Rhetoric, Ethos and A Life of Influence

Plato once wrote: “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.”  Adolf Hitler said frighteningly that “[t]he broad masses of a population are more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force.”  Rhetoric clearly has a significant effect on our lives, but what is it? 

Rhetoric is the art of using language to communicate effectively and persuasively.  It involves three modes of persuasion: ethos, logos and pathos.  Any great leader through history has depended upon rhetorical ability – whether through simplicity or grandiloquence – to create an avalanche of influence from a snowball of thoughts and words.

My particular interest in this post is to look from several angles at the matter of ethos, which is narrowly defined as “moral competence” and more broadly includes expertise and knowledge.  Early classical rhetoricians such as Aristotle or Isocrates agreed that any argument or appeal must begin with ethos, an idea which has held true through the ages. 

A modern interpretation of this is found in sales.  It is widely accepted that the first step in a sales process is to establish credibility.  Without credibility or ethos, the remaining modes of persuasion or argument have little or no effect.

What is ethos, exactly?  Well, there are three primary categories of ethos, which if understood and put into practice, create what is called “high ethos” or “high credibility.”   Those are:

  1. phronesis – the virtue of practical thought (knowing how to apply universal principle to specific situations)
  2. arete – goodness, excellence and virtue (living up to your full potential)
  3. eunoia – goodwill cultivated between the speaker and the audience (delivering beautiful thinking)

In yesterday’s post I made the point that internal changes modify that which emanates from you and as a result others see you in a new light.  How they perceive you is related to ethos, for ethos belongs not to you but to your audience.

In broader terms, ethos relates to the fundamental spirit or character of a nation or a culture.  The American ethos, for instance, places great importance on the individual, whereas other nation-states in recent history placed greater emphasis on the collective.  I would also argue that inventiveness, creativity, perseverance and steely resolve reside deep within our country’s ethos, though their evidence seems to have faded somewhat in our current era.  Perhaps they are due for a come-back? 

In any case, to be an effective speaker and to be influential in your life you must understand the value of rhetoric.  Rhetoric of late has taken on a somewhat derogatory meaning, being seen as “blah blah blah,” but rhetoric, properly understood is enormously valuable to anyone who seeks to make a difference in the world.

Advertisers understand the nature of rhetoric, both oratory and visual, and their messages elicit agreement and compel action.  You can have the same effect as you cultivate “high credibility” in your daily experience.  Please take a few minutes to consider the three categories of ethos this weekend – phronesis, arete and eunoia – and you will find the keys to being a greater blessing to your world.

5 thoughts on “Rhetoric, Ethos and A Life of Influence

  1. Teryl

    The education you offer here is so remarkable and the value of whats being offered, if applied by a few can make such an awesome impact on our world. As someone who offers a valuable service to others, it is nice to see the process put into writing. I have to work with these three categories on a daily basis to inspire others to invest in their health. What a great post for all to really sit with over the weekend and see where we are working or “not” working with these three categories of ethos. Thanks so much for your help, so that many others may benefit!


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  3. Miss Austin

    Very practical thoughts. I enjoyed learning the meaning of those three words – phroneses, arete and euonia and am inspired to apply them.


  4. Kai

    Evaluating the source of credibility and resetting its course through my words and influence sounds like a great weekend consideration – here’s to a whole new light come Monday! Have a great weekend!


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