Ethos

In Greek the term 'ethos' means 'character'. It can be used to describe the character of an audience, nation or community. For example, one can speak of the 'American ethos' as the characteristics that define American culture. A US presidential candidate would have to speak to the ethos of this nation and culture in order to win votes.

Understanding ethos is important to understanding speech writing. As we study the rhetorical devices of speakers, we want to ask ourselves how the speaker appeals to the ethos of his or her audience. Texts often contain a sense of ethos in order to give the speaker more credit or authority on a matter.

In a sense, ethos answers the question: "What gives you a mandate to speak to me?" Examples of ethos can be found in the following text, 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' by Martin Luther King.

Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King
1963

 My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely."...Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable in terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against "outsiders coming in."...I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here.  I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.  Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

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