Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.52

Michael J. Hyde (ed.), The Ethos of Rhetoric. With a foreword by Calvin O. Schrag.   Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 2004.  Pp. xxviii, 231.  ISBN 1-57003-538-5.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Kristina Chew, Saint Peter's College (
Word count: 3683 words

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

Can rhetoric assume the "living room" and dwell with us; can it assume an active role in our social-political discourse, in what happens in the realms of politics and society? It may well be a losing battle. While there will always be a place for rhetoric and words -- figures for sales of books have remained constant in the face of so many other forms of media and access to information (chiefly the Internet) -- but the prominent place of rhetoric, of words arranged eloquently and for the purpose of persuasion and an audience not only trained to listen to such, but motivated to, is already non-existent. A June 3 editorial in The New York Times by Michael Miller, "Persuasion's Lost," notes that our public discourse is crowded not so much with debates in which one side seeks, via evidence and skillful argumentation, to sway the listeners to his or her side, but with black and white contests in which each side has already made up its mind and tries only to browbeat the other into the rightness of his position. We have lost our ear for the subtle turns of rhetoric known to and practiced by Cicero, and that is precisely why we need even more to read the rhetoric arising in the everyday world.

The underlying argument of The Ethos of Rhetoric is that the term ethos has been understood too narrowly as meaning "character" or "moral character" and, relating to ethics, with an attendant under-, if not de-, valuing of rhetoric in our society and our culture. As the editor, Michael J. Hyde (hereafter MH) explains in the introduction "Rhetorically, We Dwell," we need to use an expanded definition of ethos, understood as a "dwelling place," and consider the actual situation and context in which rhetoric is used and applied. Noting that this is indeed a "more 'primordial' meaning of the term" (xiii), the titular term "the ethos of rhetoric" itself refers to "the way discourse is used to transform space and time into 'dwelling places' (ethos; pl. ethea)" (xiii). It is from such a place, a specific spot, that a person is "grounded" and her or his "ethics and moral character [can] take form and develop" (xiii). MH's use of the term "dwelling" recalls Heideggerian discourse about how Being "dwells," and one can indeed sense such a philosophical heritage in his definition of the volume's notion of ethos.

Each of the essays in this book was originally presented at a conference on the topic of "The Ethos of Rhetoric" held along with the Annual Convention of the Southern States Communication Association at Wake Forest University in April 2002. The eleven chapters are on a diverse selection of topics, from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men to a Black Arts movement leader to computer systems during the Cold War. The first section of four essays is theoretical and refers back to classical texts of rhetoric and philosophy and is of most obvious interest to the Classicist. The remaining essays apply the notion of ethos as being in, living in, dwelling in the world in regard to specific "texts" of contemporary culture, from movies (It's A Wonderful Life and Twelve Angry Men) to monuments (Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore) and the religion-tinged rhetoric of the presidential campaign in 2000, as well as President Bush's speeches after the 9/11 terrorism attack.

In "Ethos Dwells Pervasively: A Hermeneutic Reading of Aristotle on Credibility," Craig R. Smith (hereafter CS) provides an overview of other contemporary philosophers' ideas about Aristotle's Rhetoric. CS uses a "hermeneutic praxis," according to which "interpretative understanding is enhanced by a knowledge of social context" (1) and which term to some extent encapsulates this book's critical-interpretative framework. While Aristotle's Rhetoric does not use ethos to mean "dwelling," this notion can be detected via a hermeneutical reading. Because Aristotle assumes that everyone has ethos, CS argues, it "has an ontological dimension because it emerges from the way one makes decisions" and leads one's daily life. Ethos is the "public manifestation of a person," the place where ethos dwells being nowhere less than in the agora's courts or the boule (3). By understanding that ethos as dwelling place is "assumed" in Aristotle, the ontological underpinnings of the term can be discovered. Analyzing the use of ethos in Aristotle's non-rhetorical writings (Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Politics), CS suggests an extended definition of the term, that it is "about building the credibility of the speaker before an audience, not about the speaker's inherent worth" (5).

