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How to Persuade—With Ethos, Pathos, or Logos?

AristotlePersuasion is at the root of most of what we do in the academy. This is most obvious for our research, which is often presented in the form of an argument intended to convince our discipline. Teaching is persuading students to take a topic seriously, to understand its questions and possible answers, and to put in the hard work of learning. Even service is an attempt to convince our colleagues and institutions to do this and not that.

It would behoove us, then, to learn something about persuasion. Let’s take a page from Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.

These three modes of persuasion can be called respectively ethos (ἦθος—disposition or character), pathos (πάθος—emotion or passion), and logos (λόγος—argument or discourse). Aristotle elaborated on his definition of each of these types.

  • Ethos has to do with who you are and how you come across. Aristotle would include both the way in which you speak and your individual character or integrity in this category. As he wrote, “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others.” An example of an ethical appeal: “I’ve served at this university for 28 years”—an appeal from the speaker’s experience.
  • Pathos involves stirring up people’s emotions. It includes appeals to people’s pity, anger, fear, hope, and the like. An example of an emotional appeal: “For-profit colleges are destroying higher education”—as stated here, an appeal to the listener’s fears and values.
  • Logos is the use of argumentation. This category includes arguments, data, statistics, and all types of reasoning. An example of a logical appeal: “Research data demonstrates that students who have attended for-profit colleges have a much higher debt load than students at private or public colleges”—an appeal to statistics.

Which of these three modes of persuasion is most powerful?

Aristotle didn’t think much of the emotional appeal. He wrote, “The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case.” He also spent little time on the ethical appeal. Instead he thought the logical appeal was the most important, because he conceived of rhetoric as related to dialectic. For Aristotle, the syllogism—specifically, the enthymeme–was the most effective form of persuasion.

In this assessment, the modern academy more or less concurs with the ancient Academy. Within this space, logos is given pride of place, with ethos second and pathos third if it would be considered legitimate at all.

Nevertheless, I think ethos is the primary mode of persuasion, and one which we neglect at our peril.

Reflect for a moment on how you have been persuaded. When you were a student, which teacher influenced you the most? Probably the one whose character and interaction with students you found most appealing. Which publications do you trust the most? Probably the ones with the best brand (branding being our impoverished substitute for ethos). Which scholars are the most persuasive? Not simply the ones who make the sharpest arguments, but the ones who have connections to other scholars. With which colleagues do you get the most done? Probably not the ones who come to committee meetings with binders full of statistics, but the ones with whom you are most friendly.

Even in the academy, where logical arguments are and should be privileged, the ethical argument is still the gateway to all other types of persuasion. Concerning argumentation, Aristotle wrote, “Argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct.” We should avoid applying the pessimism in the second half of that sentence to our students or colleagues. Still, the point remains that logical arguments require the audience to have a base of earlier teaching. Without first the appeal from ethos, you’re unlikely to be granted a hearing on logical grounds.

In short, being persuasive is fundamentally a matter of ethics. There is no part of your work as a scholar, teacher, and colleague that is not wrapped up in your character as a person. How you reply to students’ e-mails matters. The courtesy or discourtesy with which you treat your colleagues matters. The professionalism with which you comport yourself matters. How generous or not you are in scholarly debates matters. Whether or not you shoulder your share of the work matters.

These ethical considerations matter, in my opinion, not just because your ethos determines how effective you will be as a scholar, but because how you comport yourself as a scholar affects your ethos–who you are.

Aristotle made this point too. He distinguished between the virtuous rhetorician and the evil sophist, not by how skillful they were at persuasion, but by the moral purposes for which they attempted to persuade. The right use of ethos to persuade is a means to accomplishing our scholarly work. But our scholarly work is worth doing because it is an ethical pursuit.

What are you doing to be persuasive ethically? How are you succeeding? How are you falling short, and what could you do better?

Image from Wikimedia Commons / in the public domain

Updated 8/18/2011 at 1:30 p.m. to reflect correction from commenter chardy61.

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