1. The word ethos

The word ethos is borrowed from the ancient Greek word ἦθος (ēthos), having two meanings:

I. In pl. Usual stay, familiar places, dwelling. Speaking of animals: cowshed, stable, den, nest. […]
II. Usual character, hence custom, usage; the manner of being or habit of a person, his character; […] by extension, mores. (Bailly, [ethos])

In rhetoric, ethos refers to “the moral impression (produced by an orator)” (ibid.).

In Latin rhetoric, ethos is translated as mores, “manners”, or sensus “common sense”. Quintilian considers that ethos “manners” and pathos “passions” are subcategories of feeling [adfectus]:

Of feelings [adfectus] as we are taught by the old writers, there are two kinds, the first of which the Greeks included under the term πάθος (pathos), which we translate rightly and literally by the word “passion” [adfectus]. The other, to which they give the appellation ἦθος (ēthos), for which, as I consider, the Roman language has no equivalent term, is rendered however, by mores, “manners”; whence that part of philosophy, which the Greeks call ἠθική (ēthikē), is called moralis. (IO, VI, 2, 8)

The same opposition ethos / pathos can also be translated in Latin as sensus / dolor:

Sensus is one of those vague terms by which Latin tries to express what Greek rhetoric designates by [ethos]. […] It is distinct from dolor, which responds to [pathos] (Cicero, De Or. III, 25, 96). (Courbaud, note 2 to Cicero, De Or., II, XLIII, 184; p. 80)

The noun sensus basically refers to physical perception, also to “an intellectual way of seeing things”, and a moral perception of the situation in terms of right and wrong, a “moral sense” (after Gaffiot, Sensus). To display sensus is therefore to jointly display good perceptual, analytic and moral skills.

Sensus also points toward sensus communis, “common sense”, as a synthesis capacity in agreement with what people consider to be “[soundness and prudence]” (MW, Common sense). The good orator is a man of common sense with the ability to achieve synthesis.

The English nouns ethos, ethics, ethopoeia, ethology are borrowed and adapted from the Greek.

— The noun ethos is used in rhetoric, up to the present time. Mores is borrowed from the Latin mores, which itself translates the Greek ethos.
— Ethology is the science of the behavior of animal species in their natural environment, cf. supra, meaning (I).
— The noun ethopoeia is used in rhetoric, and literary theory, referring to a “moral and psychological portrait”.
Ethics is the part of philosophy dealing with morality and values.

The rhetorical notion of ethos refers to the fact that the speaker is projected into discourse and holds part control over this projection. The ethics of discourse refers to an inner moral authority controlling discourse. The ethotic dimension of rhetorical discourse can be seen as a discursive projection of ego ideals, whereas its ethical dimension would be a discursive projection of the superego imperatives.

Such moral control is central to the rhetorical definition of an orator as a vir bonus dicendi peritus “a good man having public speaking skills”. In contemporary argumentative theory, the criticism of discourse is referred to a rational control, whereas classical rhetoric refers discourse to moral control as well.

2. The arguer’s ethos

Ethotic strategies deal with the social “presentation of self” (Goffman [1956]). The ethos of the orator is a professional ethos. All professions have their ethos, for example, beyond its strictly professional capacities, the traditional waiter embodies a set of peripheral professional virtues: may be finding the cocktail best adapted to the customer’s mood, having the art to deftly drop into and out of the conversation, etc.

Aristotle deals with ethos in two passages of Rhetoric. It describes on the one hand ethos proper, the auto-fiction that constitutes the construction of the face that the orator intends to present to the public; and, on the other, the ethos of the audience, the synthesis of information which enables him or her to adequately orient his or her argument.

2.1 Aristotle: The combined effect of discourse and reputation

In the Aristotelian system, ethos is one of the main leverages for persuasion, the other two being logos and pathos. The Rhetoric poses the primacy of ethos over logo-ic proofs, “[the speaker’s] character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion” (Rhet., I, 2, 1356a10; RR, p. 106). The concept of ethos is introduced as follows:

Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him to be credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speakers contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. (Rhet., I, 2, 1356a1-15; RR, p. 107)

The speaker’s ethos is the product of a discursive strategy that builds a complex authority based on three components:

There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character — the three namely, that induce us to believe a thing, apart from any proof of it: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill. (Rhet., II, 1, 1378a; RR, p. 245).

