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What Is Pathos?

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  • Written By: Dan Harkins
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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    Conjecture Corporation
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The Greek philosophical pantheon, from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle, subscribed to the belief that rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, largely consisted of three types of appeals: logos to logic, ethos to ethics, and pathos to emotion. Though the latter appeal to emotion may contain a logical argument within its shell, it often can be found to be fallacious. Pathos has been used tirelessly throughout history — from advertising to literature — in order to convince an audience to side with an argument, not necessarily because it is right but because it feels like the right thing to do.

No holes can exist in a solid wall of reason with a logical argument, or logos. It is when other components of rhetoric are employed that the subject starts getting murky. Employing ethos will call attention to the integrity of the speaker or writer, showing how an audience can trust that person's judgment. Then pathos, the precursor to words like "pathetic," "empathy" and "pathological," enters into the argument to pull at the audience's heartstrings. Feelings of love, hatred, pride, happiness and envy are key themes of pathos-based writing or speaking.

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Global citizens in 2011 are bombarded with pathos on a daily basis. Instead of calling attention to the logical reasoning behind an argument or the integrity of the person or institution delivering that argument, the emotional appeal will attempt to make the audience feel a certain way in an effort to win new converts. For example, instead of relating the logic of improving third-world conditions or the integrity of the organization trying to improve those conditions, such types of institutions often aim their advertisements at the emotions by portraying underfed children in squalid conditions. An argument against racism could dwell on the logical and ethical reasons to resist this historic menace but also include pathos by including a story about a neighbor or friend who suffered directly from racism.

Within this field of potential fallacies are several sub-categories of pathos. Each sub-category has its own name and emotional tie. They include appeals to envy, fear, hatred, pity and pride — argumentum ad invidiam, metum, odium, misericordiam and superbiam, respectively.

Pathos is closely related to another potentially fallacious appeal called wishful thinking. Involving faith, creative visualization or optimism, this argument assumes that the audience will want a certain belief or outcome to be realized. Again, a logical argument could be wrapped in all of these fallacies and still be true. A fallacy could be concealed within them as well.

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