What are ethos, logos, and pathos?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Over 2300 years ago, Aristotle wrote On Rhetoric and gave the basis for persuasive speaking and writing.  His theory became the basis for persuasion and endures to this day. 

Although there is little agreement regarding Aristotle's intention in this work, in general On Rhetoric discusses methods of persuasion, logical and ethical proofs, and the style and arrangement of rhetorical arguments.

Rhetoric in Aristotle’s time was an art form. The ability to speak and persuade a group or even an individual was studied just like any other academic subject.   Aristotle taught that to be able to be able to convince and change someone’s opinion or beliefs necessitates the three pillars of persuasion: Ethos, logos, and pathos.

“Sounds Greek to me,” as Shakespeare wrote. The three appeals in persuasion sound foreign but really in translation are easy to understand.

Ethos

The first facet of the three appeals is ethos.  From that Greek work, we have drawn the work ethics.  The word ethics means having a set of principles by which a person lives.  How does this apply to speaking? 

If the audience does not trust that a speaker is believable, has principles, and is credible, then the audience will not accept what the speaker is saying. The audience must trust the speaker and believe that the person has done his research, not plagiarized his material, and supplied the most pertinent information available. 

Logos

The Greek work logos is the basis for the words logic.  This is the appeal to the intellect or the logical chain of reasoning that explains and supports the claim or thesis of an essay or speech.  Logic is the backbone of persuasion.

Aristotle believed that logos should be the most importatnt of the three persuasive appeals. The speaker must have a clear message supported by evidence: facts, statsitics, and authorities.   

Pathos

This is the persuasive appeal to the emotions of the audience.  The words and evidence that the speaker chooses should have an element that evokes strong feelings: love, sympathy fear, compassion, and anger. 

This is an example of how emotional appeal changes the argument. 

  • The town needs an overpass for the railroad that goes through the middle of the town.  It causes traffic problems. The cost could come from a small sales tax increase.  This is a necessary aspect for the building and improvement of the town.

This is a logical argument and sounds as though it needs to be considered.  Now, add the pathos. 

  • Last month, three teenagers were in a car accident.  One of the teenagers was bleeding badly from a compound fracture to her femur.  The girl was in intense pain and had very low vital signs.  When the ambulance came to the railroad crossing, a train was stopped trying to change tracks.  The ambulance could not get through to get the injured girl to the hospital for thirty minutes.  By the time the train moved to allow the ambulance to go to the hospital, the girl had died. The girl might be alive if the train had not impeded the ambulance. This is why it is so important to build an overhead bridge so this does not happen again.

Emotions make a tremendous difference is persuading the audience to move on a logical argument.

The three persuasive appeals are the most important aspect of persuasion. Ethos, logos, and pathos—hopefully, they do not sound Greek anymore. 

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