18 Pathos and Politics

Sandra Wang

Keywords: Emotions, Appeal, Connection, Inspiration, Narration

As you may notice, looking back into the history of humanity, political leaders regardless of whether they are great or not have always been able to stir up the emotions of their audience by bringing up touching stories as well as affecting details into their speech. Through the addition of such emotional pieces, the audience, especially the supporters are usually better connected to the topics or issues as they find those resonate with their own. Such technique is what we call “pathos” in the study of rhetorics. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word Pathos comes from Greek, and it means suffering, experience, or emotions. Indeed, the essential function of the rhetoric technique pathos is to be emotional. No one enjoys a long and tedious speech with only run-on sentences and propaganda at the end of the day. In this chapter, I would like to discuss how the rhetoric technique of pathos is widely applied in political speeches throughout times and its effects on the audience. In specific, I will first introduce the origin and fundamentals of pathos to provide an overall understanding of the term. Then, I will use speeches from political leaders around the world as examples of the application of pathos. Afterward, I will address how pathos helps stir the emotions of the audience and the consequence of it.


The idea of pathos was first brought up by Aristotle as he discussed the methods of persuasion. In the work of On Rhetoric, Aristotle states that,

persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts. This subject shall be treated in detail when we come to speak of the emotions. (Aristotle, On Rhetoric)

The effective way to persuade someone is to make them emotionally resonate with what you are saying. In other words, it is hard for us as the audience to be fully touched or ignited unless we are in the speakers’ shoes emotionally. What does it mean when we put this concept into a political setting. For instance, let’s say that a leader needs his people to support his reform on social justice. They would better attract people’s attention and motivate them to be supportive should they integrate the sufferings of those who experience social injustice. As the description of the sufferings gets more detailed, the audience will be able to connect to the pain and thus become motivated to participate in the reform. The essentials of pathos are to utilize the nature of empathy that we as human beings possess.


Now, let’s look at some real-life examples of pathos in a political setting. I am sure that everyone is familiar with the famous speech, “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. The speech was given to the general public during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the speech, Dr. King delivered the main idea of how African Americans were treated unfairly and facing racism in society by illustrating the cruel reality versus his dream of justice and equality for African Americans. As he was making the speech, not only did his voice and tone affect the audience, but also the dramatic and detailed description illustrated in the speech. In the first half of the speech Dr. King stated that,

one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. (MLK)


Dr. King expressed his anger at how African Americans still suffer from racism and social injustice 100 years later since the Civil War. In addition to his tone, the detailed and intense description of such injustice draws people’s attention to the issue. For instance, adjective phrases such as “crippled by the manacles of segregations,”,“chains of discrimination,” “lonely island of poverty,”,“vast ocean of material prosperity,” “corners of American society,” as well as “in exile in his own land” dramatically depict the dilemma and sufferings of African Americans comparing with White Americans. Both of the words “crippled” and “chains” sound terrifying to people, especially the ones who had no experience with such treatment. The audience could also connect the words to prison, horror, and other dark elements that cause pain and suffering. The usage of such words and phrases in illustrating the experiences of African Americans not only helps the audience understand the issue of racism but also brings emotional appeal to the audience. The audience resonates with the anger of Dr. King and is motivated to fight against racism.


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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Sandra Wang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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