Aristotle's 3 Rhetorical Appeals
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“Rhetoric is the art of discerning, in any given situation, the available means of persuasion.”
— Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book I
When the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) wasn’t studying and writing, he was teaching his students at the Lyceum, the academy he founded in Athens. His experiences as a teacher and lecturer motivated him to think deeply about rhetoric, and to ask the question: how do we best get our ideas across?
Aristotle’s favorite number was three, so he developed a threefold theory of rhetoric. There are three elements in any rhetorical “situation”—the speaker, the audience, and the message. The speaker must find all “available means of persuasion” and use them to convey the message to the audience. Because each situation is different, there is no single strategy that always works. However, Aristotle identifies three (of course!) general strategies of persuasion, or appeals: ethos, pathos, and logos. Let’s examine these appeals one at a time. With any luck, we’ll come out the other side a little smarter and more eloquent.
Ethos is the appeal to the authority of the speaker. Ethos may not be the most important appeal in every speech, but it must always come first. After all, the audience will initially question the credibility of the speaker; all ears in the room begin closed. “Ethos” means “character” in Greek, and it is precisely the character of the speaker that the audience questions. Through ethos, the speaker establishes the authenticity, trustworthiness, and goodness of her character, and displays her grasp of the subject. Once the audience trusts the speaker, their ears open, and the message has a chance to be heard.
“Nor have We been wanting in attention to our British brethren. […] We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.”
—Thomas Jefferson “The United States Declaration of Independence”
In this passage from the Declaration of Independence, notice how Thomas Jefferson discusses the practical measures he and his fellow colonists have already taken toward their cause. By detailing the colonists’ attempts to reason with the British, Jefferson succeeds in making the American side appear credible. That is the goal of ethos.
Pathos is the appeal to the emotions of the audience. Aristotle observed that audiences will change their judgments according to how they feel. Through pathos, the speaker guides her audience into the proper emotional state so that they’ll judge her message favorably. The speaker can reach the hearts of the audience by telling stories, crafting beautiful phrases and metaphors, speaking passionately, and appealing to shared values. “Pathos” is Greek for “suffering,” and, indeed, suffering is the gateway through which the audience must pass in order to relate deeply to the speaker and ultimately accept her message.
“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
—Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address”
Abraham Lincoln concludes the famous “Gettysburg Address” with a stirring example of pathos. Lincoln rallies the nation to end the Civil War, end slavery, and renew the founding vision of American democracy. He achieves this pathos by evoking the tragedy of the dead soldiers, weaving together multiple layers of rhythmic language, and appealing to collective values.
Logos is the appeal to the logic of the message. It is the realm of reason, where truth is pursued with single-minded austerity. Logos provides the speaker a warchest of facts, evidence, proofs, and principles to advance the cause of the message and to shore up its defenses. “Logos” is Greek for “word,” and it is through logos that the speaker finds the words that will divide the true from the false, the necessary from the trivial, the just from the wicked. Logos is the illuminating force in any oration, the language that will leave the audience speechless in absolute assent.
“The stern logic of events, which goes directly to the point, disdaining all concern for the color or features of men, has determined the interests of the country as identical with and inseparable from those of the negro.”
—Frederick Douglass, “Reconstruction”
In his incisive essay “Reconstruction,” Frederick Douglass argues for a clear course of action in rebuilding the United States after the Civil War. As he asserts throughout the essay, the proper plan for the nation is a strong federal government with one consistent set of policies, including full rights for African Americans. By removing the confused clamor of dissenting opinions, Douglass reveals the single correct path. Time has proved him right.
You may have noticed that the examples we looked at didn’t rely on ethos, pathos, or logos alone, but used a combination of the three. In truth, the best speeches and essays employ all three of Aristotle’s appeals extensively and even simultaneously. The three appeals form the foundation of any well-stated argument.
Whether in the crowd or at the podium, it’s key to understand how rhetoric works. As a member of the audience, Aristotle’s theory can help you to see through the tactics the speaker is using. As the speaker, your task is even greater: to find those avenues of ethos, pathos, and logos that will allow your message to be heard.