Definition and Examples of Ethos in Classical Rhetoric

speaker pointing
"The personality of the orator outweighs the issues." (John Leopold, professor of classical rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley). Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images

In classical rhetoric, ethos is a persuasive appeal (one of the three artistic proofs) based on the character or projected character of the speaker or writer. Also called ethical appeal or ethical argument. According to Aristotle, the chief components of a compelling ethos are goodwill, practical wisdom, and virtue. As an adjective: ethical or ethotic.

Two broad types of ethos are commonly recognized: invented ethos and situated ethos. Crowley and Hawhee observe that "rhetors can invent a character suitable to an occasion—this is invented ethos. However, if rhetors are fortunate enough to enjoy a good reputation in the community, they can use it as an ethical proof—this is situated ethos" (Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. Pearson, 2004).




From the Greek, "custom, habit, character"

Related Terms

Examples and Observations

A Universal Appeal

"Everyone makes an appeal to ethos if only an ethos of choosing never to stoop to such matters as ethos. No speech with intent is 'non-rhetorical.' Rhetoric is not everything, but it is everywhere in the speech of human arguers." (Donald N. McCloskey, "How to Do a Rhetorical Analysis, and Why." New Directions in Economic Methodology, ed. by Roger Backhouse. Routledge, 1994)

Projected Characters

  • "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." (1960s TV commercial for Excedrin)
  • "I made my mistakes, but in all of my years of public life, I have never profited, never profited from public service—I earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I could say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook. I have earned everything I have got." (President Richard Nixon, news conference in Orlando, Florida, November 17, 1973)
  • "It was a highly inconvenient thing for them in our debates that I was just a country boy from Arkansas and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four." (Bill Clinton, speech at the Democratic National Convention, 2012)
  • "If, in my low moments, in word, deed or attitude, through some error of temper, taste, or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived someone's fears, that was not my truest self. If there were occasions when my grape turned into a raisin and my joy bell lost its resonance, please forgive me. Charge it to my head and not to my heart. My head—so limited in its finitude; my heart, which is boundless in its love for the human family. I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds." (Jesse Jackson, Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, 1984)

Contrasting Views

  • "The status of ethos in the hierarchy of rhetorical principles has fluctuated as rhetoricians in different eras have tended to define rhetoric in terms of either idealistic aims or pragmatic skills. [For Plato] the reality of the speaker's virtue is presented as a prerequisite to effective speaking. In contrast, Aristotle's Rhetoric presents rhetoric as a strategic art which facilitates decisions in civil matters and accepts the appearance of goodness as sufficient to inspire conviction in hearers...The contrasting views of Cicero and Quintilian about the aims of rhetoric and the function of ethos are reminiscent of Plato's and Aristotle's differences of opinion about whether or not moral virtue in the speaker is intrinsic and prerequisite or selected and strategically presented." (Nan Johnson, "Ethos and the Aims of Rhetoric." Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse, ed. by Robert J. Connors, Lisa Ede, and Andrea Lunsford. Southern Illinois University Press, 1984)

Aristotle on Ethos

  • "If Aristotle's study of pathos is a psychology of emotion, then his treatment of ethos amounts to a sociology of character. It is not simply a how-to guide to establishing one's credibility with an audience, but rather it is a careful study of what Athenians consider to be the qualities of a trustworthy individual." (James Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric. Allyn and Bacon, 2001)
  • "Fundamental to the Aristotelian concept of ethos is the ethical principle of voluntary choice: the speaker's intelligence, character, and qualities comprehended by goodwill are evidenced through invention, style, delivery, and likewise incorporated in the arrangement of the speech. Ethos is primarily developed by Aristotle as a function of rhetorical invention; secondarily, through style and delivery." (William Sattler, "Conceptions of Ethos in Ancient Rhetoric." Speech Monographs, 14, 1947)

Ethical Appeals in Advertising and Branding

  • "Some types of oratory may rely more heavily on one type of proof than another. Today, for example, we note that a great deal of advertising uses ethos extensively through celebrity endorsements, but it might not use pathos. It is clear from Aristotle's discussion in Rhetoric, however, that, overall, the three proofs work in conjunction to persuade (see Grimaldi, 1972). Moreover, it is equally clear that ethical character is the lynchpin that holds everything together. As Aristotle stated, 'moral character . . . constitutes the most effective means of proof' (1356a). An audience is just not likely to respond positively to a speaker of bad character: His or her statement of premises will be met with skepticism; he or she will find it difficult to rouse the emotions appropriate to the situation; and the quality of the speech itself will be viewed negatively." (James Dale Williams, An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric. Wiley, 2009)
  • "On its face, personal branding as reputation management shares some basic traits with the ancient Greek concept of ethos, which is commonly understood as the art of convincing one's audience that one is prudent or exercises good judgment (phronesis), is of good moral character (arête), and is acting with good will toward one's audience (eunoia). Historically, scholars of rhetoric have seen the basis of persuasion as a speaker's capacity to understand and tailor one's message according to the complexities of social situations and human character. Ethos, broadly speaking, is understood as the rhetorical construction of a speaker's character." (Christine Harold, "'Brand You!': The Business of Personal Branding and Community in Anxious Times." The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture, ed. by Matthew P. McAllister and Emily West. Routledge, 2013)

Ethical Proof in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

  • "The specific details by which Swift builds up the ethical proof fall into four categories descriptive of the projector: his humanity, his self-confidence, his competence in the immediate subject of the proposal, and his reasonableness...I have said that the projector is a bit cocksure. He is also manifestly humble and modest. The proposal is a 'modest' one. It is introduced in generally modest terms: 'I SHALL NOW therefore humbly propose my own thoughts ...'; 'I do humbly offer to public consideration. . . .' Swift has blended these two qualities of his projector in such a way that both are convincing and that neither quality overshadows the other. The result is a pleader whose humility is justifiably tempered by the sure knowledge that he has something to offer Ireland, to her everlasting benefit. These are the explicit indicants of the moral character of the pleader; they are reinforced and dramatized by the whole tone of the essay." (Charles A. Beaumont, Swift's Classical Rhetoric. University of Georgia Press, 1961)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Ethos in Classical Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Ethos in Classical Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Ethos in Classical Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).