Much of the study of rhetoric originates from the Golden Age of Classical Greece, which the Romans picked up, imported and appropriated for themselves. One of the central concepts in classical rhetoric involves something called the Three Modes of Persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Aristotle teaches in his work “Rhetoric” that all persuasion is affected through these three modes. Before going into each of these terms, it will be important to remember that, although we can discuss each of these three modes separately, they very rarely ever operate completely independently. So, every form of persuasion will be affected by some inter-working of these three modes. It is helpful, however, to try to isolate them somewhat when learning about them for clarity’s sake, so when we look at particular forms of appeals and fallacies, we may wish to categorize them as drawing upon one of the modes primarily. But remember that they almost always harmonize and work together in different ways. Just like various colors can be combined to create new tones, shades, and hues, so the three modes can be mixed in innumerable ways to create unique relationships.
This word refers to a person, place, thing, or idea’s character. It describes (some of) the essential, important qualities of a thing that communicate something of its meaning. For example, if we looked at a gallon of milk that had been sitting in the hot sun for several days, some words we could use to describe its ethos might be: rotten, spoiled, chunky, stinky, poisonous, undesirable. With an example like this, there is no one correct “answer” to describing the thing’s ethos; as long as the word chosen does indeed apply truly to the object, then it is a valid description of its ethos. We wouldn’t use the word “delicious” to refer to the ethos of spoiled milk, because it isn’t true.
Another helpful way of understanding ethos can be using the idea of mood. If you can think of a book, movie, song, building, room, or clothing that evokes a particular mood, chances are that the word you chose to describe the mood is also the thing’s ethos. A book can be depressing, a movie can be eerie, a building can be lonely, a room can be oppressive, clothing can be festive. If it helps you to think of it this way, moods can be a helpful way to start noticing ethos. This is not the same thing as feeling those emotions (that gets us into Pathos), rather the character of a thing can be such that it will inspire certain feelings or emotions.
Note also that things can have internal and external character; character can be thought of both concretely and abstractly. This is easiest to see with people. While we can find descriptive words that label a person’s physical appearance (tall, freckled, skinny, pale) we can also find descriptive words that label a person’s invisible, internal, abstract character (trustworthy, hard-working, funny, anxious). It is useful to keep in mind that things usually have both internal and external qualities, and oftentimes (but not always) there is a connection or relationship between the inner and outer characteristics of a thing. For example, you probably shouldn’t go to a job interview dressed in sweatpants, flip flops, and an undershirt with a big mustard stain on it. Why? Because people will make judgments about your internal character based on your external character—and this is often a perfectly valid thing to do. On the other hand, this is not a universal, hard and fast rule that you can always consistently rely upon; oftentimes, a thing’s internal character and its external character do not match up. A person can look happy and cheerful on the outside but be carrying a great sadness or burden on the inside that is hidden; psychopaths are often charming, affable, attractive people (on the outside).
While ethos can be understood and applied in the more mundane way we have been describing, it is primarily of use to us here to think about the moral and “ethical” implications of this word. Aristotle argues that, of the three modes of persuasion, ethos is the most important, the most persuasive. The reason for this is that ethos, when it comes to the moral side of it, is often linked with a big thing called trust. As fragile, vulnerable humans who can be hurt, deceived, and mistaken, it is important that we learn to accurately judge the character of various things in this world, from mundane to murderous.
To use our example of spoiled milk: the act of smelling the milk before you drink is an example of testing the ethos of a thing to find out if it is trustworthy—in this case, do you trust this liquid to not make you sick if you drink it? If you are about to sit on a rickety wooden chair that is missing several screws and one leg, its external ethos might rightly persuade you that it is structurally untrustworthy—and so you choose not to sit on it; a stable, sturdy-looking chair might win your trust and so you sit on it instead. When you pick up a book, you look at the cover and read the jacket to make a judgement about whether the book is worth reading and spending your time with. When selecting a babysitter to watch over your children while you are gone, you will probably be very selective about the character of the person you choose. The reason that Aristotle finds ethos to be the strongest of the three modes is because if humans find a thing to be untrustworthy, or to possess a bad character, usually all the pathos and logos in the world will not be very convincing. Pathos and logos, without ethos, are crippled by disbelief and mistrust. If you know that someone is a liar, and they have proven their character over and over in the past by lying, then when they come along and try to tell you something outlandish you are highly unlikely to believe them, even if they have convincing pathos and logos. Without the trust which comes from a stable, honest, and authentic ethos (or even the illusion of these things) people will generally not go along with a plan. This is why, with sophistry, the sophist must also be deceptive about his own character—for without some modicum of trust in his character, he will not be able to successfully deceive and persuade anyone.
If you think of your own life, many of your decisions to do or not do things come back to your judgments about a thing/person’s ethos. Who you spend your time with, what restaurants you go to, how you decorate your house—all these things, when you look closely, come back to ethos and character. You probably choose the friends that you hang out with based on their character; the mood of your favorite restaurant is probably a big part of why you enjoy going there; and the atmosphere that you try to create by arranging your furniture, painting your walls a certain color, and choosing favorite decorations is motivated by a desire to participate in, and be around, a particular ethos that you find desirable or enjoyable. Once you start looking for it, you will see the persuasive nature of ethos all around you.