Their authority is what convinces the reader to believe what they’re reading. If the speaker is in a position of power, has a wealth of knowledge or experience, then the reader is more likely to trust what they’re saying. For example, a book about dinosaurs written by a paleontologist: through their credentials, experience, and broader education, readers will feel certain they’re getting credible information.
A writer or speaker who has credibility will also have authority, trustworthiness, and expertise. They will demonstrate their personal qualities, or moral character, to the reader or audience. They’ll also want to come across as confident and reputable. If one is uncertain in their assertions, readers won’t believe them. They have to present themselves professionally, in a certain manner.
Definition of Ethos
Ethos appeals to the audience’s respect for credibility. Readers who want an authoritative source will seek out ethos in what they consume. It was originally defined by Aristotle, along with pathos and logos. Ethos is related to the word “ethics.” This makes a great deal of sense, considering that writers try to establish their character and experience for the reader. Ethos can be found in any genre of literature as well as advertising, public speaking, educational papers and lectures, and more.
Ethos was defined by Aristotle in his Rhetoric. There, he describes the three modes of persuasion, how they affect the audience and how they should be used. Of the three, he believed logos outranked the other two in importance due to the fact that any argument, no matter where it’s made, needs logic to work. He also speaks about the modes of persuasion as the “appeals.”They are defined as sound reasoning, moral character, and good intentions towards the audience. A speaker or writer needs all three of these, Aristotle said, for their writing to be convincing and worth reading.
Examples of Ethos in Literature
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s most famous work. In it, the writer describes a mixed group of artists, financiers, and more, who go on strike against the government. There is a particularly memorable passage at the end of the novel when John Galt delivers a speech. He describes how the strike will end and what Americans need to allow him to do. He says:
Just as I support my life, neither by robbery nor alms, but by my own effort, so I do not seek to derive my happiness from the injury or the favor of others, but earn it by my own achievement. Just as I do not consider the pleasure of others as the goal of my life, so I do not consider my pleasure as the goal of the lives of others.
He sets forward his view on the world, and using his authenticity and credibility, presets himself confidently. Those listening hear and accept what he’s saying due to his past experiences. He goes on to add:
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
In this Steinbeck classic, readers can find a great example of ethos. The novel was published in 1952 and was considered by the author to be his masterpiece. It details two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, and their complex storylines. Steinbeck is often regarded as the narrator of his own works, and in this novel, he considers his own world experience to present the reader with his views on a variety of topics. One of the most important is freedom. Here are a few lines which are generally considered to be Steinbeck’s own views on freedom:
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.
The Hamilton family is based on Steinbeck’s own. He even appears in the novel as a minor character at one point. This is a great example of how an author proves their credibility.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the opening lines of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, readers hear from the narrator, Nick Carraway. He establishes his credibility with a few short lines:
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.”
Here, Nick helps the reader understand his background and therefore understand how he sees the world. He’s advantages in his life, and this quote from his grandfather establishes his worldview.
Ethos and Ad Hominem
These two literary terms are quite similar to one another. When someone wants to make an argument based on their credibility, they’re described as making an ad hominem argument. In the same way, one can attack another’s credibility. This kind of argument is a powerful way to assert one’s knowledge about a subject and ensure that those listening are well aware of how much experience lies behind their words.
Related Literary Terms
- Pathos: an appeal made by the writer to the audience’s emotions in order to make them feel something.
- Logos: the use of logic to create a persuasive argument in writing.
- Argument: a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
- Bandwagon: a persuasive style of writing that is used to convince readers of an argument or make them understand a certain perspective.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Watch: The Ad Hominem Fallacy
- Listen: What is an Ad Hominem Attack?
- Read: Literary Argument Definition