Reimagining Aristotelian Ethos

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.

Works Cited
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.


by Jennifer Fletcher

Welcome to the ERWC blog! We envision this blog as a way for ERWC teachers to dig into the nuts and bolts of the curriculum: to share teaching tips and success stories, explore problems of practice together, and ground ourselves in the key principles and frameworks that make the curriculum work for all students.

Here you’ll find advice from colleagues on teaching signature ERWC activities, such as descriptive outlining and rhetorical analysis. You’ll also find strategies for designing a year-long course, teaching a particular module, or using the ERWC Assignment Template to create your own units. And we’ll share “think pieces” on some of the larger issues that impact our work as educators, including the importance of culturally sustaining pedagogies.

We hope these bite-sized bits of professional learning sustain your connection to the ERWC community (now over 15,000 educators strong!) and support your essential work in the classroom. We’d love to hear from you, too, about how you make ERWC work—and how you make it better.

ERWC has always been about more than the modules. Teacher collaboration and expertise are the magic ingredients that make the curriculum effective. We’re delighted to invite you to join us in spreading more of that magic around!

To subscribe to the ERWC blog, please click on the button that says, “Follow.” Submissions for blog posts may be sent to Jennifer Fletcher at Please see the publication criteria on the “Writing for the ERWC Blog” page. For more information on the California State University’s Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC), including how to register for an ERWC workshop, please visit the following websites:

ERWC Online Community:
CSU Center for the Advancement of Reading and Writing:
ERWC Workshop Registration:

Jennifer Fletcher is a Professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and the Chair of the ERWC Steering Committee. You can follow her on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Reading Like an Author

By Chris Street

Have you ever tried to explain to someone else why you liked a particular piece of writing? It can be difficult to find the language needed to explain exactly why a particular piece resonated with you. Trying to discern how authors make their writing powerful, beautiful, emotional, or descriptive is tough to do.

Yet when we demystify authors’ styles we can learn how writers accomplish the incredible things they do with words. For example, by looking at how writers use active verbs, sentence variety, precise nouns, rhythms of language, vocabulary, organizational schemes, sensory details, repetition, parallel structures, and punctuation—we can begin to acquire the language needed to discuss the ways in which their writing appeals to us.

Another way to consider this is to ask yourself a question: If you were going to replicate the style of a piece of writing that you admire without copying the exact words, how would you do it? It’s not easy to focus your attention to look at a piece of writing this way, but this is what careful readers do when they are trying to learn the craft of writing.

Reading like an author is a skill that all aspiring writers learn to do. Reading like an author helps you to discover different stylistic devices, find various ways to engage readers, and leaves you with a greater awareness of how to target your writing for specific audiences.

As teachers you are all already accomplished readers. Now, I’d invite you to try reading like an author.

For teachers interested in learning to write articles for publication in professional journals this would mean reading the kinds of journals that might publish one’s work. For teachers more interested in writing successful grant proposals this might mean reading previously funded grant proposals as a way to internalize the features of writing that separate the successful from the unsuccessful proposals. The same would be true of aspiring bloggers or web site developers. The models are all around us. All we need to do is read them carefully—as potential authors—and we will surely learn important lessons about the craft of writing.

Since part of our work as English teachers is to support students as they strive to make connections between the texts they read and the writers we want them to appreciate, we can apprentice students in the task of reading like an author by modeling for them how this text-based task is performed. As with all complex literacy tasks, learning to read like an author takes time and guidance. The strategic guidance we can offer students is that much more powerful when we are able to model for students what it means to “think rhetorically,” as an author would. As we uncover the power of an author’s craft for students, we enable students to feel that they are personally part of a larger discourse community, or conversation. And when we help unlock the power behind an author’s words, we allow students to feel they have increased power over the texts they read. Reading like an author can indeed be a transformative event for developing writers, allowing them to see themselves as rhetorical writers who can apply their newly learned skills as they write with increased confidence, skill, and power.

But students are not likely to learn to read like an author unless we model for them what this looks like. As an example, here’s one of my favorite pieces of writing and a few words describing why I like it:

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” (The Outsiders)

The opening words to S.E. Hinton’s short novel immediately ensnare me in her world—the world of a teenager coming to grips with a gritty reality. The crisp words offer a glimpse of the main character and narrator while hinting at the struggle of good versus evil that will occupy the mind of the young story teller.

Hers is a book that tells the truth about life through a teenager’s eyes. The eyes that adjust to the bright sun are Hinton’s eyes, the eyes of a teenager who wrote The Outsiders “because I wanted to read it.”

Using just 29 words, she makes me feel the same way.

Chris Street is a Professor of Secondary Education at California State University, Fullerton, where he also directs the masters program in secondary education. He helps lead the statewide implementation of ERWC as a professional learning facilitator, module author, and member of the ERWC Steering Committee.