By Glen McClish
As a teacher of classical rhetoric and composition, I’m struck by the ways ancient concepts both empower and limit how we help students understand persuasion. Take, for example, the power and constraints inherent in the Aristotelian concept of ethos, or the rhetorically constructed character of the rhetor—the speaker or writer.
Ethos, according to Plato’s most famous student, is a form of proof comprising three interrelated components. Here is George Kennedy’s translation of the well-known passage from the Rhetoric briefly describing the trio (I’ll leave out the Greek):
There are three reasons why speakers themselves are persuasive; for three things we trust other than logical demonstration. These are practical wisdom and virtue and good will; for speakers make mistakes in what they say through [failure to exhibit] either all or one of these; for either through lack of practical sense they do not form opinions rightly; or though forming opinions rightly they do not say what they think because of a bad character; or they are prudent and fair-minded but lack good will, so that it is possible for people not to give the best advice although they know [what] it [is]. These are the only possibilities. (112–113)
There’s power in Aristotle’s ostensibly exhaustive groups of three, and this trio is practical, authoritative, and convincing. Yet what he neglects is telling. The ablest of observers, Aristotle describes the rhetorical practice of ancient Athens, a racially homogenous, stratified society in which privileged, native-born men dominated the public sphere. They argued about many things, but their debates were more pragmatic than ideological because they shared common standpoints and beliefs.
Thus, Aristotle’s components of ethos assume that a convincing speaker would have more in common with the audience than otherwise.
But this homogeneity—and its effect on ethos—does not characterize all cultures, particularly ours, in this or most eras of its existence. Therefore, establishing an effective ethos in our society is not always simply a matter of checking off the categories of wisdom, virtue, and good will—other features may be as or more salient in crafting persuasion.
Let’s consider a specific example. Here is the late poet and activist Audre Lorde, speaking at the “Second Sex Conference” in 1979:
Why weren’t other women of Color found to participate in this conference? Why were two phone calls to me considered consultation? . . . In academic feminist circles, the answer to these questions is often, “We did not know who to ask.” But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black women’s art out of women’s exhibitions, Black women’s work out of most feminist publications expect for the occasional “Third World Women’s Issue,” and Black women’s text off your reading lists. (113)
In this famous speech, Lorde’s ethos strays from the sort advocated by Aristotle; exposing her audience’s entrenched racism cannot be described simply as “good will,” at least not as the Greek text suggests. In fact, Lorde chastises her audience with the force of a scolding parent—or perhaps, more accurately, a prophet, fearlessly speaking truth to power.
Beyond the scope of Aristotle’s theorizing, this prophetic character—known in scholarly circles as the Jeremiadic ethos after the Old Testament prophet—distinguishes African American rhetoric since the early nineteenth century. To more fully appreciate this construction of rhetorical character, consider this passage from Frederick Douglass’s prophetic speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852), in which he diminishes the assumed primacy of logos (as well as Aristotle’s practical wisdom) while cataloging the scalding rhetorical strategies he yearns to marshal to melt the moral complacency of his degraded country: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke” (71).
When different values or perspectives separate those who—inhabiting the same space—must work together for the common good, the characters rhetors create to persuade may not conform to Aristotle’s tripartite formulation of wisdom, virtue, and goodwill. They may make audiences profoundly uncomfortable. Yet doing so may effect profound change. This is one of the key lessons about ethos gleaned from outsider rhetors such as Lorde, Douglass, and—most recently—leading voices in the Black Lives Matter movement.
What other productive ways is Aristotelian ethos complicated in the rhetoric of our multicultural society?
Glen McClish is a teacher of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at San Diego State University and a longtime advocate of K–16 language arts articulation. He has an abiding interest in African American rhetoric, from the American Revolution to the present day.
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. Translated by George Kennedy, 2nd ed., Oxford UP, 2006.
Douglass, Frederick. The Speeches of Frederick Douglass: A Critical Edition. Edited by John R. McKivigan, Julie Husband, and Heather L. Kaufman, Yale UP, 2018.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. The Crossing P, 1984.