Logos, Ethos, Pathos: The Three Appeals

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The Three Appeals and Persuasion

For a range of understanding, here are four different links that explain the three pisteis (proofs) or appeals: logosethos, and pathos. Each link provides its own look at all three appeals, and all four links share a fairly common interpretation. Yet even better might be this fifth link, which not only describes the appeals’ interlaced nature but also subtly introduces kairos, the contextual consideration of a message, its timeliness and its setting.

As for my own contribution here, I’ve found that the three appeals, so commonly associated with this thing called rhetoric, are just as commonly misunderstood.

So, to clarify… the three appeals are not something that someone “uses.” Heaven knows how many times I corrected students’ written analyses about some writer “using pathos,” say, to persuade an audience. A writer uses diction and sentence construction and punctuation, and a writer uses a keyboard or a pen, but to say in this way that a writer uses the appeals is incorrect.

(By the way, from now on, for simplicity, I’ll just say rhetor instead of writer / speaker / artist / agent / whatever.)

The appeals are not something used as a carpenter uses a hammer or a saw. Rather, the rhetor constructs the message in whichever way they’ve determined will best suit the audience’s capacity to reason (logos) while simultaneously convincing them that the rhetor is credible and trustworthy (ethos) as well as stimulating those emotions most appropriate to reaching the desired outcome (pathos). At different moments, one of the three appeals is necessarily more focused than the other two. For instance, a wedding toast tends to open and close emotionally, with some more straightforward remarks in between. On the other hand, a wedding also tends to be more emotional, altogether, than an AGM or a city council meeting, where humour and emotion are likely more effective for their scarcity. In any case, the appeals are not tools to be used per se. We might more accurately say of the appeals that they’re present in an audience but stirred or summoned by the rhetor, whose endgame is to persuade.

As I mention simultaneity, I’ll reiterate that the three appeals are continually and forever together at play. All three are all present at once, in proportionately varying degree, and a skilful rhetor will amplify for the audience this one or that as they feel the need. Maintaining a balance of all three during a message is most effective, says Aristotle, else the audience’s response reflects the effect of whichever single appeal was stirred the most; in the final calculation, that may not instil the rhetor’s sought-after outcome, and the attempt to persuade as-intended will have failed.

(One more ‘by the way’… there seem to be two camps on pronunciation of logos, ethos, and pathos – those who use long vowels and those who use short vowels. I learned to use long vowels although the point can seem pedantic, so I tend not to quibble and mention solely for the sake of mentioning.)

A Rhetorical Model of Communication

The Three Appeals and the Triangle Model

I’ve seen elsewhere and find it agreeable here, too, to place one appeal at each tip of the triangle model. At a glance, that appears incongruous to their simultaneous interaction.

So again, to clarify… for starters, simply by their inclusion in the triangle, all three are represented. But furthermore, that each appeal is positioned individually (and, yes, arbitrarily) suggests the prominence in each respect of the one over the two – the credibility of the rhetor (ethos), the passion of the audience (pathos) for the issue in question, and the substance of the actual message (logos) are all significant while each has its own separate influence. Moreover, every person – rhetor and audience members alike – is susceptible at any time to any of the three appeals, so the three descriptions from the previous sentence (speaker’s credibility, audience’s passion, and issue’s substance) should not be considered the only way to locate or describe each appeal.

So while, earlier, I specified that all three are like traits that reside in the audience, now I might revise and suggest that in both audience and rhetor are found human traits, such as trustworthiness and passion, communicated back and forth by such means as are possible – so, speech but also tone, facial expression, body language, posture, demeanour. Let’s presume everyone’s clothed in appropriate attire for the occasion. If we’re inside somewhere, then the room’s décor and furnishings will matter, say, a podium, a lectern, or simply a chair. Lighting and sound, technological equipment (the dreaded Powerpoint slideshow comes to mind), on it goes.

And, of course, how about the message itself, arising from the basic fact that, for some reason, we’re all here to consider some kind of message that’s being delivered? (Let’s now also introduce telos as well as return to considering kairos and now another detail, decorum). As an aside, here’s a detailed study of decorum and morality.

There’s plenty more to read and say about the three appeals, so get started! As I mention, some of the links here present similar information, and I hope they can help piece together something more composite, but don’t spend too much time once you get the gist. Other links here go both wider and deeper into rhetoric, itself, and I encourage you to pursue them.

As I said many, many times to my students, we all think, we all discern, and we all communicate, and that’s the scope of rhetoric. Without a doubt, for its universal application, rhetoric is the most useful topic we can study!

As such, let’s finally consider how each and every person might learn to take ownership of their own voice in order to best control what they intend to convey to others.

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