Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 2

To cite, use print source rather than this on-line version which may not reflect print copy

format requirements or text lay-out and pagination.


This article should not be reprinted for inclusion in any publication for sale without author's explicit permission. Anyone may view, reproduce or store copy of this article for personal, non-commercial use as allowed by the "Fair Use" limitations (sections 107 and 108) of the U.S. Copyright law. For any other use and for reprints, contact article's author(s) who may impose usage fee.. See also electronic version copyright clearance CURRENT VERSION COPYRIGHT © MMXI AUTHOR & ACADEMIC EXCHANGE QUARTERLY



A Personal Political Moment: Aristotle’s Ethos


Melissa Tombro, Fashion Institute of Technology, NY


Melissa Tombro, Ph.D., is currently an Assistant Professor of Writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.




Assessing Aristotle’s treatment of character/ethos in the Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics, and thinking about the larger implications of decisions we make as orators and the personal responsibility we take for our decisions both inside and outside of the classroom, we can understand Aristotle’s view of character and emotions as having modern applicability. I explore the overlap of ethos and character fashioning by assessing scholarship, which situates the individual within larger political situations. In addition, I analyze how this treatment of ethos translates into teaching practices.

Aristotle’s use of the concepts of character and ethos demonstrates that the engagement of emotions is a necessary component of any rhetorical decision. Often in the classroom, students are asked to develop opinions relating to fabricated scenarios which may not ring as personally relevant. The purpose of this paper is thus to analyze how Aristotle advocated for personal investment in rhetorical situations. Here, I will demonstrate the reasons for the personal political relationship according to Aristotle by looking at his Rhetoric and Nicomachean Ethics. I will then analyze how this approach to rhetorical situations is applicable in the real world according to scholars such as Kate Ronald and Eugene Garver. I contend that the understanding of the personal political stance is essential for all rhetors and the application of it in the classroom allows the concept of rhetoric to be more accessible and meaningful for everyone, especially students.


Negotiating a Personal-Political Stance

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle presents a view of ethos that builds upon the ability to understand and use the emotions to strengthen and direct the path of logic to both win the respect of an audience and persuade them to side with an opinion or view of morality. According to Aristotle, it is essential to understand the emotions from a personal point of view as well as from the point of view of the audience. In the Rhetoric Aristotle states, “Since rhetoric is concerned with making a judgment, it is necessary not only to look to the argument, that it may be demonstrative and persuasive but also to construct a view of himself as a certain kind of person” (1377b.1-2). The individual speaker has the ability to cater her ethos, or character, to the needs of her situation. The decisions that need to be made in order to create the proper ethos can be complicated – they rely on a set of circumstances, the people who surround the rhetor and how the speaker wants to be viewed. An individual may decide from situation to situation whether it would be beneficial to present a different viewpoint or to structure an argument in a new way. The direct use of different emotions can allow the speaker to accomplish this effectively.


Aristotle, however, is careful to note that we are not in full control of this presentation. Based upon the decisions we make, the emotions we evoke, the stories we decide to tell and the ways in which we present them to different audiences, our character is reflected in multiple ways. Aristotle highlights the necessity of choosing what we think is most important in our speech-making by taking responsibility for the choices we make, and thus becoming trustworthy characters. According to Aristotle, “choice is what it is because of the end aimed at” (Rhetoric 1417a.8). It is when we are able to identify these essential moments in our lives and present them that we can change people’s minds. So, it is not only expressing our emotions, but understanding their source, focusing and applying them wisely. For many, including Jeffrey Walker, it is, “[the] ability to seize the possibilities available at any given moment and to give those possibilities a particular reason and salience” that allows us to produce the most effective rhetoric (297).


Many scholars are able to demonstrate the value of positioning oneself in larger political events to understand the use of the emotions to effect change. Eugene Garver suggests a framework, which we can use to understand treatments that allow small personally experienced political events relevance for effective social change. According to Garver, there is no danger putting ourselves into our rhetoric, only in failing to assess the emotions we use. He explains, “many vices come from failing to take things personally enough, or to take things personally in the right way…goodness is a test of whether I really desire something. I take responsibility for my emotions and desires. They are not whims. They are coordinate assertions about what I think is good. The emotions are subject to moral assessment” (Garver, “Contemporary Irrelevance” 60-1). By taking action, focusing our emotions and choosing to both use personally experienced public and private political events in our rhetoric, we are taking a responsibility for our thoughts, actions and desires and staking a claim about their goodness and their morality.