Margaret D. Zulick's (hereafter MZ) "The Ethos of Invention: The Dialogue of Ethics and Aesthetics in Kenneth Burke and Mikhail Bahktin" correlates the collection's understanding of ethos with the views of two modern literary theorists and students of rhetoric and the workings of language, Kenneth Burke and Mikhail Bahktin. Specifically, MZ details "the ethos of invention, understood as...the point of intersection between language and subject where invention occurs" (20). Thanks to the ethos of invention, ethics and aesthetics can be seen as "coordinate acts of imagination that spring from the same inventive source in the social mind" (21). MZ attempts to bring together "ethical action" with "philosophical aesthetics," to bring together thinking about the creative act and moral action, while arguing that both Burke and Bahktin are able to "[construct] a world of theory" in which ethics and aesthetics work in concert. Their convergence is indeed at the very "heart of the rhetorical tradition" (22). Burke traces this convergence to "the intersections or 'equations' between language and subject," as when an individual person's character and an individual poem are "equated" (26). Bahktin's understanding of (aesthetic, literary) form in a dialogue with society leads to an understanding of "the person as an intersection of languages" in that consciousness is "brought into self-awareness by other consciousnesses, created by language but also creating it" (27). Both Burke and Bahktin, MZ writes, suggests **[suggest] how ethics can be and is reinvented "in the thick of discourse." For "the power of the imagination required for art is also the faculty required for ethics -- the ability to imagine oneself in the position of the other" (31).

Robert Wade Kenny's (hereafter RK) "Truth as Metaphor: Imaginative Vision and the Ethos of Rhetoric" returns to Heidegger and his notions of being-in-the-world as fundamental to, if not synonymous with, ethos as dwelling. Dwelling is "something that people do; it characterizes, in particular, the project of making a world for the sake of ourselves, other people, and other beings" (34). RK draws on Frank Capra's film It's A Wonderful Life to illustrate the notion of what it means to dwell in the world. George Bailey is granted "the wish that he had never been" (34); he is then "inserted within his world without having the status of one who dwells within that world" and discovers an "existential hell" (35). Without his actions and his care, a brother would have died in childhood, and "upstanding citizens are corrupted, successful businessmen are homeless wretches" (35). RK then refers to Northrop Frye's "imaginative vision" and, specifically, his interpretation of William Blake on rhetoric, imagination and creativity to present a case for how rhetoric can have a place today. RK extends Frye's ideas beyond literary and written texts to culture and world, and what the place of rhetoric in our world today can be. The very "function" of speech and language is "to create in the audience the imaginative vision the rhetor intends" (45). RK introduces a brief analysis of Winston Churchill's speeches in the midst of World War II to emphasize how rhetoric can change, shape, influence, and create how the public understands events by specifically creating an imaginative vision. (48-49): Through Churchill's evocative eloquence and the "salvation of language" (50), the retreat of the British could be understood as a sensible military decision rather than cowardice. Barbara Warnick (hereafter BW) in "The Ethos of Rhetorical Criticism: Enlarging the Dwelling Place of Critical Praxis" considers the broader issue of "how can rhetorical critics maintain a scholarly stance and at the same time act as engaged and committed spokespersons on the major issues of our time?" (56). BW's question gets to the heart of rhetorical criticism for academics in general, to be "purely" scholarly or to be engaged in the world. She uses the word "evocative" to suggest how we might transform the "dwelling place for criticism" (56). "Evocative" criticism would make readers "participants," rather than a mere, "passive" audience; it would be openly and overly responsive to readers. BW describes four "divisive" questions in scholarly work in rhetorical criticism (57): how to reconcile the imperative of "scholarly distance and dispassion" with a desire and a decisiveness to work with the socio-political issues raised by a text (58-9); should the rhetor be dominant or should the conditions -- material, historical, cultural, etc. -- surrounding a text take pre-eminence (59-61); what is the place of the "traditional standards of Western rationality" in judging and critiquing rhetorical texts (61-2); what are the criteria for judging a text, the level of its eloquence or the extent to which it spurs continued and new thinking (62-3). She concludes with a "modest proposal" by explaining how an evocative rhetorical criticism might best be suited to take up the ethos of rhetoric. Such a praxis should "involve the risk of self" (68); BW refers to work on cyborg and computer culture by N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway to challenge a "critic-centered model" of rhetorical criticism, in order to foster one that, while it may start with a critic, is still "multivoiced, authentic" (70).

