Tools for Argument: Ethos, Logos and Pathos

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher and rhetorician who lived nearly 2400 years ago, laid the groundwork for modern logic and argument. He divided proofs into two groups: inartistic proofs and artistic proofs. He further divided the artistic proofs into three groups: ethos, logos, and pathos appeals.

Inartistic proofs

"Inartistic" here does not mean "stupid" or "clumsy." It means proofs that were not supplied by the writer's effort—quotations of what others have said. Inartistic proofs include contracts, testimony, witnesses, etc.

Some cultures value inartistic proofs very highly: If I quote Confucius or the Apostle Paul or Ronald Reagan (without inserting any of my own interpretation or commentary) to settle an issue, that's an inartistic proof.

(Interestingly enough, a patchwork quilt paper composed of quotations from half a dozen sources—and its dishonest brother the mosaic plagiarism paper—are examples of inartistic proofs.)

Artistic proofs

The university (and the larger culture) tend to value the artistic proofs more highly because they require critical thinking. It's worth pointing out that few speeches or academic papers are "pure"—most will combine all of the proofs below.

Ethos: Establishing Credibility Nixon ethos attack

Ethos: the source's credibility, the speaker's/author's authority

This Greek word is the source for our English word "ethics," but the concept is much bigger. One of the writer's greatest tasks is to gain the trust of the reader. Whether I want you to vote for my candidate or to believe my theory about verb use, I need to:

A character attack (such as the infamous "Would you buy a used car from this man?" attack on Richard Nixon) is essentially an attack on ethos. The Nixon attack makes no mention of his economic policies, his foreign affairs policies, or even his honesty. It's all built on that snarky picture and a clever tagline.

Logos: Evidence and Critical Thinking

Logos: the logic used to support a claim (induction and deduction); can also be the facts and statistics used to help support the argument.

This was Aristotle's favorite and tends to be the favorite of the university as well.

Logical Fallacies are examples of misuse (or misunderstanding) of a Logos argument:

Mistaking sequence for cause
My child swallowed a dime, then caught measles. Therefore, dime-swallowing is a cause of measles.
Nothing is better than cheesecake. Breadcrumbs are better than nothing. Therefore, breadcrumbs are better than cheesecake.
The Hitler card
Adolf Hitler was in favor of universal health care, so it must be evil.
(By the way, he also was in favor of the Volkswagen automobile.)
Argumentum ad googlum
If I found it with Google, then it must be correct—therefore, aluminum foil beanies really are useful in deflecting the mind-reading rays of space aliens.

Pathos: Appeal to the audience's sympathiesPalin with cross and flag

Pathos: the emotional or motivational appeals; vivid language, emotional language and numerous sensory details.

(Our English word "pathetic" comes from this, but it's not too close to the Greek idea.)

The concept of "Audience Awareness" comes close to this one. Martin Luther King used this appeal all through his famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Near the end he says:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest—quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.

Possible misunderstanding

The Pathos appeal is not a license for the speaker/writer to vomit out his/her own emotions. When Rush Limbaugh is spewing his hatred of Barack Obama by telling lies about Obama's wife, he is not using the pathos appeal—unless you count the fact that many in his audience are also filled with hatred. Those of us who do not hate Obama are not moved by this childish display because our concerns and emotional needs are not being addressed.

If you choose to write a paper filled with uncontrolled emotion, you are not using the pathos appeal; you are simply losing control and having a tantrum.

A route to abuse

YOUR emotions can carry you away from the truth. The Sarah Palin photo is a play on a quotation attributed to Sinclair Lewis:

"When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

Lewis didn't actually say that, though it sounds like something he might have liked. And the original of the Palin photo didn't have the cross—that was photoshopped in. So we can form a few rules:

Kairos: Making the argument at the right time

There is a right time and a right place for most arguments, and the skillful presenter knows how to take advantage of the way the wind is blowing.

In the early 1940s, many in the United States wanted to keep aloof from the wars in Europe and Asia, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt, who had long been suspicious of the Japanese military buildup, found his moment to deliver his famous "Date Which Will Live in Infamy" address, which had the immediate effect of bringing the USA full-force into the War in the Pacific.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.

Revised 1/8/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: