Definition of Ethos

Ethos is a way of appealing to an audience by showing one’s credibility and ethical character. This is one of the three modes of persuasion in rhetoric, as distinguished by Aristotle, the other two being pathos and logos. In modern usage, ethos also refers to the specific guiding beliefs or ideals that can be found in an individual, a culture, community, or ideology. In this case, ethos is the spirit that motivates ideas and customs in one of these groups.

The word ethos comes from the Greek word ethea, which means “custom” or “habit.” Ethos shares a root word with ethics, and indeed the definition of ethos includes someone showing moral character in order to persuade an audience.

Difference Between Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Aristotle defined three main paths toward persuading an audience: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is an appeal to ethics, motivating an audience toward belief by way of the speaker’s trustworthiness and credibility. Pathos is an appeal to emotion. Logos is an appeal to logic.

Common Examples of Ethos

Many politicians want to establish their credibility when they address an audience, and thus they use ethos examples in their speeches to do so. Consider the following examples of famous speeches and how they appeal to the audience’s ethics:

  • I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.—Barack Obama, 2008
  • In this outward and physical ceremony we attest once again to the inner and spiritual strength of our Nation. As my high school teacher, Miss Julia Coleman, used to say: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.” Here before me is the Bible used in the inauguration of our first President, in 1789, and I have just taken the oath of office on the Bible my mother gave me a few years ago, opened to a timeless admonition from the ancient prophet Micah…—Jimmy Carter, 1977
  •   I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your” because I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak—you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.—Ronald Reagan, 1981

You may also be familiar with common occurrences of ethos in recommendations and ads such as the following:

  • 4 out of 5 dentists recommend [name of toothpaste] above any other brand.
  • Trust me, I’m a doctor.
  • With my two decades of experience as a dance teacher, you can believe I know what I’m talking about.

Significance of Ethos in Literature

Ethos works in many ways in literature. While it’s not as popular in contemporary literature, some authors make themselves into a narrator character in their own works, and address the audience directly. In cases such as these, the author/narrator may try to build their own credibility with the reader so that the reader will trust this voice’s opinions and remarks. It is also common to see characters try to build trust with other characters. In a much subtler way, authors often try to make characters seem trustworthy and relatable to the audience. This is an important part of characterization so that readers will identify with the characters and feel a deeper emotional investment with the story.

Examples of Ethos in Literature

Example #1

“My old studies in alchemy,” observed he, “and my sojourn, for above a year past, among a people well versed in the kindly properties of simples, have made a better physician of me than many that claim the medical degree. Here, woman! The child is yours—she is none of mine—neither will she recognize my voice or aspect as a father’s. Administer this draught, therefore, with thine own hand.”

(The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

This is an example of ethos from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in which one character is trying to establish credibility with another character. In this case, a stranger has come to town and is intrigued with Hester Prynne’s case. He asks to see her, and explains why she should trust him—he says he is “better physician…than many that claim the medical degree.” This does lead Hester Prynne to trust him, and thus he has succeeded in building enough credibility with her.

Example #2

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

John Steinbeck is one of those writers who often chose to become a narrator in his own works. In this ethos example from his novel East of Eden, Steinbeck addresses the audience about his views of freedom. He is trying to create a sense of familiarity with the audience, who he hopes will agree with him about his opinions on freedom. By suggesting similarities of opinion, Steinbeck builds credibility as a narrator.

Example #3

“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system—that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.”

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

This quote from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird comes from Atticus Finch, the lawyer. He must establish credibility many times over in his career, as his main goal is to get the jury to trust him. Here he appeals to the jury’s sense of ethics and the idea that the integrity of the courts and the jury system must be reality.

Example #4

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The above excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the more subtler examples of ethos. This line is the opening of his novel The Great Gatsby, and at first it might seem not particularly consequential. However, this is a very important way for the narrator Nick Carraway to establish credibility with the audience. In this tale of wealth and class, it’s important to understand Nick’s background and know that he both has had some advantages, but is aware of them. This is a necessary step for the reading audience to be on Nick’s side as he narrates the novel.

Test Your Knowledge of Ethos

1. Which of the following statements is the best ethos definition?
A. An appeal to logic.
B. An appeal to emotion.
C. An appeal to ethics.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. A is the definition of logos, and B is the definition of pathos.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following statements is an example of ethos?
A. He couldn’t have been there last night; he logged in to work at 10 pm.
B. Trust me, I’ve been a forensic investigator for ten years and my judgment has never been wrong.
C. He’s a dangerous man and if you let him walk free your child could be next.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A is an example of logos and C is an example of pathos.[/spoiler]

3. What is the purpose of ethos in a work of literature or in rhetoric?
A. To establish credibility with an audience.
B. To fool the reader.
C. To show that the speaker is superior to the audience.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]