Aristotle persuades

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Aristotle lived in Athens in the fourth century BC.  No idler, he would spend his mornings speculating and adding to the gross sum of human knowledge in fields as divergent as philosophy, ethics, politics, biology, psychology and astronomy.  And then, in the Agora or assembly place beneath the Acropolis of Athens, he would spend his afternoons teaching people to speak.  He kept this up for 12 years.  His teaching principles were recorded in a book, On Rhetoric, which is available in various English translations.  George A Kennedy’s Oxford University Press edition is recommended.

One of Aristotle’s most useful insights was to grasp a method for framing persuasive arguments.  He made a distinction between ethos, pathos and logos.   What do these terms mean?  Now language is never frozen and the meaning of these words is not fixed.  So – for simplicity’s sake – our definition of these words narrows their wider meaning in order to make them useful for constructing a policy argument.

I take ethos to mean ‘values’.  What values or beliefs underpin your proposal?  What are the principles at stake?  What social norm is operating in this context?  What is the right thing to do?  Values may include appeals to concepts such as rights, responsibilities, ethics, fairness, justice, transparency, accountability, precedents, compassion, efficiency, safety,  a code of conduct and reasonable expectations of government – to name a few.  On the other side of the coin, violating these principles may damage reputation or trust in public authority.  The policy advocate needs to clearly identify what value/s apply in the case being put and state it in their argument.  Values do not exist in a vacuum.  The audience makes its own judgment about whether the advocate and their organisation live by the values espoused and is credible and authentic in communicating them.  It may be necessary for the advocate to argue that where there are competing values at stake, one needs to take precedence over another.

Aristotle saw ethos as the ability of the speaker to earn the audience’s trust.  This was achieved by the iterative process of projecting the speaker’s character and, in turn, adapting to the character of the audience.  In On Rhetoric, Aristotle assesses the character attributes of people at various stages of the lifecycle – the young, the old, those in the prime of life.  About the young, he says: “though they love honour, they love victory more; for youth longs for superiority and victory is a kind of superiority.”

Pathos means ‘emotions’.  Emotions drive actions.  What do people feel about the problem or issue?  What are the deeply held emotions that underlie the need for action?  What is motivating people?   What are peoples’ wants?  Do people feel fear or courage?  Aggression or passivity?  Happiness or misery?  Anger or acceptance?  Anxiety or calmness?  Engagement or disinterest?  Caring or aloofness?  Resolve or apathy?  Surprise or expectation?  Disgust or desire?  Optimism or pessimism?  Confidence or uncertainty?  Bullish or bearish?


In what some scholars call the first studies in psychology, Aristotle paired 14 emotions, by opposites.

Anger / Calmness

Friendliness / Enmity

Fear / Confidence

Shame / Shamelessness

Kindness / Unkindness

Pity / Indignation

Envy / Emulation

Aristotle says that the persuasive speaker awakens or arouses the emotions of the audience.  Power to influence others comes from knowing and identifying the emotions that motivate the collective will to act.  Whether on the share market or in the marketplace for votes, pathos matters a great deal because it drives impulses.  And, as opinion polls attest, sentiment swings from week to week.

Emotions are, of course, malleable and the effective advocate seeks to win over the sentiment of the audience.  Every sales person, every advertising agent sets out to discover the emotional hook that will sway the potential buyer.  The same applies to making a political sale.  As Carl Jung said of Hitler, he magnified the inaudible whisper in the German ear.  Hitler, like other charismatic speakers, was able to manipulate and change the emotional state of his audience.

Pathos, then, refers to arousing the emotional responses to what we encounter in our environment.  We can’t easily stop our emotional responses in the same way that we can’t voluntarily stop our heartbeat or breathing.

Ethos is in a different category.  It is the set of values, beliefs and principles that underpin our moral universe, epitomised by the character traits and words of the speaker.  As such, these values and principles are actively chosen by the speaker/audience and are matters for judgement rather than objective truths that are provable in themselves.  Sometimes, as in the case of the charismatic speaker, the audience readily projects a set of positive values onto the speaker.

Taken together, ethos and pathos are the most powerful rhetorical tools.  As former Prime Minister, Paul Keating observed: “The great changes in civilisation have been wrought by deeply held beliefs and passion rather than by a process of rational deduction.”

Logos is different again in that it obeys the rules of the rational world of argument.

I take logos to mean ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ and ‘proof’.  If a public policy proposal is driven by pathos, based on principles of ethos, the question remains what should be done?  What is the best answer?  What is the solution to the problem?  What are the rational arguments in favour of action or inaction?  What are the costs and benefits or rational gains and losses that may be incurred?  What does the data show?  How do we weigh the evidence?  What does science tell us?  Why is one solution better than another?  What is the fix?  How can the logical objections to the proposed course of action be answered?  What is the proof of the proposition?  What is the probability?

So – taken together – ethos, pathos and logos become the three elements that ‘frame’ an effective argument or case for action.   None of the parts should be omitted.  They don’t need to be given equal time or space in an argument yet they are vital in a Gestalt or holistic way in the making of meaning.

Developing an argument based on these three principles of persuasion can go something like this:

Pathos:  People are moved and motivated by…

Ethos:     We value and believe in…

Logos:     We reason and know that…