Ethos in History

After reading Smith’s First Journal and The General History of Virginia, I think John Smith established strong ethos in both texts. However, I think that the ethos John Smith used was only effective during Smith’s century and soon lost credibility after decades of historical study and analysis. John Smith uses ethos to give the appearance of high character, gaining credibility, and enabling him to better relate with the audience in these two accounts. He takes clear advantage of the limited point of view by which the story is written and uses it to warp the details of events into the potentially false account he want readers to believe. Smith uses ethos to trick the common people of the time into accepting his personal account of events in America as the whole truth.

In Smith’s First Journey John Smith records his observations of the geography of the Eastern Shore and surrounding areas as he and his crew first explore the region. He uses ethos in this work to portray a very specific, subjective view of the new land and the people who inhabit it. By describing all resources and waterways himself, with no input from the crew, Smith’s writings are highly biased. This allows Smith to fabricate his observations without bound and make himself appear to be heroic and brave. Smith also uses his own subjective view of events as a self-beneficial use of ethos in The General History of Virginia. Just as he does in Smith’s First Journey, John Smith creates a one sided chronicle of events, however, in this story Smith attempts to gain even more credibility by writing from a third-person view, falsely implying that the viewpoint is objective. He uses this third person view to believably tell self-glorifying stories as if they were recorded fact, boosting his credibility and perceived character.

John Smith’s writings make me question the legitimacy of many other pieces of historic literature. This is especially true for those accounts that are the supporting foundation for common beliefs in history. It seems to me that if these stories by Smith were interpreted as fact for many years, then there is no reason many other personal accounts could not be subjective as well. If many ancient texts were not written by an ethical writer, than the way humans today have pieced together events of the past could be totally incorrect. Many of the world’s beliefs regarding history have shaped current times, and if our history was suddenly changed, then our perception of the present and future could be altered as well. Smith’s use of ethos to create a fabricated work, that ironically causes him to loose credibility, forces me to consider the daunting possibility that some of the history we believe today could be nothing but a made-up story created by a man with an alternate agenda.

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Well it looks like I am the only one who thought John Smith actually DID establish his ethos. I understand the points others make and why they say they discredit him by showing that he was dishonest and was working on his own agenda, but I personally thought that John Smith in fact did a very good job of using ethos to make himself seem credible and of good character to the audience he was appealing to. I think I was the only one who though that for the audience he was after (people who had no way of knowing whether what John Smith was saying was true, with no historical background to go off of), he did a fine job of establishing ethos. To anyone who sits down and reads Smith’s accounts with no knowledge of ethos and no idea that past history has proven many of his claims false, these accounts would actually do what Smith intended for them to; They would cause the reader to think Smith was an honorable, credible man of good character. It is only with our modern knowledge of history and ethos that we are able to see through Smith’s accounts, otherwise, we would be tricked into believing his stories just like anyone else.



2 thoughts on “Ethos in History

  1. I think you brought up a really good point in this blog. We all tend to assume that, because we know that Smith was biased, he failed to establish credibility. However, not knowing any outide information, he actually did make good use of ethos. His “facts” and stories, embellished or not, were very convincing. I think he did establish a sort of false ethos.

  2. Your points are extremely valid. I definitely think that for the particular audience he was writing for, he did establish an ethos. It’s the tricky thing about rhetoric. Depending on who is looking at it and when they are looking at it, the message can change drastically (as well as the ethos, logos, and pathos utilized).

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