In the conclusion of the theoretical section, questions raised include: What is the place and the value of rhetorical criticism? of the critic of rhetoric? of the professor of speech communication? Has rhetoric become too much of an academic discipline with the usual array of scholarly publications and journals, conferences, graduate students, discourse and jargon such that it has no accessible, practical, useful, actual application to the general public? BW addresses these questions and concludes that the discipline of rhetoric has an ethical and moral need to be accessible and to be understood by the non-specialist. The remaining essays in the collection are demonstrations of this principle.

In "Sweating the Little Things in Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men," Walter Jost (hereafter WJ) reads the movie according to traditional terms of rhetorical analysis from Aristotle and his medieval descendants. To understand the reversal that occurs, from the jury's vote of eleven guilty, one not guilty (the vote of the architect, played by Henry Fonda, who embodies the American individualist character type), to eleven not guilty, one guilty (the vote of Lee Cobb's angry man), WJ looks at how each of the twelve jurors says what he says, and how each is persuaded (via rhetoric) to a vote of "not guilty" based on the fact that the accused young man's guilt cannot be proven beyond a "reasonable doubt" (he is not proven innocent, just not guilty). As WJ states in his introduction, he grounds his analysis in "the Rhetorician's Way" -- reading the characters' lines with attention to their use of irony, diction, etc. The second part of his essay moves in the "opposite direction," "the Philosopher's Way" (75), staging a debate ancient as Plato himself, between the sophists with their eloquence and the philosophers in search of truth. Moreover, via WJ's two-part analysis, 12 Angry Men is shown as operating on both a rhetorical level and a philosophical one. The film can be experienced, and enjoyed, simply at the level of the characters' dialogue (and, as WJ suggests, this is all that there is to experience of the movie), but in truth 12 Angry Men is a movie of ideas masked in eloquence.

John Poulakos (hereafter JP) in "Special Delivery: Rhetoric, Letter Writing, and the Question of Beauty," analyzes a letter by a young soldier in Vietnam to uncover how its rhetoric creates a dwelling place. The young soldier's letter to his aunt contains a rhapsodizing description of a flower he happens to come upon in the midst of combat. Is it the flower or the letter, the rhetorical space in which the soldier re-creates the flower and the experience for his aunt? Noting that "soldiers are authorized killers in the service of failed communication" (90), JP shows how the letter has little to say about action on the front, referring instead to Gertrude Stein and the Jewish ideas of heaven and hell: "... his topic is beauty ... even in Vietnam when Vietnam was burning" (91). There are "intimacies" available to a letter writer (92); JP refers to book 3 of Aristotle's Topics to explain how "topical preferences reveal a great deal about the ethos of a discipline or the spirit of age" (93). Rhetoric itself is an ethos, a place where beauty in a war zone can dwell and be: "In and through his letter, Sandy challenges the assertion of an imperfect world as he communicates an experience of perfection" (94). By writing a letter to his grandmother, Sandy makes the beauty of the flower "happen" for others (95); rhetoric, and the special rhetorical features of a letter in which the audience is all-important, makes the writer present.

