16 The Power of Pathos I
I am dedicating this chapter to my late Aunt Annie. She passed away a couple of months back due to Covid and was a light in the world. She always cheered me and my siblings on in all of life’s endeavors and I will miss her immensely. This chapter and upcoming football season are for her.
Keywords: Emotions, Motivation, Persuasion, Reasoning
To those who are younger,
I am writing you all today while each one of you is experiencing the sunset of your adolescence. Father time has his hands on all of us. Soon, the naïveté that blazes in your hearts will spill over and burn each one of you. However, these burns will scar and serve as constant reminders of the tough experiences that you have faced upon forging individual paths into world of adulthood. I have been no exception to this harsh reality. It hurts. Therefore, I want to impart all that I have learned from my own experiences, mishaps, and hardships. Hopefully you all can glean just one piece of information from my letter that will allow you to avoid a painful situation in the future. Remember, it is not what I say explicitly in this letter, but how you each shape and apply the ideas to your own individual situations to truly see a lifechanging impact.
Regardless, the main reason that has compelled me to publish this letter to you is the pain and unrest that our country has experienced over the past decade. We have seen violence, racism, economic inequality, social injustice, and political division wreak havoc on the unity of our society. We are at an inflexion point. The thought of e pluribus unum is hanging in the balance. As you all have grown up with technology, many of you will know that all these aforementioned issues are exacerbated by the fact that we live in a 24-hour news cycle that takes advantage of addictive outlets like social media. They say that the average adult spends 4 hours a day on their devices. I have attached this letter in order to arm you with the requisite tools to help keep your brain from being carried off in the wind by every gust that blows your way. This will allow you to think clearly and make concise decisions. With this newfound ability, I have hope that the following generations will be able to right the ship and restore prosperity in a fractured society. I hope you enjoy.
Do you think that human beings truly are rational individuals? If you are reading this, there is a high likelihood that you are in fact a human being and not a robot powered by the newest advancements in artificial intelligence. And if you fall into the category of the former rather than the latter, then there is nearly a 100% likelihood that you are not at all a completely rational individual despite how strongly you feel otherwise. Furthermore, no matter how much you try to justify to yourself that you are in fact a completely sensible individual at all times, you are merely opening Pandora’s Box of philosophical and rhetorical problems. However, do not merely take my word for it, I too am the furthest thing from a rational person. Instead allow me to share everything I have learned on pathos, which is the ability to influence someone based on emotions (The Internet Classics Archive | Rhetoric by Aristotle). Pathos was born from the mind of Aristotle (The Internet Classics Archive | Rhetoric by Aristotle). This core tenet of rhetoric has persisted since ancient Greek times and we as a society are still trying our best to understand and harness its power. Whether you like it or not, pathos plays a role in your daily life. I for one have even studied the art of pathos extensively, but still find myself being persuaded under emotional pretenses on a daily basis. There is nothing wrong with this, but an individual who is more aware of these feelings and persuasive techniques can gain more clarity throughout all aspects of life. I will be giving you some of the requisite tools to help understand pathos in the wild and teach you how to unpack these feelings. These lessons will add a greater sense of clarity to your own life. I believe that an individual who can wrestle with their own emotional desires is an individual operating at his or her full potential. Additionally, I will be presenting all of the information that I know on this subject objectively in good faith and to the best of my ability.
When thinking about the rhetorical triangle, all sides are created equally. However, given the unpredictability of humans, I have a personal affinity for studying pathos. There are many times in an argument when all ethical and logical measures are thrown out the window due to the overwhelming presence of emotional ties. The only thing that one can count on is the emotional unpredictability of humankind. If all humans were rational, we would have neither issues nor misunderstandings and our society would be akin to a utopia. Throughout this chapter I will make readers aware of all the ways in which they are easily emotionally persuaded for various gains. Additionally, I will provide them with the requisite tools to craft an effective argument using pathos.
There could perhaps be no better arena than modern politics to watch the erratic nature of humankind unfold. In Szymon Wróbel’s Logos, Ethos, Pathos. Classical Rhetoric Revisited, we see how modern politics has become a space that is completely rhetorical throughout by relying almost entirely on emotional appeals. Specifically, the predominant medium through which modern politics occurs is through speech, and these speeches are primarily concerned with pathos and audience emotions as opposed to anything else (WRÓBEL). To clarify, the focus of the majority of political discourse is on the emotions of the audience and certain groups as opposed to the validity of their arguments (WRÓBEL). In addition, in our recent presidential elections, we tend to see the stronger orator become the victor due to their ability to resonate with the hearts as opposed to the minds of the listeners. In the United States, we know that the two-party system has perpetuated the dangerous phenomenon of identity politics and all of the problems that come with it such as race relations, economic issues, and the general direction of the country. Therefore, people are looking to emotionally align themselves with the issue in question as opposed to think through a logical or ethical lens. Many times, individuals do not feel that differently about an issue at all but having to align with a party will send them to completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Before they can realize it, they are pitted against the opposing side even though the two individuals do not share beliefs that are extremely different. This is because party affiliation trumps all. If a Republican does not side with the party on an issue, they undergo a personal crisis on account of emotion. They simply do not want to let the party down or deviate from party lines because their personal affiliation and emotional connection to the party will override their own abilities to think critically. This is why the art of persuasion in this arena is centered heavily on this singular element of the rhetorical triangle (WRÓBEL). Any attempt to rationalize with the average citizen through logical and ethical means will fall short in the end. This is especially salient when people call pure facts into question by shirking them off as “fake news” or even “alternate facts”. Additionally, while some individuals might say that they will openly listen to the opinions of others, the situation is far more nuanced when we factor in personal biases that play upon these emotions and inevitably cloud logical and ethical thought processes regardless of how pure the listener’s intentions are from the outset of the conversation. Vincent Van Goh once said, “Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it” (“Pathos”). A further interpretation of this quotation would be that one may never be able to kick certain biases based on factors like upbringing or lack of personal experience to promote empathy.
