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What is Ethos?

"The perfect orator is a good person speaking well”   

 Ethos is your personal and professional credibility. Basically, if you were perceived as being a good person, fearlessly defending your client, honest and fair in your dealings with the court and your opponent then the judge would find you persuasive. People like Aristotle and Quintilian viewed being honourable and a good person as fundamentally important:

“The strongest argument in support of a speaker is that he is a good man”1.

Quintilian argued that “Although an advocate may be modest and say little about himself, yet if he is believed to be a good man, this consideration will exercise the strongest influence at every point of the case. The perfect orator is a good man speaking well2.

 You don’t have to be of good character, but you do have to be able to project the impression of good character to the court. Aristotle warned advocates against inadvertently betraying their manipulative intentions:

“Present yourself from the outset in a distinctive light, so that the audience may regard you as a person of this sort, your opponent as a person of another sort; only do not betray your design – it is easy to give the right impression”3.

And: “The speaker must not merely see to it that his argument shall be convincing and persuasive, but he must give the right impression of himself...for in conducing to persuasion it is highly important that the speaker should evince a certain character, and the judge should conceive the advocate to be disposed towards the judge in a certain way.”4

Aristotle identified 3 things that project a favourable ethos, and these points are worth bearing in mind when the court is getting its first impression of you as an advocate, whether that is through your opening speech, or in the introduction to your skeleton argument.

  1. Intelligence

  2. Good Character (particularly honesty and fairness)

  3. Goodwill5

 Cicero listed6 the following virtues as giving a good impression of an advocate:

  1. A mild tone

  2. A modest demeanour

  3. Gentle language

  4. “It is very helpful to display the tokens of good nature, kindness, calmness, loyalty and a disposition that is pleasing and not grasping or covetous, and all the qualities belonging to men who are upright and unassuming.”

  5. “Advocates should develop the faculty of seeming to be dealing reluctantly and under compulsion with something that in reality you are really anxious to prove.”

  6. If your delivery is unruffled and eloquent of good nature, the advocate is made to appear upright, well bred and virtuous” (and therefore persuasive!)

 Quintilian believed:

  1. an advocates credibility depending on his perceived motives for taking a case “It is desirable that he should be believed to have undertaken the case from moral considerations”7 (rather than financial considerations)

  2. An advocate must adopt a confident manner, and should always speak as if he thought his case was admirable8.

  3. Advocates should avoid coming across as

    • abusive to people, particularly the judge, their colleagues, clients and witnesses.

    • Malicious or vindictive

    • proud

    • arrogant9

    • excessively self assured/too confident “As a rule a judge dislikes self confidence in a pleader, and conscious of his rights tacitly demands the respectful deference of the orator”10

    • slanderous towards any individual or body of men11.

 Aristotle noted that your ability to use emotional arguments, particularly in your conclusion, depended on how well you had convinced the judge of your honourable intentions. “You must use each and all of these emotional arguments with a view to making your audience receptive, and give an impression of yourself as a good and just person, for good character always commands more attention.”12


12 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria at 303.

22 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria at 9

3Aristotle, Rhetoric at 231

4Aristotle, Rhetoric at 91

5Aristotle, Rhetoric at 92

63 Cicero, De Oratore at 327-329

72 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria at 9

82 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria at 343

92 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria at 11

102 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria at 37

112 Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria at 11

12Aristotle, Rhetoric at 224

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