Ethos, commonly translated as “ethics” and “moral character,” is a fundamental term in the history of the western rhetorical tradition. For “who does not know,” writes the ancient Greek philosopher and rhetorician Isocrates, “that words carry greater conviction when spoken by men of good repute than when spoken by men who live under a cloud, and that the argument which is made by a man’s life has more weight than that which is furnished by words?” (Isocrates 1982, 278). Ethos is both a legitimating source for and a praiseworthy effect of the ethical practice of the orator’s art. Heeding the call of public service as a person of “good repute,” the orator’s presence and rhetorical competence are a “showing-forth” (epideixis) of a “principled self ” that instructs the moral consciousness and actions of others and thereby serves as a possible catalyst for them to do the same for the good of their community.
Isocrates anticipates the doctrine of ethos developed in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, but with this doctrine comes a significant change in the technical use of the term. For Isocrates, rhetorical paideia, education and socialization, serves the process of character development, but it is a person’s character itself, his or her stellar reputation, that anchors the persuasive capacity of rhetoric. Aristotle, on the other hand, associates ethos not primarily with the orator’s reputation for being such a soul, but rather with the actual rhetorical competence displayed in the orator’s discourse. The practice of rhetoric constitutes an active construction of character; ethos takes form as a result of the orator’s abilities to argue and to deliberate, and thereby to inspire trust in an audience. Aristotle thus directs our attention away from an understanding of ethos as a person’s well-lived existence and toward an understanding of ethos as an artistic accomplishment.
Although the notions of ethos defined by Isocrates and Aristotle are certainly different, there nevertheless exists an “existential” connection between the two (Hyde 2004). Aristotle’s understanding of artful ethos presupposes that the character that takes place in the orator’s specific text is itself contextualized and thereby made possible by past social, political, and rhetorical transactions that inform the orator’s and his audience’s ongoing, communal existence: the “places,” “habitats,” and “haunts” (ethea) wherein people dwell and bond together. This earliest use of ethos as “dwelling place” dates back to Homer and Hesiod. Aristotle develops this particular usage of ethos when, in the Nicomachean ethics, he discusses how, beginning in childhood, “ethical” virtues can be trained and made habitual (1103a17–30). He also emphasizes this habituating process in the Eudemian ethics, when he identifies ethos with the “irrational part of the soul” that is still capable of following the orders of reason (1220b2 – 6).
The rhetorical tradition owes its technical use of ethos (associated primarily with oratorical skill) to Aristotle’s appreciation of the term as set forth in the Rhetoric. Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutical and ontological discussion of this text (“Grundbegriffe der aristotelischen Philosophie,” an unpublished transcript of Heidegger’s 1924 Summer Semester lecture course at Marburg, in the Marcuse Archiv in the Stadtsbibliotek in Frankfurt am Main) has been described as providing “arguably, the best twentieth century reading” of its teachings (Struever 2005, 127). This reading, however, emphasizes a more robust appreciation of ethos than what is typically found in traditional discussions of the term throughout the literature of the rhetorical tradition. In the most original sense of the term, writes Heidegger, “Ethos means abode, dwelling place. The word names the open region in which man dwells” (1977, 233). This open region shows itself in the ongoing and future-oriented process of human being: the way the objective uncertainty of our spatial and temporal existence is forever challenging us to assume the ethical responsibility of affirming the burden of our freedom of choice whereby, through thought and action, we bring a sense of order and meaning to our lives. This primordial challenge of human existence defines what Heidegger terms the original “call of conscience.”
Like Aristotle, Heidegger understands the art of rhetoric as a practice that employs logos (logic) and pathos (emotion) to transform the spatial and temporal orientation of an audience, its way of being situated or placed in relationship to things and to others. The genuine enhancement of public opinion requires, among other things, that the orator “modify” the lived and attuned space of others by “making present” to them what the orator has reason to believe is true, just, and virtuous. In so doing, the orator not only places his own character on the line and in the text but also clears a place in time and space for people to acknowledge and “know-together” (conscientia) what is arguably the truth of some matter of importance (Hyde 2001). The ethical practice of rhetoric entails the construction of a speaker’s ethos as well as the construction of a “dwelling place” for collaborative and moral deliberation.
With all of this in mind, it may thus be said that the “ethos of rhetoric” directs one’s attention to the “architectural” function of the art: how, for example, its practice grants such living room to our lives that we might feel more at home with others and our surroundings. The ethos of rhetoric would have one appreciate how the premises and other materials of arguments are not only tools of logic but also mark out the boundaries and domains of thought that, depending on how their specific discourses are designed and arranged, may be particularly inviting and moving for some audiences. The ethos of rhetoric makes use of our inventive and symbolic capacity to construct dwelling places that are stimulating and aesthetically, psychologically, socially, and morally instructive (Hyde 2004; 2006).
- Heidegger, M. (1977). Letter on humanism (trans. F. A. Capuzzi, in collaboration with J. G. Gray). In D. F. Krell (ed.), Basic writings. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 193–242.
- Hyde, M. (2001). The call of conscience: Heidegger and Levinas, rhetoric and the euthanasia debate. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
- Hyde, M. (2004). Rhetorically, we dwell. In M. Hyde (ed.), The ethos of rhetoric. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, pp. xiii–xxviii.
- Hyde, M. (2006). The life-giving gift of acknowledgment. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
- Isocrates (1982). Antidosis. In Isocrates, vol. 2 (trans. G. Norlin). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Struever, N. S. (2005). Alltaglichkeit, timefulness, in the Heideggerian program. In D. M. Gross & A. Kennamm (eds.), Heidegger and rhetoric. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pp. 105 –130.