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Ethos is a Greek word meaning "character" that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. The Greeks also used this word to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer's emotions, behaviors, and even morals. Early Greek stories of Orpheus exhibit this idea in a compelling way. The word's use in rhetoric is closely based on the Greek terminology used by Aristotle in his concept of the three artistic proofs.

Ethos is a Greek word originally meaning "accustomed place" (as in "the habitat of horses"), "custom, habit", equivalent to Latin mores.

Ethos forms the root of ethikos, meaning "moral, showing moral character". Used as a noun in the neuter plural form ta ethika, used for the study of morals, it is the origin of the modern English word ethics.

Ethos can simply mean the disposition, character, or fundamental values particular to a specific person, people, corporation, culture, or movement. The Ethos refers to the spirit which motivates the ideas and customs. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "The general ethos of the people they have to govern determines the behavior of politicians." One historian noted that in the 1920s, "The ethos of the Communist party dominated every aspect of public life in Soviet Russia."

In rhetoric, ethos is one of the three artistic proofs or modes of persuasion (other principles being logos and pathos) discussed by Aristotle in 'Rhetoric' as a component of argument. Speakers must establish ethos from the start. This can involve "moral competence" only; Aristotle however broadens the concept to include expertise and knowledge. Ethos is limited, in his view, by what the speaker says. Others however contend that a speaker's ethos extends to and is shaped by the overall moral character and history of the speaker—that is, what people think of his or her character before the speech is even begun. While its meaning and application within literature might differ over time, the classical interpretation persists.