What Is Ethos? Definition of Ethos With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 23, 2019 • 3 min read

Ethos is an integral part of any good piece of persuasive writing. As you seek to improve your own writing, it’s important to understand what ethos means and learn how the effective use of ethos can greatly improve your prose.


What Is Ethos?

Ethos is an element of argument and persuasion through which a speaker establishes their credibility and knowledge, as well as their good moral character. Ethos can be applied to writing and public speaking, and all writers use ethos to a certain extent to establish authority on a given subject and to build trust with readers.

What Are the Origins of Ethos?

Ethos is a greek word which roughly translates to “moral character”. The idea of ethos as a means of persuasion was conceived by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his work Rhetoric (sometimes called On Rhetoric). In Rhetoric, Aristotle establishes three primary modes of argument: ethos, logos, and pathos.

How Is Ethos Affected by Pathos and Logos?

When using ethos in your writing, it is important to balance it out with the use of pathos and logos to build a complete and persuasive argument.

  • Pathos is an emotional appeal. Pathos works to balance out ethos by providing more emotional resonance. Your argument is better served by communicating its moral value and by relating to the reader through your past experience using emotional language.
  • Logos is a logical appeal. Logos is most effective when grounded in credibility, or ethos. Proving you have relevant experience or knowledge builds goodwill with the reader and draws them towards the same logical conclusion.

The 3 Elements of Ethos

In Rhetoric, Aristotle explains that there are three components of ethos that a speaker or writer needs to establish when making an ethical appeal:

  1. Phronesis is the wisdom or intelligence you have as a writer. By establishing your general aptitude and ability, you engage with your readers and build trust. When writing, especially persuasively, demonstrate a wide knowledge base in the subject area you are addressing by using examples and bringing in outside research when appropriate.
  2. Arete is the general moral virtue or charity of your argument. An essential part of using ethos is to explain the morality of your argument to the reader. Don’t assume that a reader agrees with you or shares your preconceptions. Take the time to lay out how you arrived at your position and why your point of view is just and moral.
  3. Eunoia is the goodwill you establish with the audience. Building a rapport and trust with your reader is essential. The more you can explain the background of your argument and build rapport with your reader, the more an audience can engage with your work. If your writing that is obtuse or alienating, the argument is difficult for readers to hook into.

Aristotle argues that in order for ethos to be effectively employed, all three of these components must be present.

Examples of Ethos in Contemporary Writing

Ethos crops up in many different forms of writing, and its utility is not just limited to public speeches or rhetorical appeals. Some examples of how ethos might be used in different types of contemporary writing include:

  • Op-ed: Someone writing an op-ed on the importance of childhood literacy first establishes their decades of experience as an educator. In their prose they argue that their position has a strong moral foundation. They might use relatable anecdotes from their past to build goodwill (eunoia) with their audience.
  • Memoir: An olympic athlete describes the years and years of training that prepared her to win gold. In her memoir, she lays out the moral choices that she had to confront in her career, why she was so driven to succeed, while also adding a few relatable stories of family, upbringing, and training regimen that help illustrate her credibility to the reader.
  • Magazine advertisement: An ad for shampoo features a well known celebrity hairdresser who vouches for the product. The ad builds eunoia when the hairdresser talks about how the shampoo is works for anyone, from their celebrity clients to the customer at home.
  • Newspaper article: A journalist documents the extensive research they performed to uncover corruption on the local city council. Though the prose may be more dry in a news article, the implication of the story is that this news is in the public’s best interest.

Learn more writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.