Eric King Watts (hereafter EW) in "The Ethos of Black Aesthetic: An Exploration of Larry Neal's Visions of a Liberated Future" analyzes the writings of a Black Arts figure to uncover views on racism and how African-Americans can attain a "liberated future" by being as independent and non-dependent on white culture as possible. He "explores the reinvention of a black aesthetic" during the Black Arts movement in order to understand its role in the reconstitution of the African American ethos. EW explains that "...a black homeland is, in part, conceived as a place where the gratification of self-determination and the edification of self-definition are deepened by dramatizing the devastation of the source of that fear -- the white other" (100).The Black Arts movement -- in a move away from the Harlem Renaissance embodied in figures such as Langston Hughes -- sought to create a specific place, a "way of manufacturing livable space...for black folk" (110). In so doing, it turned to cultural models specifically arising from the African-American experience and ethos to create an authentic black aesthetic. Neal is able to invent "a discourse that points the way out of a paradox of purity" (103), out of defining "blackness" simply as opposed to whiteness, and therefore purified of a racist past.

Martin J. Medhurst (hereafter MM) in "Religious Rhetoric and the Ethos of Democracy: A Case Study of the 2000 Presidential Campaign" focuses on both President Bush's and former Vice-President Gore's use of religious references, ideas, and images as the 2000 campaign progressed. MM reveals how both candidates' campaign rhetoric was thoroughly laced with religious, and specifically Christian, references. "It was a recognition of a deep longing to return to a 'home' where the values of community, and mutuality, and compassion reigned supreme" (130). The 2000 presidential campaign was heavily loaded with discussion of character, of morality and moral values, of "appreciation of the other, inclusiveness, duties, dignity, and the importance of communal life" (130); these were readily and frequently linked with values that our society tends to link to religion. After careful analysis of both Bush's and Gore's campaign rhetoric, DZ notes (in the final paragraph), "the religious rhetoric of the 2000 campaign points... to a people in search of a common democratic ethos" (131). Such a rhetoric seeks to create an ethos, a dwelling place, expansive enough to "shelter all but the most extreme members of the American community" (131).

In "George W. Bush Discovers Rhetoric: September 20, 2001, and the U.S. Response to Terrorism," David Zarefsky (hereafter DZ) analyzes how Bush's strategy towards the Middle East and Iraq was formulated over the course of the speeches he made to the American public directly after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Bush's rhetoric of war is traced as it develops in the President's rhetoric in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. DZ describes how the political and military-strategic attitude towards Iraq (and the Middle East) was constructed through Bush's speeches (especially, and beginning with, the September 20 speech) in terms of (somewhat abstractly and vaguely formulated notions of) freedom, democracy. He traces how these concepts are first presented and developed into a philosophy cum strategy. DZ shows how, "in moments of national crisis," the dwelling place of rhetoric becomes crucial; we are indeed "glad" to dwell in rhetorical culture (137). The war metaphor's development is traced to describe the 9/11 attacks and its role in "creating unity, limiting debate, changing priorities, and mobilizing for action" (142). Bush's September 20th speech "embodies several decisions about how to respond rhetorically to terrorism" (147). DZ notes the "unintended consequences" of the speech, foremost among which was the effect on civil liberties as a result of the metaphor of war. He concludes that rhetoric is a kind of a "national resource held in reserve" that the American people wish to have pulled out in certain times of need (152). And it is precisely this use of rhetoric to construct reality at times of crisis that DZ notes in closing "is the rhetoric not of the open hand but of the closed fist" (153).

