Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.
Monday, August 10, 2009

What's Your Ethos

Over on the Edith Stein post, I mentioned ethos as a part of rhetoric. Ethos is not about ethics, though ethics derives from ethos, but is about presenting an image of oneself as a person of good sense, good character, and good will. These are in Greek, phronesis, arete, and eunoia. You see candidates in politics trying to exhibit these qualities. So you see them trotting out their families, including their minor children to show that they are family men and women. In some cases you may suspect that the husband and wife can’t stand each other, and that the poor only child was produced solely to convey the image of a happy family. When a politician is caught with his pants down, as happened to John Ryan, Obama’s opponent in 2004, or his hand in the refrigerator door, or is recorded on tape saying that the woman set him up, his political career, unless he’s Marion Barry, is usually over. This is because he has failed to convince the electorate that he is a person of good character.

When someone like Lady Gaga, shown here in a picture from the current issue of Rolling Stone, appears in public, in skimpy attire such as shown here, you may think of some things, but good sense is not one of the attributes that you think about in connection with this picture. Because the visual impression made when you see a person is so strong, it is not just the verbal impression that needs to be considered in rhetoric, it is also the visual impression. When I see someone who has spiked hair, and is wearing baggy pants, and looking like a clown, I, rightly or wrongly, mark that person as a clown. Their opinion may or may not be good, right, and valid, but the immediate reaction is “Why should I listen to you, you clown.”

Ethos is not the only appeal that is made. There is also the appeal to the emotions, pathos. In modern jurisprudence this may take the form, particularly in death penalty cases, of extenuating circumstances that focus on issues such as mental capacity, upbringing, and so on. Victims may also play on the emotions by showing how the crime ruined their lives.

Pathos is not just the province of judicial rhetoric. It also shows up in things like advertising. The ad for Skyy Vodka infused with passion fruit, shown at the left, stirs some emotions. Whether it stirs, or if you’re James Bond, shakes the proper emotions is an open question. One is more likely to remember the long leg, and the stiletto heel than the bottle of liquor that is being sold. The implied meaning, and this might be considered a kind of enthymeme, a truncated syllogism, is that there is a linkage between girls with long legs that can squeeze a passion fruit, and the flavored vodka that is being pushed.