From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Ethos forms the root of ethikos, meaning "moral, showing moral character". To the Greeks ancient and modern, the meaning is simply "the state of being", the inner source, the soul, the mind, and the original essence, that shapes and forms a person or animal. Late Latin borrowed it as ethicus, the feminine of which (ethica, for "moral philosophy") is the origin of the modern English word ethics.
Character, or ethos, in pictorial narrative
Ethos, or character, also appears in the visual art of famous or mythological ancient Greek events in murals, on pottery, and sculpture, referred to generally as pictorial narrative. Aristotle even praised the ancient Greek painter Polygnotos because his paintings included characterization. The way in which the subject and his actions are portrayed in visual art can convey the subject’s ethical character and through this the work’s overall theme, just as effectively as poetry or drama can. This characterization portrayed men as they ought to be, which is the same as Aristotle’s idea of what ethos or character should be in tragedy. (Stansbury-O’Donnell, 178) Professor Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell states that pictorial narratives often had ethos as its focus, and was therefore concerned with showing the character’s moral choices. (Stansbury-O’Donnell, 175) David Castriota, agreeing with Stansbury-O’Donnell’s statement, says that the main way Aristotle considered poetry and visual arts to be on equal levels was in character representation and its effect on action. However, Castriota also maintains about Aristotle’s opinion that “his interest has to do with the influence that such ethical representation may exert upon the public.” (see media influence) Castriota also explains that according to Aristotle, “The activity of these artists is to be judged worthy and useful above all because exposure of their work is beneficial to the polis.” Accordingly, this was the reason for the representation of character, or ethos, in public paintings and sculptures. In order to portray the character’s choice, the pictorial narrative often shows an earlier scene than when the action was committed. Stansbury-O’Donnell gives an example of this in the form of a picture by the ancient Greek artist Exekia which shows the Greek hero Ajax planting his sword in the ground in preparation to commit suicide, instead of the actual suicide scene. (Stansbury-O’Donnell, 177.) Additionally, Castriota explains that ancient Greek art expresses the idea that character was the major factor influencing the outcome of the Greeks’ conflicts against their enemies. Because of this, “ethos was the essential variable in the equation or analogy between myth and actuality.”