Ethos: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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

Ethos forms the root of ethikosis (ἠθικός), meaning "moral, showing moral character". To the Greeks ancient and modern, the meaning is simply "the state of being", the inner source, the soul, the mind, and the original essence, that shapes and forms a person or animal[1]. 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.


Origins of ethos

Ethos, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as "the characteristic spirit, prevalent tone of sentiment, of a people or community; the 'genius' of an institution or system", although it originally has its roots in the Greek word 'etho' or "to be accustomed to."(Miller 309, 310) However, the word ethos has been translated to contain many different meanings within the English language. One such definition in accordance with the opinion of S. Michael Halloran is that the concept of ethos listens to accepted standards, rather than what is more modernly thought of as character unique to a certain individual. He states in his research that "the most concrete meaning given for the term in the Greek lexicon is 'a habitual gathering place."[2] Halloran continues further to deduce that such a description might conjure up images of shared ideas and experiences, thus fortifying it as the foundation of character. To clarify, his reference to the meaning of ethos as a habitual gathering place draws more attention to an inferred, rather than literal meaning. In a place where one might gather often, the opportunity for developing communal values indefinitely arises. These types of values are those which are established in the meaning of ethos.Therefore, to be a good example of ethos, one must portray the types of traits that are most valued within a society. For example, those virtues as related to Athens would be "justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, (and) wisdom."(Halloran 60)

While such characteristics are an important part of ethos, a character that exemplifies this concept is not necessarily individualistic. As author C.Garton writes, "they may seem mere embodiments of impersonal ideas; or they may, like Orestes in the Eumenides or Adrastus in Euripides Suppliants be too vague to make much character-impression at all."(Garton 247) Therefore, ethos, in accordance with Greek tradition does not focus on individualism, but the expression of society's values through the individual. Author Nedra Reynold's criticism also supports this deduction.


In rhetoric, ethos is one of the three artistic proofs (pistis (πίστις)) modes of persuasion (other principles being logos and pathos) discussed by Aristotle in 'Rhetoric' as a component of argument. At first speakers must establish ethos. On the one hand, this can mean merely "moral competence", but Aristotle broadens this word to encompass expertise and knowledge. He expressly remarks that ethos should be achieved only by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. This position is often disputed and other writers on rhetoric state that ethos is connected to the overall moral character and history of the speaker. (cf Isocrates).

According to Reynolds, "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 of 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 remains the same.

There are three categories of ethos, which, if followed in the situation of speaking, could help develop a high ethos:

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

It is important to note that 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 can entail some of the following:

  • 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 carries less gravity than an astronaut giving the same speech).

It should be noted that 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.[3] 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.[4]

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 lead to her execution.[5]

Several other aspects of the character element in ancient Greek tragedy are worth noting. 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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."[13]

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.”[15] 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.”[16]

See also


  1. ^ Erhard 2007
  2. ^ Halloran (1982), 60.
  3. ^ Murray (1916), 53-54.
  4. ^ Murray (1916), 54-56.
  5. ^ Murray (1916), 59.
  6. ^ Garton (1957), 247.
  7. ^ Garton (1957), 247-248.
  8. ^ Garton (1957), 248.
  9. ^ Garton (1957), 248-249.
  10. ^ Garton (1957), 250.
  11. ^ Garton (1957), 250-251.
  12. ^ Murray (1916), 52.
  13. ^ Murray (1916), 53.
  14. ^ Castriota (1992), 11.
  15. ^ a b Castriota (1992), 10.
  16. ^ 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].
  • Miller, Arthur B. "Aristotle on Habit and Character: Implications for the Rhetoric." Communication Monographs 41 (1974): 309-316.
  • Murray, Augustus Taber. “Plot and Character in Greek Tragedy.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 47. (1916), pp. 51–64. JSTOR. [3]
  • Paris, Bernard. Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare: the history and Roman plays. London: Associated University Presses Inc, 1991.
  • Reynolds, Nedrad. "Ethos as Location: New Sites for Discursive Authority." Rhetoric Review, Vol. 11, No. 2. (Spring, 1993), pp. 325–338. JSTOR. [4]
  • Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon [5] [6]

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