By assessing Aristotle’s treatment of character/ethos in the Rhetoric and the Nicomachean Ethics, and thinking about the larger implications of the decisions we make as orators and the personal responsibility we need to take for our decisions both inside and outside of the classroom, we can understand Aristotle’s view of character and the emotions as having modern applicability.


Ethos of the Personally Experienced Political Moment

Aristotle fluctuates between presenting ethos as something that requires us to use extremes and something that requires us to balance our emotions. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes ethos as “a mean between two vices, one by excess and the other by deficiency; and while some of the vices exceed while the others are deficient in what is right in feelings and actions, virtue finds and chooses the mean” (1107a.3-5). Aristotle supports the use of excess when it is balanced out by the others emotions, but overall strives to obtain a mean between different emotional states. If we are able to understand how the emotions work together to create a specific character, we are in control of the character and ethos we are presenting to our audience. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle defines ethos as, “an ability for doing good, the greatest virtues are necessarily those most useful to others” (1366a.6). Thus, it is not just a matter of personal balance, but of balancing the emotions by understanding what personal emotions contribute to the public good. In order to define what these useful emotions are, people situate themselves in larger politically and morally defined moments. Aristotle explains, “for lives do not have the same character in accordance with [each and] every moral state. If, then, a person speaks words appropriate to his moral state, he will create a sense of character” (Rhetoric 1408a.7). Understanding our own positionality within larger politically driven events can allow us to promote our own point of view as personally and publicly relevant and trustworthy.


In a modern world, the value of personal perspective is immeasurable. Not only do we experience large, politically charged events via the media, we also experience smaller yet equally meaningful politically relevant events in the public eye. The way we define ourselves as citizens and political, individual beings comes from these experiences and the way we relate our personal evaluations of rhetoric and rhetorical situations to the larger world surrounding us.


Jasper Neel believes the concept of responsibility and the way we become responsible citizens who can understand each other and share ideas is through rhetoric. His main concern comes from the way this rhetoric is being interpreted and used by the public. He “[worries] increasingly that rhetoric is at the heart of human behavior…and that we now have a symbolic system of persuasion that always already codifies, solidifies, and immortalizes the racism, violence, and hatred that everyone in urban America…accepts as an unavoidable way of life” (Neel 131). Instead of supporting the use of emotion for positive ends, Neel feels that rhetoric has become a justification for negative use of emotions and a support system for violence. For this reason, he thinks that it is necessary to understand the way we are personally situated in larger social struggles as rhetors and teachers in order to change how emotions are valued. Neel is able to at once take the LA Riots as a very personal experience and one that has resonance for scholars and citizens more widely. He recalls:

I regard the 1992 LA riot as a personal failure. Because composition is the doorway subject, the enabling, authorizing agent, and because the LA riot grew directly out of alienation and despair, I must confront the responsibility I bear for not having found a way to deliver my pedagogy to those who need it most. The difference between me and my colleagues in other fields is professional, not personal or social. (Neel 133)

Neel feels that the emotions that come out of rhetoric should be the ones that empower us, not destroy society and marginalize disempowered persons. In the LA Riots, violence became the means of persuasion instead of logic or structured use of emotion. For Neel, as educators and citizens we have the obligation to speak out about this public abuse of rhetoric and offer an alternative.


When understood, the emotions can allow us to more effectively reach the intended audience. According to Aristotle, “the emotions are those things through which, by undergoing change, people come to differ in their judgments” (Rhetoric 1378a.8). In For the Sake of Argument, Eugene Garver uses Brown vs. The Board of Education to discuss ways that the ethical can push us much farther than the logical (73). Garver supports the idea that our “true character” is constantly manifested in the rhetorical decisions we make. He explains, “to think of ethical relations as matters of commitment, reliability and integrity is to see ethical argument as not illogical but as a development of the logical beyond the reach of reason alone” (Garver 106).  Garver believes character and ethos are dictated by the time period and circumstances in which they are situated.  Thus, the decisions made in Brown vs. The Board of Education needed to take into account what would be the best solution for the longest period of time. Garver contends,

ethically, what I should do is as much a function of who I am as of the way the world is. When I look at your practical arguments, I do not judge them as eternal objects held up to logical standards. I look at how appropriate to the circumstances they are. Practical reasoning, unlike theoretical rationality, presupposes that knowing what is best does not automatically dictate what is to be done. Practical reasoning must make decisions in the light of evidence that is in principle incomplete, and its decisions concern a future that is partly up to us. (Garver 92)

The decisions we make can only be based upon the evidence we are given at the time. This concept of creating judgments for the greater good based upon fragmentary, manipulated and relativistic evidence allows us to understand the formulation of character and how necessary it is to understand just what pieces of our character we present to our audience.


