Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

Being in the world is a counterintuitive process. On the one hand, all the parts are already in place, and the only thing to do is to react to them. On the other hand, merely reacting to things as they are is no way to be. To be sure, most of life is navigating the tension between these two poles, with the focus shifting from one time period to another. At some times, life is 100% crisis management mode, where making sure that the situation is under control is of paramount importance. At other times, life happens at a more indirect pace, where the task at hand is to – if you’ll pardon the wordplay – build a life for yourself.

This second part is no less dramatic for being indirect. More often than not, the only difference in terms of drama is that it takes more effort to appraise the situation. The paradigmatic example being someone’s school performance. From a direct point of view, it may appear that everything is going fine and according to plan; arriving on time, doing the work, getting the grades. From an indirect point of view, though, the feat of going through the motions may lay the groundwork for unhealthy or unsustainable habits later in life. This may or may not be readily apparent at the time, and may or may not be possible to alleviate if given proper attention, but in terms of building a life, it is hard to say whether the one is more important than the other.

Hyde is a rhetorician, and as such focused on the strategic aspects of intentional communication. In the introduction to the anthology The Ethos of Rhetoric, he naturally discusses the nature of the concept of ethos. Ethos in the context of rhetoric, as you might be aware, relates to a person’s character: their presentation, their force of personality, the personal aspects of them in particular that makes them persuasive. Just as communication in general is always tied to someone doing the communicating, ethos is always tied to the person holding the mic or the pen. Ethos is personal – it relates to the qualities of the person and the aspects of their discourse affected by these qualities. In a sense, ethos is a being in the world.

Hyde takes hold of this sense, and expands on it. For Hyde, ethos is not just a quality of some immediate discourse (a direct quality), but also a feature visible in more indirect ways. While a person’s character is undoubtedly visible in their immediate communication, it is also visible in other ways: the topics they choose to discuss, the manner in which these discussions take form, the recurring tropes therein, etc. Moreover, it is visible in such indirect aspects as architecture, decoration and aesthetics. Ethos, for Hyde, is not just a one-off affair: it encompasses all the things.

Attentive readers will note the use of the words “being in the world” and their Heideggerian connotations. This is no accident; Hyde is very explicitly taking off from Heidegger in his discussion of ethos. Ethos is a way of dwelling in the circumstances we find ourselves in, the ways in which we carve a piece of the world for ourselves and in our image. As humans, we may find ourselves thrown unbidden into the world and forced to confront it head on as is, but while we are here, we might as well leave an imprint on the parts we have control over. Our imprint.

This is, to be sure, a very general notion of ethos, more akin to its modern day incarnation of branding than its Aristotelian guise of arête. Which is both a point and the point. As a point, it serves as a reminder not to get stuck in the technicalities of neo-Aristotelian terminology, and to be open for other ways of looking at discourse in general. (This point is especially addressed to practitioners of rhetorical criticism, a group who gets their own chapter in the anthology.) As the point, however, it strikes closer to home, even to non-rhetoricians: we have it in our limited power the capability to affect our being in the world, and upon becoming aware of this, an imperative to do so in a responsible and reflected manner.

This, then, returns us to the starting point of the counterintuitive nature of building a life for oneself. On the one hand, we are faced with a myriad of choices every day: what to wear, what to eat, where to go, who to interact with, what to say. The immediate tactical tactility of everyday life. But we are also faced with the indirect choices of how to shape the way we live, the spaces we inhabit and the possibilities of our future selves. The one begets the other, both ways, and it becomes an ethical imperative to ensure that they work in tandem to take us where we want to be. Moreover: it becomes a responsibility to help others find ways to harmonize the two, and find a sustainable way of being in the world.

Hyde, being a rhetorician, mainly discusses the ways we do this in discourse. By discussing some things and not others, and by discussing them in some particular way rather than some other way, we give our readers and fellow humans a way of looking at the world. When they read our words, they are dwelling in a particular viewpoint, and get to try it on for size. Here, again, the ethical imperative returns: to provide others with the means they need to successfully navigate the tension between what is, what could be, and what should be. Our words are not ethically neutral, and upon being aware of this, we are compelled to ethical action. To do good and, if possible, better.

The point of writing is to give others words to live by. It is, at once, a comforting and terrifying thought.

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

2 thoughts on “Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

  1. […] This makes for awkward discussions with regard to why writing or reading happens – for any one answer that comes along, there are any number of other possible answers that are equally legitimate for other circumstances, different or similar. Trying to agree on one singular answer or – more dramatically – settle the issue once and for all would most likely only end in dissent or conflict. As one answer comes along, another equally good answer accompanies it, and choosing one over the other becomes a matter of circumstance. […]

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