Good sense is phronesis, that is to say, “prudence”; good moral character, arete, “virtue”; and good will is eunoia, or “goodwill”. The arguer has persuasive authority because he or she is (or appears to be) clever, honest, and on our side. To no lesser extent than pathos, ethos has a pathemic structure; ethotic authority combines expertise, morality and benevolence into a unique feeling of trust, the perfect persuasive cocktail:

These qualities are all that is necessary, so that the speaker who appears to possess all three will necessarily convince his hearers. (Rhet., II, 1, 1378a15; Freese, p. 171)

The verb to appear (and not to be), will seem suspicious. Rhetoric is always suspected to give to the incompetents, vicious and crooks, the means to deceive their partners. As Groucho Marx says or repeats, “sincerity — If you can fake that, you’ve got it made”. But the ablest and truest arguer remains subject to the “paradox of the actor”, that is to say, he or she can be suspected of feigning the skills, virtues, and intentions he claims and shows, and therefore must not only be but appear sincere and true. The arts of appearance are no less necessary to honest people than to scoundrels.

Under this definition, the Aristotelian ethos attracts identification on the basis of a shared community feeling. Disruptive rhetoric implements another ethotic positioning, as an influential minority group: “we are different from all of you … I bring a new world … yes your wise men call it madness.”

The text of the Rhetoric is somewhat puzzling. On the one side, ethotic persuasion “should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his or her character before he or she begins to speak”. In line with the classical doctrine of technical and non-technical proofs, this amounts to an outright rejection of non-technical ethos (not the speaker’s character before the speech) in favor of technical ethos (what the speaker says). Nonetheless, the following sentence seems to prioritize the former over the latter, probably because both play their part in actual discourse, as suggested in Ruelle’s translation: “It is necessary, moreover, that this result should be obtained by the force of discourse and not merely by a preference favorable to the speaker.” (Aristotle, Rhet. Ruelle, emphasis added).

2.2 Challenging the ethos

Ethos can be seen as a public exhibition of one’s best possible self, in view of influencing the recipient. Critical theories of argumentation focus on the subject matter of the debate, protect the participants by keeping at least some part of their personalities distanced from the dispute, when they have nothing to do with it. They make a crucial distinction between the charisma of the speaker, which is rejected by principle as exerting an irrational influence, and the exercise of the authority legitimately attached to his or her specific competences.

Ethos and personal attacks on the opponent are the obverse and reverse of the same discursive coin, as theoretically shown by politeness theory. Exhibiting ethos, the speaker exploits his own person as a resource to accredit his point of view, whilst when attacking personally the opponent, the speaker exploits the person of the opponent to refute or discredit his point of view. In both cases, the discourse eludes the substance of the issue and turns to a discussion about the participants, either to discredit or to accredit their positions.

From a critical perspective which postulates that only explicit arguments about the matter itself are relevant, and potentially valid, there cannot be something like an ethotic argument simply because the propositional requirement is not met. Due to its implicit and global positioning, ethotic authority cannot be challenged by any refutation on the matter; accordingly, the opponent will be tempted by an ad personam counter-attack.

In a face-to-face situation, the ethotic grip seeks to establish an asymmetrical relationship framing the interactional relation on a high / low opposition, humbling the opponent into the low position, in order to inhibit free criticism. S. Modesty. So, from a critical point of view, the ethotic yoke must be shaken off, as a preliminary of any constructive discussion. The charismatic facets of ethos are first rejected outright, as irrelevant and fallacious. Second, an explicit component is extracted from a synthetic form of ethos, the argument from authority, which satisfies the propositionality condition and is accessible to criticism. This authority is integrated as peripheral evidence, to be dealt with within the appropriate critical framework.

