How Ethos Impacts Pathos: A Tale of Two Writers

By Jennifer Fletcher

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…or, at least, so we would have to believe to accept the arguments of both Martin E. P. Seligman and Barbara Ehrenreich on the topic of American life in the early 21st century. Seligman is the author of such books as Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness and a celebrated Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Ehrenreich is an award-winning journalist whose many books include the best-sellers Nickle and Dimed and Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of an American Dream. Seligman and Ehrenrich are also the respective authors of Flourish (2012) and Bright-sided (2010), two strikingly different books I happened to be reading at the same time a few years ago.

For me, it’s always exciting to discover that two writers I’m reading are in direct conversation with each other. Not only were Seligman and Ehrenreich writing about the same topic–in this case, optimism and “positive psychology”–they specifically named each other as their naysayer. That thrill of recognition when we discover an unexpected rivalry or alliance in the books we’re reading makes the texts crackle to life. We think, “Hey! I didn’t know these two knew each!” or maybe “Wow! They really don’t like each other, do they?” Suddenly, the readings are full of personality and personal feeling.

That personality, or what rhetoricians call “ethos,” has a strong influence on how we read and respond to texts.

In his classical work on rhetoric, Aristotle says that to be persuasive, a rhetor (ie., a speaker or writer) must make their character “look right” (Book II, Chapter 1). This is achieved not only through the rhetor’s reasoning, expertise, and language choices, but also by the way they position themselves in relation to others. Positive, neutral, and negative characterizations of sources can all become part of a writer’s image and tone, leading, in turn, to different emotional reactions in readers. Ethos thus has a direct impact on pathos: the audience’s “frame of mind” (Rhetoric Book II, Chapter 1). When it comes to source-based writing, how we feel about one writer can determine how we view other voices in the conversation.

Flourish and Bright-sided: Spring of Hope vs. Winter of Despair

The conflict between Seligman and Ehrenreich provides a good example. In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, a book I read as part of a university co-op on supporting first-year students, Seligman attacks Ehrenreich’s views head-on. I came to my reading of Flourish as someone who likes Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickle and Dimed has become a favorite text in many high school and college English classes, and Ehrenreich’s background as a journalist jibes nicely with my own training in English studies. In other words, we share similar backing for our views.

I was therefore first surprised then annoyed by Seligman’s blunt critique of Ehrenreich. Introducing her as “Barbara ‘I Hate Hope’ Ehrenreich,” Seligman summarizes—then summarily refutes—her central argument in her book Bright-sided. Here’s what he writes in Flourish:

In her chapter ‘How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy,’ she places the blame for the downturn of 2008-9 on positive thinking. Motivational gurus such as Oprah, Televangelist Joel Osteen, and Tony Robbins, she tells us, revved up the general public into buying more than they could afford to repay. Executive coaches espousing positive thinking infected CEOs with the viral and profitable idea that the economy would grow and grow. Academics—she likens me to the Wizard of Oz—provided the scientific props for these hucksters. What Ehrenreich tells us we need is realism, not optimism. Indeed, cultivating realism, rather than positivity, is the theme of her entire book.

He concludes, “This is vacuous” (Seligman 233).

“Vacuous.” Now that’s a harsh word. I remember one exam rubric I saw back in the 1990s that used the word “vacuous” to describe an essay at the lowest level of performance on its nine-point scale. 

An occasionally cranky person myself, I can sympathize with Ehrenreich’s distaste for optimism.  Besides, I teach literature.  Human misery is a central focus of my discipline. For me as a reader, the personal attack on Ehrenreich was strike one against Seligman.

Later in Flourish, Seligman takes a shot at another topic likely to provoke defensiveness among past and present English majors: postmodernism. “History, in the hands of the postmodernists,” Seligman writes, “is taught as ‘one damn thing after another.’ I believe the postmodernists are misguided and misguiding. I believe that history is the account of human progress and that you have to be blinded by ideology not to see the reality of this progress” (238).

I like postmodernism. At least, that is to say, I find its questions helpful and important, and I strongly identify with the generation of students and scholars trained in its theories. So when Seligman says that “postmodernists are misguided and misguiding,” it gets my back up. That’s strike two for Seligman. This is the kind of reader response my colleague Glen McClish, a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at San Diego State University, encourages students to notice. He offers two great questions for considering the reader’s affective engagement with a text:

  • Who is going to check out at at this phrase/sentence/paragraph?
  • Who is not going to be able to read this?

That “strike three” moment when a reader says, “I’m done” could happen for many reasons. In the case of Flourish, fans of Barbara Ehrenreich or postmodernism might be disinclined to continue reading Seligman’s book if they believe his values, interests, and ways of knowing are too different from their own.

Playing the Believing Game When Our Hackles Are Raised

Readers trained in Peter Elbow’s believing game, however, don’t have to allow off-putting statements by a writer to deter them from engaging a text. As writers, we should certainly consider how our rhetorical choices impact our relationship with our audience. But as readers, we have control over meaning-making, too.  We can temporarily set aside our resistance to a text as we work to understand it on its own terms. Here are the guidelines I share with students for playing the believing game:

A wise former principal once explained to me how she managed parent or teacher complaints. When deeply upset individuals would vent their frustrations to her–no matter how incoherent or personal the attack–she would tell herself, “There’s something important in all of this that I need to pay attention to.” We can do this as readers, too.  Playing the believing game enhances our capacity for self-management. Instead of checking out or shutting down when a writer raises our hackles, we can defer our personal reactions until after we’ve paid attention to a text’s meaning.

Analyzing and Applying Conceptual Relationships

In Learning That Transfers, Julie Stern and her co-authors explain that the process of “connecting concepts in relationships” (15) is what allows students to put those concepts to use in sophisticated and diverse ways. When a concept like ethos or pathos is taught in isolation, students develop a surface-level understanding that enables them to identify examples of the concept, but not necessarily to analyze and apply the concept in new situations. In contrast, an instructional approach that builds conceptual frameworks prepares students to act as creative problem solvers (Chapter One of Learning That Transfer offers a helpful explanation of how this works). I used the stems provided by Stern and her co-authors to create the questions on ethos and pathos that follow:

  • How are ethos and pathos connected?
  • How does ethos affect pathos?
  • What impact does pathos have on a writer’s ethos?
  • How do writers interact with readers?
  • How do writers’ interactions with other writers impact how the audience feels?
  • What role does the writer’s character or “voice” play in shaping the reader’s emotional experience of a text? (adapted from Learning That Transfers, page 15)

A complex emotional tactic like humor, for instance, can do several things at once: bolster the writer’s ethos, break down the audience’s defenses, undermine the opposition, and sustain the audience’s attention. Amusement can also be the gateway emotion that permits the audience to experience other emotions–compassion, regret, resignation, hope–that ultimately impact decision-making. The wry sense of our own limitations that often follows a good joke additionally helps an audience see how claims might be qualified or concessions made.

I happen to enjoy Ehrenreich’s caustic wit. Seligman’s humorless treatment of Ehrenreich, on the the other hand, doesn’t endear him to those readers like me who might feel he takes himself and his philosophy a little too seriously.

Both Seligman and Ehrenreich are big names, with mad credibility in their respective fields. I have colleagues in each writer’s camp. But I know who I’d rather have lunch with…and whose next book I’m more likely to buy.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts. McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Metropolitan Books, 2010.

Elbow, Peter. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1986.

Seligman, Martin E.P. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Free Press, 2012.

Stern, Julie, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. Learning that Transfer: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World. Corwin, 2021.

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