Logos, pathos, and ethos are three of the most frequently used technical terms in rhetoric (aka the art of persuasion). These are known as the three technical means of persuasion and make up the so-called rhetorical triangle.
The terms logos, pathos, and ethos originate in Greece. More specifically, the original source for our understanding of these terms is Aristotle, one of the most influential (if not the most influential) philosophers of all time (Shields, 2022).
He defined the function of rhetoric as “not so much to persuade, as to find out in each case the existing means of persuasion” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 14).
Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle
In his Rhetoric, Aristotle claims that there are three technical means of persuasion:
“Now the proofs furnished by the speech are of three kinds. The first depends upon the moral character of the speaker, the second upon putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind, the third upon the speech itself, in so far as it proves or seems to prove” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 3).
Each of these corresponds to the three means of persuasion:
- Persuasion through establishing the character of the speaker is ethos.
- Persuasion through putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind is pathos.
- Persuasion through proof or seeming proof is logos.
Logos vs Pathos vs Ethos (Definitions)
Logos is the most complex of the three means of persuasion because the word has been used by different philosophers to mean different but related things.
- Heraclitus of Ephesus used the word logos to refer to something like the message that the world gives us (Graham, 2021). The sophists used the term to refer to discourse in general.
- Pyrrhonist skeptics used the term to refer to dogmatic accounts of debatable matters.
- The Stoics meant by it the generative principle of the universe.
I could list further examples, but for this article, Aristotle’s definition will suffice. Logos, in rhetoric, refers to persuasion through logical argumentation or its simulation (Keith & Lundberg, 2017). As Aristotle writes,
“… persuasion is produced by the speech itself, when we establish the true or apparently true from the means of persuasion applicable to each individual subject.” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 6).
Syllogisms, enthymemes, examples, and other arguments use logos to persuade. Due to the structure of this persuasion tool, it is the only one that can directly argue for the speaker’s point of view.
What Aristotle stresses over and over again is that deceptive or fallacious arguments can have a persuasive effect if the fallacy is concealed well enough.
Persuasion through logos requires only that the hearers think that something has been proven, whether it actually has been is a different matter.
Pathos refers to appeals to the emotions of the audience. Whenever the audience is led to feel a certain way, and that feeling influences their judgment of a speech, the speaker is using pathos.
Aristotle’s underlying assumption is that people’s emotional states influence their evaluations, which is quite reasonable to suppose.
The rhetorical method, therefore, requires one to sway the emotional states of the hearers:
“… for the judgements we deliver are not the same when we are influenced by joy or sorrow, love or hate” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 5).
Ethos refers to persuasion through establishing the authority of the speaker. According to Aristotle, people follow a trustworthy speaker more readily on almost all subjects and completely so if there are no objective criteria to decide the matter.
The orator is using ethos if their speech is delivered in a manner that makes them seem worthy of confidence (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 4).
For example, a speech related to cancer treatments will be far more believable if the speaker establishes themselves as a medical professional. You will be more likely to listen to financial advice from a successful CEO. A speech that begins with “as an X, …” is probably appealing to ethos.
Pros and Cons of Each Mode of Persuasion
While most people view logos as the most respectable means of persuasion and view all forms of pathos with a certain suspicion, each of the three has its advantages and disadvantages.
A skilled orator will use each of these properly to make their speech as persuasive as possible. So let’s see where the strengths and weaknesses of each lie.
Logos Pros and Cons
|Logos Pros||Logos Cons|
|Appeal to rationality: For many people, the apparent rationality of a speech is its most important and persuasive part. Especially in academic settings where the orator cannot make themselves stand out through appeals to ethos and pathos, logos is often the most important part of the rhetorical triangle.||Subjective matters: In certain settings, logos can be far less persuasive than pathos and ethos. This is particularly evident in settings where there are no objective criteria for deciding if the speaker is right or wrong.|
|Counter arguments: Logos is the only mode of persuasion that can directly address objections because the evaluation of opposing views is itself a rational activity.||Fallacious reasoning: Out of the three means of persuasion, logos is the easiest to make mistakes with. While it is highly unlikely for someone to mix up their credentials or appeal to emotions in a way that undermines their speech, it is far more likely to make mistakes in one’s arguments, especially when they concern complex topics.|
Pathos Pros and Cons
|Pathos Pros||Pathos Cons|
|Memorability: Appeals to emotion tend to stick. While you’re unlikely to remember the speaker’s logical reasoning or their credentials perfectly, you probably will remember how the speech made you feel.||Manipulation: The use of pathos can be morally questionable since it can exploit people’s emotional vulnerabilities.|
|Decision-making: appeals to pathos typically affect the actions of the audience more than appeals to ethos or logos.||Inaccuracies: Appeals to emotion often bypass logic and instead call upon heuristics and pre-existing biases to achieve results.|
Ethos Pros and Cons
|Ethos Pros||Ethos Cons|
|Trust: In settings where the audience has little or no knowledge of the topic, the speaker’s appeals to ethos might be the most important means of persuasion. For example, if you know nothing about quantum physics, you may not be able to detect fallacies in arguments about it, and it’s not a subject that’s connected with any strong emotions, so the only thing you may rely on is the speaker’s credibility.||Insincerity: It is easy for the audience to perceive the speaker’s appeals to ethos as inauthentic. While arguments don’t generally arouse suspicion, an appeal to one’s credentials can make the audience distrust you do it unskillfully.|
See Also: The 5 Types of Rhetorical Situations
Aristotle. (1926). Rhetoric. In Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22, translated by J. H. Freese. Harvard University Press. (Original work published ca. 367-322 B.C.E.)
Graham, D. W. (2021). Heraclitus. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/heraclitus/
Keith, W. M., & Lundberg, C. O. (2017). The Essential Guide to Rhetoric. Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Rapp, C. (2022). Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/
Shields, C. (2022). Aristotle. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/aristotle/
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]