Heart of Darkness

by

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness: Ethos 1 key example

Definition of Ethos
Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Ethos is an argument that appeals to... read full definition
Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Ethos is... read full definition
Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective... read full definition
Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—Kurtz's Genius:

Long before he reaches the Inner Station, Marlow starts to idolize its chief, Mr. Kurtz, because so many of the other people he meets tell him about Kurtz’s legendary strength, intelligence, and skill at collecting ivory. In a word, the other men build up Kurtz’s ethos. For instance, in Part 1 (a few pages before declaring Kurtz a “universal genius”), the Brickmaker tells Marlow:

[Kurtz] is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want, [...] for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose. [...] So he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.’

To the Brickmaker, Kurtz is not just a model ivory trader and colonial administrator—he also represents the very essence of European civilization. While other white men in Africa have given up on their principles and just devoted themselves to amassing as much wealth and power as they can, Kurtz still seems to believe that he has a moral mission to spread the values of the Enlightenment and civilize the people of Africa. In Part 2, on his way to the Inner Station, Marlow tries to explain why:

The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and—as he was good enough to say himself—his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and by and by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had intrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance. And he had written it, too. I’ve seen it. I’ve read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think.

By this point, in Marlow’s mind, Kurtz’s pan-European heritage sets him up as a representative for the whole continent, and his behavior as a metaphor for colonialism’s highest aspirations. Moreover, his special upbringing and cultural background suggest that he may be the most civilized man in Africa, or maybe even the greatest man alive. Marlow thinks that Kurtz wants to suppress “savage customs”' out of pity and goodwill. He hopes that Kurtz’s benevolence will redeem the brutal violence and exploitation that he has encountered throughout his journey so far by showing that it was all in service of some greater purpose. Just before Marlow finally meets Kurtz in Part 2, the Russian adds another layer of detail to this rosy portrait of him:

‘They don’t want him to go.’ ‘Don’t they?’ I said curiously. He nodded a nod full of mystery and wisdom. ‘I tell you,’ he cried, ‘this man has enlarged my mind.’

The word “they” refers to the Congolese natives, so according to the Russian, even the people Kurtz is conquering seem to want him around. This fits perfectly with Marlow’s fantasy that European colonialism can be an ethical, cooperative project—but it turns out to be a bald-faced lie. Marlow soon learns that Kurtz is no saint, at least not anymore. Instead, he’s an insane brute who gets his hands on ivory through conquest and murder, not civilized trade or diplomacy. Kurtz’s ethos is all a lie—either his noble aspirations were never more than a façade, or the thick Congo jungle turned him into an incomprehensible sadist.

Thus, in Heart of Darkness, Conrad shows how ethos can actually be deeply misleading. Kurtz builds his power, authority, and expertise within a corrupt system, so at the end of the day, he only stands out as exemplary within that system because he’s even more corrupt than everybody else. (Ironically, in this way, he actually does represent the essence of European colonialism.) So, Conrad suggests that before taking appeals to ethos at face value, people must analyze where they come from. As a general rule, Conrad argues, corrupt murderers’ role models tend to be corrupt murderers themselves—and the people with power in modern societies are usually the ones most drawn to power, not the ones who most deserve to wield it.

Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Kurtz's Genius:

Long before he reaches the Inner Station, Marlow starts to idolize its chief, Mr. Kurtz, because so many of the other people he meets tell him about Kurtz’s legendary strength, intelligence, and skill at collecting ivory. In a word, the other men build up Kurtz’s ethos. For instance, in Part 1 (a few pages before declaring Kurtz a “universal genius”), the Brickmaker tells Marlow:

[Kurtz] is an emissary of pity and science and progress, and devil knows what else. We want, [...] for the guidance of the cause intrusted to us by Europe, so to speak, higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose. [...] So he comes here, a special being, as you ought to know.’

To the Brickmaker, Kurtz is not just a model ivory trader and colonial administrator—he also represents the very essence of European civilization. While other white men in Africa have given up on their principles and just devoted themselves to amassing as much wealth and power as they can, Kurtz still seems to believe that he has a moral mission to spread the values of the Enlightenment and civilize the people of Africa. In Part 2, on his way to the Inner Station, Marlow tries to explain why:

The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and—as he was good enough to say himself—his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and by and by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had intrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance. And he had written it, too. I’ve seen it. I’ve read it. It was eloquent, vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think.

By this point, in Marlow’s mind, Kurtz’s pan-European heritage sets him up as a representative for the whole continent, and his behavior as a metaphor for colonialism’s highest aspirations. Moreover, his special upbringing and cultural background suggest that he may be the most civilized man in Africa, or maybe even the greatest man alive. Marlow thinks that Kurtz wants to suppress “savage customs”' out of pity and goodwill. He hopes that Kurtz’s benevolence will redeem the brutal violence and exploitation that he has encountered throughout his journey so far by showing that it was all in service of some greater purpose. Just before Marlow finally meets Kurtz in Part 2, the Russian adds another layer of detail to this rosy portrait of him:

‘They don’t want him to go.’ ‘Don’t they?’ I said curiously. He nodded a nod full of mystery and wisdom. ‘I tell you,’ he cried, ‘this man has enlarged my mind.’

The word “they” refers to the Congolese natives, so according to the Russian, even the people Kurtz is conquering seem to want him around. This fits perfectly with Marlow’s fantasy that European colonialism can be an ethical, cooperative project—but it turns out to be a bald-faced lie. Marlow soon learns that Kurtz is no saint, at least not anymore. Instead, he’s an insane brute who gets his hands on ivory through conquest and murder, not civilized trade or diplomacy. Kurtz’s ethos is all a lie—either his noble aspirations were never more than a façade, or the thick Congo jungle turned him into an incomprehensible sadist.

Thus, in Heart of Darkness, Conrad shows how ethos can actually be deeply misleading. Kurtz builds his power, authority, and expertise within a corrupt system, so at the end of the day, he only stands out as exemplary within that system because he’s even more corrupt than everybody else. (Ironically, in this way, he actually does represent the essence of European colonialism.) So, Conrad suggests that before taking appeals to ethos at face value, people must analyze where they come from. As a general rule, Conrad argues, corrupt murderers’ role models tend to be corrupt murderers themselves—and the people with power in modern societies are usually the ones most drawn to power, not the ones who most deserve to wield it.

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