For this reason, it is essential to have self-knowledge so that we can make moral decisions. Garver thinks it is possible to understand ourselves as better arguers through this process (Garver 95). Not only does Garver strengthen his interpretation by situating it in Brown, he also is able value the reasons behind the visionary decisions of Brown. He explains, “our true character is often manifested – and developed – in the choices we make about how to appear ethical”(Garver 102). The decisions made in Brown were of a nature that they needed to rely on ethos, and a sense of public good to be legitimated.


Not only character building but the development of trust in terms of Brown vs. The Board of Education is the focus for Danielle Allen. She contends that we must stabilize the evidence, control or correctly utilize emotions and prove ourselves as logical and trustworthy in order to produce justice. Allen explains, “The problem of interpersonal distrust introduces three more challenges…A speaker must try to bring an element of predictability to the unstable world of human relations; he must tackle negative emotions like anger and resentment and try to convert them to goodwill; and above all else, he must prove that his approach to self-interest is trustworthy” (Allen 143). Once again, we are reminded that the choices made dictate how justified certain emotions are and how one will perceive the speaker’s character. Ethos is then constructed so that it can be applied and equalize a vast array of human relations (Allen 147). Understanding that not everyone can win, and that like with Brown vs. The Board of Education decisions had to be made for the greater good is the basis of trust-building. Allen points out, “Political friendship thus generated sustains a democratic polis by helping citizens to accept decision with which they may disagree” (Allen 158). If we are able to focus our own emotions by understanding the place they occupy in our lives, how they respond to other, potentially negative public emotions, we are able to create a relationship between speaker and audience that is productive.


This overlap of private and public emotion is not a new concept. Kate Ronald asserts not only that the personal was valued in classical rhetoric but, “that the distinction between personal and public discourse is one that would not have made sense to classical rhetoricians and is not useful to us today” (Ronald 37). She contends that the real “work” of rhetoric happens in the in-between spaces of public and private discourse. As she explains, “classical rhetoric taught individual, intellectual responsibility…persuasion [was] of oneself and involved a personal relationship with one’s audience. Moreover, the line between persuading oneself and one’s audience was often blurred. This is the definition of personal, the location of the personal within the public discourse, and the public within the person of the student of rhetoric” (Ronald 38). Understanding our own cultural assumptions and situations is the aim of ethos. So, ethos is not only speech, but preparation. Ronald explains, “even in the long classification of topics in Book I, Aristotle emphasizes that rhetoric must be the way of finding what is public in ourselves, accessing both assertions and objections of the sort that would be made in a public forum” (Ronald 42). According to Ronald, we must understand what about our personal experience of a public situation or our personal stories will add something to allow our audience to connect with our arguments. According to Aristotle, “it makes much difference in regard to persuasion…that the speaker seem to be a certain kind of person and that his hearers suppose him to be disposed toward them in a certain way and in addition if they, too, happened to be disposed in a certain way” (Rhetoric 1377b.3). The way we build character comes from the way we choose to incorporate emotions into our actions and our speeches. By showing the power of focused, morally relevant emotion, we can communicate an important message of personal and social responsibility to our audience.


Classroom Implications and Beyond

Harnessing emotions for rhetorical purposes can lead to powerful moments inside and outside our classrooms. Walter S. Minot believes that understanding the impact we have on the character building of our students is essential. With the choices we make as teachers in the classroom and in our own rhetoric, we direct their understanding of self-making. “We are engaged in character development, moral education, and character formation…writing educates the whole person and…writing teachers are more than mere technocrats, teaching a discrete and limited set of skills” (Minot 360). Students are individuals who hope to communicate their emotions and ethos to demonstrate their own sources of unrest and hopes for change. We can create a responsible classroom that allows them to express political viewpoints and emotions for positive moral ends. This can lead to, as Minot suggests, building the self-esteem of our students and allow them to understand how they can present the value of their opinions (360).


It is not only Minot who demonstrates the need for political awareness and ethos building in our classrooms. S. Michael Halloran also believes that we need to be aware of the character-building we engage in with our students. According to Halloran, “If we adopt the view that a theory of ethos is an important need for teachers of composition, we take on responsibility for shaping the character of our students. My own view is that in fact this is what we are doing whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. In directing our students to write this way rather than that, we tell them in effect to be this sort of character rather than that” (Halloran 61). We need to understand that ethos has meaning not just for us as individuals, but for the generation and cultures which we inhabit and the classroom spaces and students whom we teach (Halloran 62).