3. Ethos and discursive identities

Contemporary and ancient discussions about ethos deal with a broadly recognized fact, language splits the speaker into several discursive roles. Ethos is a hub concept, connecting argumentation studies with linguistic studies on subjectivity in language (Benveniste 1958) and with literary studies in narratology, confronting author and narrator, real and implicit readers.

Argumentative discourse, as any discourse, articulates three identity-building elements, ethos strictly speaking, reputation, self-portraying. The ethotic impact of discourse is the result of these three forces:

Ethos ItselfDucrot integrates the notion of ethos into the general theory of polyphonic discourse: “Ethos is attached to the speaker as such: the character attributed to him or her as the source of the utterance, make this utterance acceptable or not” (Ducrot 1984, p. 200). In Goffman’s terminology, ethos is attributed to the Figure, S. Roles.

Explicit Self-Portrayal — Ducrot introduces as a second, intra-discursive element “what the orator could explicitly say about himself” (1984, p. 201). The arguer can be the author of her own portrait: “I raised my three children myself” but these self-accounts are quite distinct from what can be indirectly revealed through the discourse. Having an accent is not the same thing as saying “Yes, I have an accent and I am proud of it”. In an argumentative situation, participants systematically value their persons and actions in order to legitimize themselves. The requirements of this situation prevail over the principles of linguistic politeness.

Fame, Reputation  Some social actors are well-known people, that is, they have a reputation, prestige, and perhaps even charisma, positive or negative. This established image is called the “prior”, or the “preliminary” ethos by Amossy:

We shall therefore call preliminary ethos or preliminary image, the image that the audience can have of the speaker before the speech, as opposed to ethos (or oratory ethos, which is fully discursive). […] Preliminary ethos is developed on the basis of the role played by the speaker in society (its institutional functions, status and power) but also on the basis of the collective representation or stereotype of this person […]. Indeed, the image projected by the speaker integrates prior social and individual data, which necessarily plays a role in interaction and contributes significantly to the power of his speech. (Amossy 1999b, p. 70; Maingueneau 1999)

“Pre-discursive” does not mean “language-free”. Reputations are based on discourse as well as upon actions. Ethos can be said to be pre-discursive only in the sense of “preceding a particular speech act”.

Public relations agencies can construct, manage and repair the image of human beings and commercial products (Benoit 1995, etc.).

The operating and control systems of these different identity layers are very different, and each layer can conflict with the two others.
Reputation is a socio-historical construct, which can be socially managed and controlled. Reputation can be inconsistent; the self-representation that the arguer has of his reputation can be different from the representation his audience has of him.

Self-portrayal is an explicit, declarative, controlled activity, an “argumentation of the self” as it is properly termed.

Ethos building is an on-going speech activity. All speech, spontaneous or elaborated, contains subjective features. This fact is transparent for the participants. The speaker knows that his or her conversation partners know (that he or she knows, etc.) that at least some of these subjective features will be elaborated and interpreted as clues to the speaker’s identity, through standard argumentations from natural signs. The arguer might therefore intentionally arrange these subjective features in order to channel these interpretations according to his or her intended aims and perspectives.

The concept of ethos can be used as a descriptive category, relevant to the analysis of any form of ordinary discourse (Kallmeyer 1996). This trend towards generalization, coming with the naturalization of ethos, is typical of modern theories of argumentation such as that of Argumentation within Language or Natural Logic. Argumentative ethos is specifically a category of rhetorical action, a strategic resource available to the arguer, a functional element, intentionally elaborated or distorted.

Generally speaking, inferences to the speaker’s (deep) identity(ies) are based on inferences from linguistic and encyclopedic clues. Like all interpretation processes, such inferences are open-ended, the only restrictions are those of the imagination of the interpreting party: the identity of the speaker is in the eye and ear of the receiver. When it comes to the specificity of ethos, argumentative analysis focuses on the strategic dimension of the presentation of self in argumentation. Its reconstruction program, distinct from the psychoanalytic approach, dovetails with the semiotic and stylistics program.

