Ethos, Pathos, And Logos
At the very beginning of his great treatise on rhetoric—a work to whose immortal wisdom and constant guidance, all accomplished talkers still return—Aristotle enumerated the three crucial components on which every persuasive speech ought to be built. Combined, they form a sturdy triad of oratorical legs, a base of articulate strength upon which all good speech must stand. In the order of their descending import, a ranking of their superiority from first to last, the components on which the effective and, hopefully, persuasive speaker must lean are ethos, pathos, and logos.
I love muttering to myself the delightful music of these words—germinal not only to the language, but to the very thought of man—almost as much as I enjoy reading them in print. Perhaps, at the conclusion of this entry, you’ll feel much the same. Either way, one borrows them, obligingly, from the vaunted language of the Greeks, that once dominant, now antiquated tongue in which our garrulous Stagirite, our venerable Aristotle, once lectured and wrote. We take from him, from them, these three crisp and elegant words, these tightly-packaged expressions whose meanings are boundless, for which our ponderous English offers little in the way of a satisfactory translation.
Still, we must try our very best to render them intelligible to the learned ineloquence, to the rugged lassitude of our modern American tongue.
Ethos, in a word, relates to one’s character. It takes its meaning from the nature, personality, or disposition of the person upon whom our eye (or, in this case, our ear) is cast. Specifically, it’s an appeal to the character of the speaker, the stage-occupying figure out of whose dancing lips, the sweet words of a musical script flow. The audience before which he stands, upon whose curious heads his persuasive and honeyed droplets of knowledge will soon shower, must believe with absolute confidence in his professional qualification, as well as his personal merit. That by which it must be convinced, of whose falseness or deception, like a child whose intuition is supernaturally keen, it’ll be immediately aware, is his credibility and his character as it pertains to his work.
Without ethos, all else is lost; victory, in this fantastic battle of oratory, simply can’t be regained. The ethos, or the character of the speaker is, after all, “the most effective means of persuasion”, as Aristotle said—a boldly-drawn line from which our own opinion wouldn’t dare swerve. It is the singular tool without which, though doubtless equipped with other sharp rhetorical gadgets by his side, a man striving to persuade others can’t hope to succeed.
The primacy of ethos, then, is unquestioned. It enjoys the dominance of a ranking from which it can’t be moved.
Pathos, second on our list, is the next instrument to be brandished from the rhetorical utility belt. Coming at the heels of ethos, it too can be employed with dexterity, puissance, and tact. It refers not to reason, but to passion, not to character, but to feeling. It is sentimentality, and—so far as it’s measured against the iron weight of reason, or logos, the final, much-celebrated item on our list—it’s always supreme. Whereas the ethos concerns itself with the character of the speaker, the pathos appeals to the emotions of the audience, the crowd by whom the tear-provoking, laugh-inciting, anger-rousing words are to be received.
The human soul is an entity divided; it’s as though a chariot pulled by two horses, one charging to the left, the other mounted to the right. It’s the job of the charioteer, the symbol of the intellect and the ally of truth, the only part of man in whose grasp the reigns of navigation reside, to control and synchronize the vigorous movements of their thrust. This was the allegory put forward by Plato, the great thinker to whom much of Aristotle’s philosophy is owed. The one horse, more intractable than the other, is passion. He’s irrational, sensuous, and prone to an impulsivity at which his tranquil colleague sneers. As such, he’s the side to whom pathos will have far easier access, the part on which, in the deployment of his pathetic words, the successful orator will do well to focus.
It’s a focus by which he’ll richly profit; as the Scottish empiricist, David Hume famously noted, reason is, and always ought to be, “the slave of the passions”. In other words, the left horse, author of so much bucking and kicking, tossing and biting, is the equine tyrant in absolute control. This, in the age of modern psychology, seems to have become a maxim up to which no better proof or argument stands. It is by appealing, if not supplicating to these masterful passions that the audience, in the words of Aristotle, is put “into a certain frame of mind” by which it can then be moved. Of course, this “frame of mine” is one on which the pathetic speaker can then proceed to work, into which he can press his fingers, as though molding a pliant, soft piece of clay.
We’re left finally with logos. Third on our list, it’s the least influential component on which the edifice of persuasive speech is built. While still important, it’s a relatively weaker leg through which that building’s weight is to be borne. The term, since the time of Aristotle, has been adopted and redefined for every convenience of Christological use. It’s unburdened itself of its original Greek meaning to which, in a moment, we’ll try to repair. However, for now, in the pious understanding of the Western mind, it’s connoted with the divinity of God and his only begotten son. It’s the one term by which the startling prologue of John’s concluding gospel is remembered. To the devout Christian, logos is well-neigh synonymous with that sect’s eponymous founding Jew—the carpenter, moonlighting as a messiah, who absorbed our sins and edified our souls.
For Aristotle, and for those centuries of Greek thinkers by whom the founder of the Christian faith was preceded, logos meant something rather different. In a word, it meant “reason”. It was the logic, so to speak, of sound discourse and intelligent thought, of cognizance, sagacity, and wisdom. It was the jewel of the philosopher and the conceit of the sophist, the pride of Plato and the affectation of Protagoras. It was the attainment of which, for differing purposes, all educated men were desirous. And while it was highly valued in those disparate fields, and insatiably chased by the hungry men by which they were tilled, it was not considered especially useful in the cultivation of an audience’s love.
Logos stirred not the audience’s soul. It was provocative of no movement by which an inch of persuasion might be gained. Its chief purpose, rather, was to supplement and strengthen the other two legs on which persuasive speech was to be balanced: ethos and pathos. To the former, it added credibility and to the latter, it transferred force. On its own, however, or placed, errantly, in a position to which all other components would be inferior, it would be dry, pallid, academic, and vacant. It would sound as though an empty statistic on a hollow graph. The audience would fail to succumb to the cold persuasion of such lifeless data. It would reject the barren, nearly automated regurgitation of so many stillborn facts. Character and emotion, ethos and pathos—those were the robes in which nude and colorless data, lifeless and ugly logos, must be dressed. They were the sparks by which those data might be enlivened, by which the audience might be persuaded.
As we enter the most politically-fraught time of the season, a sixty-day period during whose every hour, we’ll be inundated by campaign speech after speech, we might quietly repeat to ourselves these three rhetorical words: ethos, pathos, and logos. We mustn’t forget them, as they’ll be our guidance. We mustn’t neglect them, as they’ll be our loyal friend. They’ll serve as our rubric as we endeavor to assess the relative worth or demerit of every speaker. Those that are most persuasive will be the ones who can employ, in agreeable proportion and with a fidelity to the sequence described above, all three.
Allow us to scrutinize our politics, as seldom we do, with a sensitive, rhetorical, Aristotelian ear.