CSULA Department of English | Ethos, Logos, Pathos (by John Edlund)

By Dr. John R. Edlund, Cal Poly Pomona

is an ancient art that has returned to prominence in recent
times. Aristotle defined it as the art of "seeing the
available means of persuasion." Aristotle divides the
means of persuasion into "inartistic" means such as
the evidence of witnesses or written documents, what we might
call "information," and "artistic" means,
which he further subdivides into ethos,
pathos, and logos

Our culture privileges logical argument, but there is an
ethical and pathetic dimension to every piece of writing.

Ethos: The Writer's Character or

The Greek word ethos is related to our
word ethics or ethical, but a more accurate modern translation
might be "image." Aristotle uses ethos to refer to
the speaker's character as it appears to the audience.
Aristotle says that if we believe that a speaker has
"good sense, good moral character, and goodwill," we
are inclined to believe what that speaker says to us. Today we
might add that a speaker should also appear to have the
appropriate expertise or authority to speak knowledgeably
about the subject matter. Ethos is an important factor in
advertising, both for commercial products and in politics. For
example, when an actor in a pain reliever commercial puts on a
doctor's white coat, the advertisers are hoping that wearing
this coat will give the actor the authority to talk
persuasively about medicines. Of course, in this case the
actor's ethos is a deceptive illusion.

In our society sports heroes, popular
actors and actresses, and rock stars are often seen as
authorities on matters completely unrelated to their talents.
This is an instance of the power of image. Can you think of
some examples?

A writer's ethos is created largely by
word choice and style. Student writers often have a problem
with ethos because they are asked to write research papers,
reports, and other types of texts as if they have authority to
speak persuasively, when in fact they are newcomers to the
subject matter and the discourse community. Sometimes students
try to create an academic image for themselves by using a
thesaurus to find difficult and unusual words to sprinkle
throughout their texts. Unfortunately, this sort of effort
usually fails, because it is difficult to use a word correctly
that you have not heard or read in context many times.

Sometimes a writer or speaker will use
what is called an ad hominem argument, an argument "against the man."
In this strategy, you attack the character or personality of
the speaker instead of attacking the substance of his or her
position. This kind of argument is usually considered to be a
logical fallacy, but it can be very effective, and is quite
common in politics.

Logos: Logical Arguments

In our society, logic and rationality are
highly valued and this type of persuasive strategy is usually
privileged over appeals to the character of the speaker or to
the emotions of the audience. However, formal logic and
scientific reasoning are usually not appropriate for general
audiences, so we must rely on a more rhetorical type of

For Aristotle, formal arguments are based
on what he calls syllogisms. This is reasoning that takes the

All men are
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

However, Aristotle notes that in ordinary
speaking and writing we often use what Aristotle calls a
"rhetorical syllogism" or an enthymeme. This is an
argument in which some of the premises remain unstated or are
simply assumed. For example, no one in ordinary life would
think that Socrates could be immortal. We would simple assume
that Socrates could be killed or that he would die of natural
causes after a normal lifespan. Not all assumptions are as
trivial as this one, however.

For example, when Bubonic Plague swept
through Europe and parts of Asia in the 14th century, killing
as much as three quarters of the population in less than 20
years, it was not known how the disease was spread. At one
point, people thought that the plague was spread by cats. If
you assume that cats spread the disease, the obvious solution
to the problem is to eliminate the cats, and so people began
killing cats on sight. However, we now know that the plague is
spread by fleas which live on rats. Because cats kill rats,
killing off the cat population led to an increase in the rat
population, a corresponding increase in plague carrying fleas,
and thus an increase in cases of plague in humans. Killing off
the cats was a logical solution to the problem of plague, but
it was based on a faulty assumption.

Rhetorical arguments are often based on
probabilities rather than certain truth. The people of
medieval Europe really had no way to determine what the real
cause of the plague was, but they felt that they had to do
something about it, and the cat hypothesis seemed probable to
them. Unfortunately, this is true of many of the problems we
face even today--we can not know with absolute certainty what
the real solution is, yet we must act anyway.

Persuasion, to a large extent, involves
convincing people to accept our assumptions as probably true.
Similarly, exposing questionable assumptions in someone else's
argument is an effective means for preparing the audience to
accept your own contrary position.

Pathos: The Emotions of the

Most of us think that we make our
decisions based on rational thought. However, Aristotle points
out that emotions such as anger, pity and fear, and their
opposites, powerfully influence our rational judgments. Due
to this fact, much of our political discourse and much of the
advertising we experience is directed toward moving our

Anger is a very powerful motivating
force. Aristotle points out that if we want to make an
audience angry we need to know three things:

  1. The state of mind of angry people,
  2. Who the people are that this audience usually gets angry at, and
  3. On what grounds this audience gets angry at those people.

The breakup of Yugoslavia into
separate countries provides many examples of the power of this
kind of rhetoric. Yugoslavia was created after the second
world war out of several smaller states, including Croatia,
Serbia, Bosnia-Herzgovenia, and Slovenia. Within each state
there were ethnic and religious minorities with long histories
of conflict. While Yugoslavia was under the control of the
Soviet Union, these conflicts were kept in check by military
force. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, new political
structures were necessary, and political opportunities arose
for the ambitious. The leaders of various factions,
understanding Aristotle's three points very well, began to
mobilize their followers to war by reminding them of their
historical grievances against other groups. Serbian leaders
published photographs of atrocities allegedly committed by
Croatians during WWII, reviving a conflict from 50 years
earlier. Individuals were inspired through this angry rhetoric
to attack, rape, and kill neighbors that had lived near them
all their lives, simply because of their ethnicity or

Many political decisions have an
emotional motivation. For example, when a gunman with an
assault rifle shot up a schoolyard full of children, people
were suddenly interested in banning such weapons. In this case
several emotions are involved, but perhaps the strongest one
is pity for the small children and their families. The logical
arguments for banning or not banning assault rifles had not
changed at all, but people were emotionally engaged with the
issue after this event and wanted to do something.

Many advertisements for consumer goods
aim at making us insecure about our attractiveness or social
acceptability, and then offer a remedy for this feeling in the
form of a product. This is a common strategy for selling
mouthwash, toothpaste, chewing gum, clothing, and even

Appeals to the emotions and passions are
a very effective rhetorical technique, and very common in our
society. You may find it necessary to use them yourself.

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