Understanding why pathos is so effective given the irrational nature of humankind also ties in with kairos. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, kairos is the propitious moment for decision or action. In order to use pathos as a tool for a strong argument, one needs to strike while the iron is hot. This power can be wielded for both moral goods and moral evils. I will put the onus on the readers to determine what constitutes a strong example of using pathos for a moral evil. However, one wonderful example of using pathos at the right time in order to achieve a moral good would occur during commercials that strive to raise money for St. Jude or the ASPCA. Seeing young children battle childhood cancer or dogs being neglected will tug at my heart strings for a few minutes. These commercials play on a viewer’s pathos so much that it may take him or her awhile to get the images out of their head. However, during the two to three minutes that the commercial is airing, the rhetorical effectiveness of their claims through pathos has drummed up money out of many viewer’s pockets. While these commercials certainly have tremendous merit and I believe in supporting their causes, the commercials offer a full out assault on the viewer in terms of what constitutes a strong rhetorical argument based on pathos. We can learn from these commercials how those who have power in society use fear in order to exacerbate these emotions and get certain reactions out of the society at large. Unfortunately, much of our news is now heavily based on pathos as opposed to simple streamlined reporting that centers itself around logical and ethical claims. As we move farther into the future, I am not
sure, if we will ever see the kind of integrity in journalism and reporting that previous generations were accustomed to.
Another great field for seeing human psychology and emotion in action is in the stock market. This is because the stock market is far too often guided by emotion. The gyrations in valuations we see over the short term typically have absolutely nothing to do with any fundamentals of the business being traded. Just this past week we are marking one year since the drastic lows of March 2020 when the realities of the coronavirus began to set in. However, there was one man who used pathos to turn $27 million into $2.6 billion (GmbH). For those of us who are not too good at math, he multiplied is initial investment 97 times (GmbH). Bill Ackman, the head of Pershing Square and fairly well-respected individual in the finance world, got on television and told millions of Americans over the news that if they did not pull out of the market that they would lose all of their hard-earned money in investment savings and be in trouble do to deteriorating economic conditions (GmbH). Meanwhile, Ackman was essentially betting against the market using a variety of investment vehicles. Simply put, if the further the stock market crashed, the wealthier he would become. While he sparked fear in the masses to sell via appeals to emotion on the television which sent the equities market into the ground, his team saw mind boggling returns on their own investments due to these snide tactics.
In conclusion, I have shown how omnipresent and ubiquitous pathos is in the world. I hope that you see how humans are irrational and act in their own quirky ways. Through each case study that I have mentioned, such as Wróbel’s work on pathos in politics, pathos in commercials, and pathos in the stock market one can glean extremely valuable lessons. I encourage and urge you all to conduct further Google searches of these cases as well as taking the lessons and applying them beyond the cases we have covered in the chapter. All of this independent research will give you far more in-depth information than I am able to provide and help open your minds to the world around you. Additionally, each person’s individual approach to these issues will further show how humans are in fact irrational actors and that while logic and ethics certainly have a very important place, appeals to emotion via pathos carry a unique power. The future is in your hands. The onus is on you to take the core tenets of what you have learned here today, apply them to the broader issues that you encounter each day, and make a difference in the world. I know you will all be catalysts for good.
Alexander Christopher Murphey
Aristotle. The Internet Classics Archive, On Rhetoric.
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GmbH, finanzen net. “Bill Ackman Turned a $27 Million Bet into $2.6 Billion in a Genius Investment. Here Are 12 of the Best Trades of All Time.” Markets.Businessinsider.Com, https://www.businessinsider.com/best-trades-of-all-time-big-short-soros-ackman-bass-2020-5. Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.
“Pathos.” Writing Commons, https://writingcommons.org/article/pathos/. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
The Rhetorical Triangle: Understanding and Using Logos, Ethos, and Pathos.
What Is Pathos? Definition & Examples (with GIFs!) | Boords. 11 June 2019,
Wróbel, Szymon. “‘Logos, Ethos, Pathos’. Classical Rhetoric Revisited.” Polish Sociological Review, no. 191, Polskie Towarzystwo Socjologiczne (Polish Sociological Association), 2015, pp. 401–21.