4. Ethos as a stylistic category

“Style is the man”, and ethos is the style. When looking for a systematic method to study ethos, we come across the stylistic tradition. For example, Quintilian thus emphasizes the effectiveness of a style linked to the choice of vocabulary having a “majestic” ethotic effect:

Words derived from antiquity have not only illustrious patrons, but also confer on style a certain majesty [not without charm], for they have the authority of age and, as they have been disused for a time, bring with them a charm similar to that of novelty. (Quintilian, IO, I, 6, 39, slightly modified)

The authority of the uttered word is constitutive of the ethos of the speaker. The ethos is constructed from features belonging to any linguistic level, beginning with the voice — a powerful vector of attraction or repulsion — the art of hesitating, repeating, faltering, and so on. Ethotic inferences can be drawn from any feature of the argument. He or she who:

— makes concessions is moderate / weak.
— does not make concessions is straight / sectarian.
— appeals to the authorities is conservative / dogmatic.
— uses pragmatic arguments upon causes and consequences is sensible and realistic, pragmatic / opportunist.
— refers his arguments to the nature of things and their definition is a man of conviction / conservative.

Other argumentation lines (by absurdity, by analogy…) do not have such clearly associated ethos.

The link of ethos with style is explicitly made in the Rhetorical Art of Hermogenes of Tarsus (160-ca. 225 CE). Hermogenes considers that discourse can be evaluated along seven stylistic categories:

Clarity, grandeur, beauty, vivacity, ethos, sincerity and skill (Hermogene, AR, 217, 20 – 218, 05; Patillon, 1988, p. 213).

Ethos is one of these categories of discourse; in any given speech, there may be a little or a lot of ethos.
Ethos has four components, simplicity; moderation; sincerity; severity. These qualities compare with the qualities of wisdom, expertise and benevolence that make up Aristotelian ethos. Each of these components is characterized by specific thoughts, methods, words, figures of speech, and rhythms.

As strange as this might sound, sincerity, the key ethotic element is a style. Sincerity is a linguistic condition attached to:

Emotions, and particularly a feeling, indignation.
— Severity in the accusation of others or oneself is shown by using harsh and vehement words.
— A method of discourse management, in particular the balance achieved between what is openly discussed and what is left suggested.
— The use of derogatory demonstrative pronouns; of figures: apostrophe, and particularly figures of embarrassment (reticence, doubt, hesitation, corrections, interrogations).
— Personal comments suspending the speech (after Patillon 1988, pp. 259; p. 261 et seq.)

Thus, a sincere character is not an extra-linguistic supplement that would be introduced into the discourse from outside, by a moral exhortation. It is the product of a discursive strategy. Any ethics of discourse should take this into account. In particular, figures of speech serve the construction of ethos, and they therefore are instrumental in argumentation in general. We are very far from post-Ramusian rhetoric where invention is divorced from elocution.

5. Character of the audience

After having defined the ethos of the orator in a brief passage of the Rhetoric, Aristotle takes a very different perspective to deal with the characters of the audiences:

Let us now consider the various types of human character, in relation to the emotions and moral qualities, showing how they correspond to our various age and fortune. (Rhet, II, 12, 1388b31, RR p. 311).

This section describes a set of “ideal-types”, that is, human characters classified and characterized according to their social condition, wealth and power (noble, rich, powerful, and lucky) and age (youthful, mature, old). These “elements of sociology for the rhetoricians” conclude with a practical remark:

Such are the characters of Young men and Elderly Men. People always think well of speeches adapted to, and reflecting, their own character: and we can now see how to compose our speeches so as to adapt both them and ourselves to our audience. (RT, II, 13, 1390a20-29, RR p. 319)

Such a passage clearly shows that the adaptation-identification to the audience is the key to persuasion. It will be regarded as fallacious by the normative theories of argumentation requiring that one speaks the truth, not upon the basis of the specific beliefs of a particular audience (ex datis).

Compared to the three statuses distinguished for the ethos of the speaker (ethos strictly speaking, self-portraying, reputation), we see that the character of the audience is entirely of the latter kind, that is reputation, not that of a person but of a group: “young people are like that”. Strictly speaking, however, any audience is able to express its rhetorical ethos by means of its spontaneous reactions to speech.