Our ethos and our emotions may be something already evident to our readers and our students. We wear our ethos on our sleeves. We understand the values of our students from what they present and they use from the writing we choose to present them with. Jim W. Corder supports the idea that we can find that ethos in what we write and embraces “the hope that each private life can become real both for itself and for others” (303). He is worried that if we do not acknowledge that our personal ethos can be in our texts and in our teaching, we cannot hope to move forward as a culture, cannot hope to find inspiration or motivation to move forward. “It ruptures community of action and spirit, denies the existence of any community of scholars, and repudiates the tribe member’s own understanding” (Corder 306).  Corder believes it is good to speak from “narrow personal dimensions…wonderful and human, “ and as long as we understand our emotional framework and object as moral and responsible (313).


Aristotle suggests that if we are able to identify what is important for us as orators, we can better understand what appeals to the audience, and what it is necessary to present to our audience to cause the change we desire. In our rhetorical choices, we need to harness our emotion and accept responsibility for our choices.  According to Aristotle, “ they [the audience] are attentive to great things, things that concern themselves, marvels and pleasures…If they are not attentive, it is because the subject is unimportant, means nothing to them personally, [or] is distressing” (Rhetoric 1415b.7). Careful identification of what things we find personally important that our audience might find personally important can create a desired connection and assumption of ethos. Understanding that locating and focusing practical emotions can be useful and necessary for our own well-being, larger political change, and as a lesson for our students allows us to understand how our ethos is both already evident and in our own hands.



Analyzing Aristotle’s concepts of character and ethos we can understand the necessity of personal political investment in rhetorical situations. In the classroom, this allows students to at once identify with a surrounding rhetorical world and to personally invest in their scholarship. As rhetors, we have a responsibility ourselves to understand classical notions of integrated ethos and to practice using both personal and political emotions as citizens, in our scholarship and in our teaching.



Allen, Danielle S. Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2004.

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1975.

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. with Introduction, Notes, and Appendices by George A. Kennedy, New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Atwill, Janet. Rhetoric Reclaimed: Aristotle and the Liberal Arts Tradition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell U. Press, 1998.

Corder, Jim W. “Hunting for Ethos Where they say it Can’t be Found.” Rhetoric Review 7.2 (Spring, 1989): 299-316.

Fortenbaugh, William W. Aristotle on Emotion. London: Duckworth, 2002.

Garver, Eugene. Aristotle’s Rhetoric: An Art of Character. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1994.

Garver, Eugene. For the Sake of Argument: Practical Reasoning, Character, and the Ethics of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Garver, Eugene “The Contemporary Irrelevance of Aristotle’s Practical Reason.” Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Eds. Alan G. Gross and Arthur E. Walzer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 2000.

Halloran, S. Michael. “Aristotle’s Concept of Ethos, or If Not His Somebody Else’s.” Rhetoric Review 1.1 (September, 1982): 58-63.

Harris, W.V. “Saving the jainomena: A Note on Aristotle’s Anger.” Classical Quarterly 47.2 (1997): 452-454.

Kaufman, Moises. The Laramie Project. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2001.

Koziak, Barbara. Retrieving Political Emotions: Thumos, Aristotle and Gender. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State U. Press, 2000.

London, Alex John. “Amenable to Reason: Aristotle’s Rhetoric and the Moral Psychology of Practical Ethics.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 10.4 (2000): 287-305.

Lynch, Dennis A. “Teaching Rhetorical Values and the Question of Student Autonomy.” Rhetoric Review 13:2 (Spring, 1995): 350-370.

Minot, Walter S. “Personality and Persona: Developing the Self.” Rhetoric Review 7.2 (Spring, 1989): 352-363.

Neel, Jasper. Aristotle’s Voice: Rhetoric, Theory and Writing in America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1994.

Ronald, Kate. “A Reexamination of Personal and Public Discourse in Classical Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review 9.1 (Aut., 1990): 36-48.

Tombro, Melissa. “The Personal-Political Moment: Use of Aristotle’s Concepts of Ethos and Anger Outside and Inside the Writing Classroom.” SUNY Council on Writing Annual Conference, 27 March 2010.

Walker, Jeffrey. “The Body of Persuasion: A Theory of the Enthymeme.” College English 51 (1994): 46-65.