos refers to the spirit which motivates the ideas and customs. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "The general ethos of the people they have to govern determines the behavior of politicians."[2] One historian noted that in the 1920s, "The ethos of the Communist party dominated every aspect of public life in Soviet Russia."[3]

Ethos may change in response to new ideas or forces. Ideas of economic modernization imported from the West in the 1930s brought about in Jewish settlements in Palestine "the abandonment of the agrarian ethos and the reception of...the ethos of rapid development".[4]


In rhetoric, ethos is one of the three artistic proofs (pistis (πίστις)) or modes of persuasion (other principles being logos and pathos ) discussed by Aristotle in 'Rhetoric' as a component of argument. Speakers must establish ethos from the start. This can involve "moral competence" only; Aristotle however broadens the concept to include expertise and knowledge. Ethos is limited, in his view, by what the speaker says. Others however contend that a speaker's ethos extends to and is shaped by the overall moral character and history of the speaker—that is, what people think of his or her character before the speech is even begun (cf Isocrates).

According to Nedra Reynolds, Professor of Writing & Rhetoric, "ethos, like postmodern subjectivity, shifts and changes over time, across texts, and around competing spaces" (Reynolds 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 (Reynolds 336). While its meaning and application within literature might differ over time, this classical interpretation persists.

There are three categories of ethos.

  • phronesis - practical skills & wisdom
  • arete - virtue, goodness
  • eunoia - goodwill towards the audience

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

  • The speaker has a direct interest in the outcome of the debate (e.g. a person pleading innocence of a crime);
  • The speaker has a vested interest or ulterior motive in the outcome of the debate;
  • The speaker has no expertise (e.g. a lawyer giving a speech on space flight is less convincing than an astronaut giving the same speech).

Completely dismissing an argument based on any of the above violations of ethos is a formal fallacy, rendering the dismissal of the argument invalid.

The term "source credibility" has been used as the construct examined in the social sciences. Though recent work has found support for the existence of the three dimensions identified above, work from the 1950s through the 1980s consistently revealed two dimensions (competence and character) with other dimensions such as dynamism found only when broad approaches equating credibility with "person perception" were taken.

Character in Greek tragedy

The ways in which characters in Greek tragedies were constructed is important when considering ethos, or character, in Greek tragedy. 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 theaters, and the use of masks, which all influenced characters to be more formal and simple.[5] 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. 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.[6]

However, in regard to this trait, Murray clarifies that strict constancy is not always the rule in Greek tragedy characters. To support this, he points out the example of Antigone who, even though she strongly defies Creon in the beginning of the play, begins to doubt her cause and plead for mercy as she is led to her execution.[7]

Several other aspects of the character element in ancient Greek tragedy are worth noting.Template:Says who One of these, which C. Garet discusses, is the fact that either because of contradictory action or incomplete description, the character cannot be viewed as an individual, or the reader is left confused about the character.[8] One method of reconciling this would be to consider these characters to be flat, or type-caste, instead of round. This would mean that most of the information about the character centers around one main quality or viewpoint.[9] Comparable to the flat character option, the reader could also view the character as a symbol. Examples of this might be the Eumenides as vengeance, or Clytemnestra as symbolizing ancestral curse.[10] Yet another means of looking at character, according to Tycho von Wilamowitz and Howald, is the idea that characterization is not important. This idea is maintained by the theory that the play is meant to affect the viewer or reader scene by scene, with attention being only focused on the section at hand. This point of view also holds that the different figures in a play are only characterized by the situation surrounding them, and only enough so that their actions can be understood.[11]

Garet makes three more observations about character in Greek tragedy. The first is an abundant variety of types of characters in Greek tragedy. His second observation is that the reader or viewer’s need for characters to display a unified identity that is similar to human nature is usually fulfilled. Thirdly, characters in tragedies include incongruities and idiosyncrasies.[12]

Another aspect stated by Garet is that tragedy plays are composed of language, character, and action, and the interactions of these three components; these are fused together throughout the play. He explains that action normally determines the major means of characterization. Another principle he states is the importance of these three components’ effect on each other; the important repercussion of this being character’s impact on action.[13]

Augustus Taber Murray also examines the importance and degree of interaction between plot and character. He does this by discussing Aristotle’s statements about plot and character in his Poetics: that plot can exist without character, but character cannot exist without plot, and so character is secondary to plot. Murray maintains that Aristotle did not mean that complicated plot should hold the highest place in a tragedy play. This is because the plot was, more often than not, simple and therefore not a major point of tragic interest. Murray conjectures that people today do not accept Aristotle’s statement about character and plot because to modern people, the most memorable things about tragedy plays are often the characters.[14] Murray does, however, concede that Aristotle is correct in that "There can be no portrayal of character ... without at least a skeleton outline of plot."[15]

Character, or ethos, in pictorial narrative

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.[16] 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, 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, 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.[17] 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, “The activity of these artists is to be judged worthy and useful above all because exposure of their work is beneficial to the polis.”[17] 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, 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.”[18]

See also

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  1. Weiss, Piero and Taruskin, Richard, "Music in the Western World: A History in Documents" (1984) p. 1
  2. T.S. Eliot, The idea of a Christian society‎ (1940) p. 25
  3. Orlando Figes, A people's tragedy: the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924‎ (1996) p. 682
  4. Afrie Krampf, "Reception of the Developmental Approach in the Jewish Economic Discourse of Mandatory Palestine, 1934-1938," Israel Studies, Summer 2010, Vol. 15#2 pp 80-103
  5. Murray (1916), 53-54.
  6. Murray (1916), 54-56.
  7. Murray (1916), 59.
  8. Garton (1957), 247.
  9. Garton (1957), 247-248.
  10. Garton (1957), 248.
  11. Garton (1957), 248–249.
  12. Garton (1957), 250.
  13. Garton (1957), 250-251.
  14. Murray (1916), 52.
  15. Murray (1916), 53.
  16. Castriota (1992), 11.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Castriota (1992), 10.
  18. Castriota (1992), 12.

Further reading

  • Castriota, David. Myth, Ethos, and Actuality: Official Art in Fifth-Century B.C. Athens. London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
  • Garton, C. “Characteristics in Greek Tragedy.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 77, Part 2. (1957), pp. 247–254. JSTOR. [1]
  • Grazia, Margreta. Hamlet without Hamlet. New York, NY: Cambridge, 2007.
  • Halloran, S. Michael. "Aristotle's Concept of Ethos, or if not His, Someone Else's." Rhetoric Review, Vol. 1, No. 1. (Sep., 1982), pp. 58–63. JSTOR. [2].
  • (1974). Aristotle on Habit and Character: Implications for the Rhetoric. Communication Monographs 41 (4): 309–316.
  • (1916). Plot and Character in Greek Tragedy. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 47: 51–64.
  • Paris, Bernard. Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare: the history and Roman plays. London: Associated University Presses Inc, 1991.
  • (1993). Ethos as Location: New Sites for Discursive Authority. Rhetoric Review 11 (2): 325–338.

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