Pathos in Rhetoric

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In classical rhetoric, pathos is the means of persuasion that appeals to the emotions of an audience. Adjective: pathetic. Also called pathetic proof and emotional argument.
The most effective way to deliver a pathetic appeal, says W.J. Brandt, is "to lower the level of abstraction of one's discourse. Feeling originates in experience, and the more concrete writing is, the more feeling is implicit in it" (The Rhetoric of Argumentation).

Pathos is one of the three kinds of artistic proof in Aristotle's rhetorical theory.

Etymology: From the Greek, "experience, suffer"

Pronunciation: PAY-thos

Examples and Observations

  • "Of the three appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos, it is the [last] that impels an audience to act. Emotions range from mild to intense; some, such as well-being, are gentle attitudes and outlooks, while others, such as sudden fury, are so intense that they overwhelm rational thought. Images are particularly effective in arousing emotions, whether those images are visual and direct as sensations, or cognitive and indirect as memory or imagination, and part of a rhetor's task is to associate the subject with such images."
    (L. D. Greene, "Pathos." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • "Most twenty-first-century direct mail solicitations for environmental groups invoke the pathetic appeal. The pathos exists in the emotional appeals to the receiver's sense of compassion (for the dying animal species, deforestation, the shrinking of glaciers, and so on)."
    (Stuart C. Brown and L.A. Coutant, "Do the Right Thing." Renewing Rhetoric's Relation to Composition, ed. by Shane Borrowman et al. Routledge, 2009)
  • Cicero on the Power of Pathos
    "[E]veryone must acknowledge that of all the resources of an orator far the greatest is his ability to inflame the minds of his hearers and to turn them in whatever direction the case demands. If the orator lacks that ability, he lacks the one thing most essential."
    (Cicero, Brutus 80.279, 46 B.C.)
  • Quintilian on the Power of Pathos
    "[T]he man who can carry the judge with him, and put him in whatever frame of mind he wishes, whose words move men to tears or anger, has always been a rare creature. Yet this is what dominates the courts, this is the eloquence that reigns supreme. . . . [W]here force has to be brought to bear on the judges' feelings and their minds distracted from the truth, there the orator's true work begins."
    (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, c. 95 A.D.)
  • Augustine on the Power of Pathos
    "Just as the listener is to be delighted if he is to be retained as a listener, so also he is to be persuaded if he is to be moved to act. And just as he is delighted if you speak sweetly, so is he persuaded if he loves what you promise, fears what you threaten, hates what you condemn, embraces what you commend, sorrows at what you maintain to be sorrowful; rejoices when you announce something delightful, takes pity on those whom you place before him in speaking as being pitiful, flees those whom you, moving fear, warn are to be avoided; and is moved by whatever else may be done through grand eloquence toward moving the minds of listeners, not that they may know what is to be done, but that they may do what they already know should be done."
    (Augustine of Hippo, Book Four of On Christian Doctrine, 426)
  • Playing on the Emotions
    "[I]t is perilous to announce to an audience that we are going to play on the emotions. As soon as we appraise an audience of such an intention, we jeopardize, if we do not entirely destroy, the effectiveness of the emotional appeal. It is not so with appeals to the understanding."
    (Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • All About the Children
    - "It has become a verbal tic for politicians to say that everything they do is 'about the children.' This rhetoric of pathos reflects the de-intellectualization of public life—the substitution of sentimentalism for reasoned persuasion. Bill Clinton carried this to comic lengths when, in his first State of the Union address, he noted that 'not a single Russian missile is pointed at the children of America.'
    "Those children-seeking missiles were diabolical."
    (George Will, "Sleepwalking Toward DD-Day." Newsweek, October 1, 2007)
    - "A brilliant young woman I know was asked once to support her argument in favor of social welfare. She named the most powerful source imaginable: the look in a mother's face when she cannot feed her children. Can you look that hungry child in the eyes? See the blood on his feet from working barefoot in the cotton fields. Or do you ask his baby sister with her belly swollen from hunger if she cares about her daddy's work ethics?"
    (Nate Parker as Henry Lowe in The Great Debaters, 2007)
  • Stirred, Not Shaken
    "Hillary Clinton used a moment of brilliantly staged emotion to win the New Hampshire Democratic primary . . .. As she answered questions in a diner on the morning before the election, Mrs. Clinton's voice began to waver and crack when she said: 'It's not easy. . . . This is very personal for me.'
    "Emotions can be an electoral trump card, especially if one can show them as Mrs. Clinton did, without tears. The key is to appear stirred without appearing weak."