Carole Blair (hereafter CB) and Neil Michel (hereafter NM) pinpoint "the Rushmore Effect" in "The Rushmore Effect: Ethos and National Collective Identity." They detail the rhetoric surrounding the construction of a monument and its relation to our discourse on monuments. The rhetorical-symbolic power that Rushmore as iconic monument acquires is highlighted and its implications for the creation of future monuments are suggested. Monuments then and certainly now play a huge role in constructing and creating a national ethos; Mount Rushmore is indeed a place, a geographical location, whose significance has been created through canny use of history and historical symbols (159). CB and NM first explain the genesis of another monument, Stone Mountain in Georgia, erected to commemorate Confederate leaders and originally conceived of by Gutzon Borglum, the mastermind designer of Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore's creation marks a shift in monument-building in this country, a "centralization, indeed, nationalization of the commemorative impulse" (163). Borglum's work draws on the three themes of "scale, ancient prototypes, and an American national style" (165). CB and NM conclude that, ultimately, such monuments due to the complexities of the creation process, fail to create "anything like an admirable national ethos" (184).

Carolyn R. Miller (hereafter CM) in "Expertise and Agency: Transformation of Ethos in Human-Computer interaction" notes the rise of "expert systems" in computer/software construction and artificial intelligence as a major aspect of Cold War computer culture. She notes the central metaphor of "containment" in the discourse around these systems (197). Expert systems represent a trend in the "methodizing of decision making" traceable to the nineteenth century. These are computer systems that do not offer judgment but an "algorithmic product of knowledge-base times inference" (204). What is lacking is any of the "relational components of ethos", such as arete, eunoia, and, most of all, phronesis, "good sense" (204). CM argues that in a technical-computer discourse, "expertise stands in for ethos, because technical discourse cannot acknowledge the contingencies of the audience and the uncertainties of the situation" (205). Expert systems do not account for the intellectual qualities of the audience, whose presence is not factored (programmed) in. CM suggests that cyborg discourse provides a sounder model, in the form of a type of Artificial Intelligence program called "intelligent agents"; examples are "computer viruses, Internet search tools, and systems for air traffic, manufacturing, and financial transaction" (208). They are interactive and enable users to have "relationships" with them (210); they use a Ciceronian "ethos of sympathy" (211); their discourse and the ethos behind it is not "logos-centric" but "pathos-centric" (212).

The Classicist will find The Ethos of Rhetoric enlightening for its attempts to reinterpret Aristotle's writings on rhetoric for a contemporary audience, and for its applications of classical rhetorical terminology to varied aspects of contemporary culture, including the memorial to Crazy Horse. However, the target audience for this collection is highly, if not, overly diverse; from the perspective of a Classicist, "The Ethos of Rhetoric" offers some original applications of classical rhetorical theory without sufficiently re-examining their meaning. While its essays and their arguments have explicit connection to the lives of all who consume both "popular" and "high" culture, The Ethos of Rhetoric is through and throughout an academic book offering arguments by way of explanation for the value and need for rhetoric (and of professors of rhetoric) in our image-obsessed and (increasingly) Internet-dependent culture. This collection presents an argument for the place of rhetoric today; each of the essays argues for rhetoric's ability and indeed capacity not only to foster change, but to make a concrete difference in the world. Words can matter despite the apparent ascendance of images everywhere in our culture, such as advertisements which can now be found on subway cars, supermarket floors, and on bus windows, and even in schools. Revising the meaning of ethos by reaching back to its "primordial" sense, the essays attempt to reclaim rhetoric from the superficial view that tends to be given it of late, that rhetoric stands for "mere" words, hot air, versus actually acting and doing something.

In the wake of the July 7th bombings in London, cultural critic John McGowan sadly notes that "the rhetoric of response to violence is predicated on understanding of violence itself as rhetorical."1 Leaders of the world's nations, Great Britain's and ours too, will be making many a statement over the next few weeks that "we shall prevail and they shall not"; how often, since September 11th, have words like "sacrifice" (and "democracy") been used in a rhetoric of determination that does not face up to the growing numbers of the dead in the Middle East. Those who planted the bombs in London know the rhetoric of violence, a rhetoric that does not need words to make its point.


1.   Michael, Bérubé, "The Rhetorics of Violence." Retrieved July 8, 2005.

Read Latest
Index for 2005
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:14, Friday, 03 April 2009