John F. Kennedy's Presidency

Start Free Trial

How does John F. Kennedy employ rhetorical elements of ethos and pathos to persuade his audience?

Read the text below from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address:

"We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friends and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage-and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear by burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

 

John F. Kennedy mixes ethos and pathos in the quote you cite in many ways. He uses "ethos" by saying "we" instead of "you" or "I". This makes us seem like we share the same spirit and are united to "assure [...] the success of liberty." As for pathos, we could say that by evoking past wars and "hard and bitter peace," Kennedy makes us feel compassion and gratitude for those who fought for the prosperity that many now have.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Before we can think about how John F. Kennedy's words embrace pathos and ethos, let's be sure we know what pathos and ethos mean.

After looking at multiple dictionaries, we think it's safe to say that "pathos" is a device used to make the audience feel compassion, emotion, or pity.

...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Before we can think about how John F. Kennedy's words embrace pathos and ethos, let's be sure we know what pathos and ethos mean.

After looking at multiple dictionaries, we think it's safe to say that "pathos" is a device used to make the audience feel compassion, emotion, or pity.

As for "ethos," that refers to the spirit, the culture, and the guiding principles of an organization, a group, a person, or a country.

Notice the first word of the lines you quote. What is it? It's "we." Already, Kennedy is summoning a communal spirit. He's not talking about himself, he's not talking about us, he's referring to all of us. We're a unit bound together by the ethos of "the first revolution."

We could say that Kennedy injects some pathos into the ethos when he says:

Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friends and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Kennedy's emphasis on "war" and his vivid reference to "hard and bitter peace" should make the listener feel compassion, sorrow, and thankful for those who fought, died, and suffered for the rights and privileges that a number of Americans now enjoy.

This quote ends with:

[...] we shall pay any price, bear by burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Here, Kennedy seems to pivot back to ethos, creating an us versus them equation. “We,” like those who came before us, are a part of that "ethos"—i.e. culture or spirit—of “liberty.” Like our “heirs,” according to Kennedy, we will use whatever means necessary to "assure" the “success” of that guiding principle.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John F. Kennedy appeals primarily to pathos in his inaugural speech, as quoted here. While the ethical or moralistic qualities of ethos enter as well, they largely serve to support Kennedy's emotional appeal rather than parallel it.

Kennedy effectively uses first-person plural to encourage the listener to identify with him and his message. He never says "I" in this passage, always "we." This is consistent with his earlier address to the listeners as "my fellow Americans." Kennedy implies that we are all in this together, that we share the same goals.

Similarly, the new president puts forward a kinship of age and vitality. He, too, was born in the 20th century, he was a veteran "tempered by war," and was disciplined by "hard and bitter . . . peace." Kennedy implicitly states how he leads by example.

Once the kinship is established, his message from "us" (all Americans) to them (all other nations) can logically follow: "Let the word go forth . . . to friend and foe. . . Let every nation know. . ." Other Americans, like him, share a patriotic duty to act in a unified way to achieve goals that are ours, not his alone.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When a speaker or writer uses pathos, they are appealing  to the emotions of their audience.  They are hoping that, through making the audience feel deeply about what they are speaking about, then the audience will side with them on the issue at hand.  For example, if you are trying to convince your teacher to boost your grade from an A- to an A, and emotional appeal might be, "My grandmother was really sick in the hospital this term, and so I was a bit distracted with that.  I tried my hardest to get my work done, but sometimes it was more important to be with her."  In this example, you are using pathos to pull on the heart strings of your teacher.

In Kennedy's speech, he uses pathos when he speaks of the many trials that their generation has gone through.  He mentions that they were

"born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by hard and bitter peace."

Referring to war brings up all of the deaths that occurred, all of the suffering that they went through.  Referring to how hard it has been to have peace again, and to recover, it appeals to people's difficulties and emotions in regards to overcoming the tragedies of war.  So, he uses pathos, an appeal to the audience's emotions, hoping they will agree with him, commiserate, and be more willing to rally with what he is saying.

Ethos is defined differently, depending on the teacher.  Some teachers define it as how the speaker or writer uses his own reputation as a way to get you to believe what he is saying. I don't see any of that in this excerpt, so we'll go with the other definition, which refers to appealing to a community's sense of pride and uniqueness, in order to elicit a form of patriotism, which helps the audience to stand on your side.  In Kennedy's speech, he mentions that "we are heirs to that first revolution," appealling to Americans' united ancestry of the revolutionary war.  He continues by saying that we are "proud of our ancient heritage," which helps us to feel at one as Americans, wanting to unite together in the cause of "the success of liberty."  So, he appeals to our sense of community, to our uniqueness as Americans, and uses that to convince us that we need to fight for liberty.

I hope that those examples help; good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team