    (Christopher Caldwell, "Politics of the Personal." Financial Times, January 12, 2008)
  • Winston Churchill: "Never give in"
    "[T]his is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries, it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished. All this tradition of ours, our songs, our School history, this part of the history of this country, were gone and finished and liquidated. Very different is the mood today. Britain, other nations thought, had drawn a sponge across her slate. But instead, our country stood in the gap. There was no flinching and no thought of giving in; and by what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, though we ourselves never doubted it, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer."
    (Winston Churchill, "To the Boys of Harrow School," October 29, 1941)
  • Artful Persuasion: A Pathetic Parody
    During the 1890s, the following "genuine letter from a homesick schoolboy" was reprinted in several magazines. A century later, British journalist Jeremy Paxman quoted it in his book The English: A Portrait of a People, where he observed that the letter is "so perfect in its depictions of the horrors and so cunning in its attempts to extract sympathy before the appeal for cash that it reads like a parody."
    One suspects that it reads like a parody because that's exactly what it is.
    My Dear Ma—
    I wright to tell you I am very retched and my chilblains is worse again. I have not made any progress and do not think I shall. I am very sorry to be such an expence, but I do not think this schule is any good. One of the fellows has taken the crown of my best hat for a target, he has now borrowed my watch to make a water wheal with the works, but it wont act. Me and him have tried to put the works back, but we think some wheels are missing, as they wont fit. I hope Matilda's cold is better. I am glad she is not at schule I think I have got consumption, the boys at this place are not gentlemanly, but of course you did not know this when you sent me here, I will try not to get bad habits. The trousers have worn out at the knees. I think the tailor must have cheated you, the buttons have come off and they are loose behind. I don't think the food is good, but I should not mind if I was stronger. The piece of meat I send you is off the beef we had on Sunday, but on other days it is more stringy. There are black beadles in the kitchen and sometimes they cook them in the dinner, which cant be wholesome when you are not strong.
    Dear Ma, I hope you and Pa are well and do not mind my being so uncomfortable because I do not think I shall last long. Please send me some more money as io 8d. If you cannot spare it I think I can borrow it of a boy who is going to leave at the half quarter and then he won't ask for it back again, but perhaps you wd. not like to be under an obligation to his parents as they are tradespeople. I think you deal at their shop. I did not mention it or I dare say they wd. have put it down in the bill.
    —Yr. loving but retched son
    (Switchmen's Journal, December 1893; The Traveler's Record, March 1894; The Collector, October 1897)
  • An instructor's first impulse might be to assign this letter as an editing exercise and be done with it. But let's consider some of the richer pedagogical opportunities here.
    For one thing, the letter is a smart example of pathos, one of the three categories of artistic proof discussed in Aristotle's Rhetoric. Likewise, this homesick schoolboy has masterfully executed two of the more popular logical fallacies: ad misericordiam (an argument based on an exaggerated appeal to pity) and the appeal to force (a fallacy that relies on scare tactics to persuade an audience to take a particular course of action). In addition, the letter aptly illustrates the effective use of kairos—a classical term for saying the appropriate thing at the appropriate time.
    Soon I'll be asking my students to update the letter, retaining the same persuasive strategies while freshening the litany of horrors.
    (Grammar & Composition Blog, August 28, 2012)

The Lighter Side of Pathos: Pathetic Appeals in Monty Python

Restaurant Manager: I want to apologize, humbly, deeply, and sincerely about the fork.
Man: Oh please, it's only a tiny bit. . . . I couldn't see it.
Manager: Ah, you're good kind fine people for saying that, but I can see it. To me it's like a mountain, a vast bowl of pus.
Man: It's not as bad as that.
Manager: It gets me here. I can't give you any excuses for it--there are no excuses. I've been meaning to spend more time in the restaurant recently, but I haven't been too well. . . . (emotionally) Things aren't going very well back there. The poor cook's son has been put away again, and poor old Mrs. Dalrymple who does the washing up can hardly move her poor fingers, and then there's Gilberto's war wound--but they're good people, and they're kind people, and together we were beginning to get over this dark patch. . . . There was light at the end of the tunnel. . . . Now, this. Now, this.
Man: Can I get you some water?
Manager (in tears): It's the end of the road!
(Eric Idle and Graham Chapman, episode three of Monty Python's Flying Circus, 1969)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Pathos in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Pathos in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pathos in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).