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Pathos Example Essay Definition

"Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it."
– Vincent Van Gogh

Remember those after-school specials that aired on TV when you were a kid? They always had some obvious moral (like "don't drink and drive"). And they were often really emotionally driven.

At the end of the show, the camera would pan out, showing the protagonist alone and suffering for the poor decisions that he or she had made. When you were a child, that sort of heavy-handed emotionalism was effective in getting a point across. Now that you're an adult, it becomes easier to feel frustrated, and even manipulated, by an overload of emotion. Emotion, or "pathos," is a rhetorical device that can be used in an argument to draw the audience in and to help it connect with the argument. Relying too much on pathos, though, can make your writing sound like an after-school special.

Pathos works in conjunction with logos (logic) and ethos (credibility) to help form a solid argument. However, not every argument employs all three rhetorical devices. Each writer must choose which combination of rhetorical devices will work well for his or her writing and will suit the chosen topic. Used correctly, pathos can make a bland argument come alive for the audience. Pathos offers a way for the audience to relate to the subject through commonly held emotions. However, it is important to determine when pathos will be useful and when it will only serve to muddy the argumentative waters.

Take, for instance, a student who is writing an essay on human trafficking. Human trafficking—abducting or entrapping people (usually women and children) and subjecting them to horrific working situations—should be a subject that is already fraught with emotion. However, once the student starts working on the paper, he notices that he has a collection of facts and figures from which the audience will easily be able to disconnect. What the needs is to make the topic come alive for the reader. He needs to make the reader feel sympathy and horror. Then he comes upon a first-person account of a teenager who was trafficked into the United States. By incorporating her account into his essay (with proper citation, of course), he allows the reader to experience the teenager's disbelief and fear. And by experiencing this emotion, the reader begins to develop his or her own emotional response: sympathy, horror, and anger. The student has helped the reader connect to his argument through the effective use of pathos.

Here's another example of a new media text that employs pathos to elicit sympathy from its audience:

Pathos becomes a liability in an argument when it is inappropriate for the subject matter or genre of writing being used. For instance, if you are writing a letter to Publix supermarket to express your displeasure with its corporate response to migrant farmers' call for a living wage, then a narrative encouraging sympathy for the plight of the migrant worker might not be as effective as a straightforward statement of purpose: if Publix doesn't change its policies, you will take your business to a supermarket that is more interested in supporting social justice.

An audience can also find an overload of pathos to be off-putting. For instance, after September 11, 2001, the majority of people in the United States experienced an overwhelming sense of anger and fear. However, when references to 9/11 were used extensively in some of the 2004 presidential campaigns, many people were outraged. Why? Because they felt as though their intense feelings about the tragedy of 9/11 were being exploited and cheapened by the candidates, and they were intentionally being made to feel fearful. They felt as though their emotions were being manipulated to obtain votes. In this case, an overload of pathos backfired on the candidates.

Understanding pathos is important for readers and for writers. As a reader, you want to be in tune with the author's use of pathos, consciously evaluating the emotions the author tries to elicit. Then you can make informed decisions about the author's motives and writing methods. As a writer, you want to be aware of proper uses of pathos, paying close attention to both your subject matter and your audience. There is no need to sound like an after-school special, unless, of course, you are writing for one.

It's probably clear by now what pathos does: it evokes an emotional response from a reader by appealing to empathy, fear, humor, or some other emotion. Now let's look at a few examples of pathos that you may find in written, spoken, or visual texts:

  • Anecdotes or other narratives. When a writer employs a narrative or anecdote, he or she is usually attempting to connect with the reader emotionally. For example, beginning an essay about human trafficking by relaying the personal story of a victim captures the attention of the audience because it humanizes the problem and draws on readers' empathy.

  • Images or other forms of media. When a writer uses images, songs, and other types of nontextual media, he or she is often attempting to engage a reader's emotions. Songs and pictures produce emotional responses. For example, Toby Keith's post-9/11 anthem, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," seems to embody the nation's anger after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While you may not agree with the song's sense of justice, the lyrics recall a painful time in our nation's history. For many, that recollection prompts an emotional response.
  • Direct quotations. Though quotations are used for a myriad of reasons, direct quoting from an individual who has been personally affected by an issue is usually an appeal to the emotions of a reader. For example, if I were writing an essay about breast cancer and I quoted a cancer patient, that quotation would be an attempt to humanize the topic and appeal to the sympathy of my readers.

  • Humor. When a writer uses humor in order to illustrate a point, he or she is employing pathos. Though there is logic to satirical humor (as used on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report), the main appeal of such television shows is that they make viewers laugh.

See also:

Fallacious Pathos

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are modes of persuasion used to convince audiences.  They are also referred to as the three artistic proofs (Aristotle coined the terms), and are all represented by Greek words. 

Ethos or the ethical appeal, means to convince an audience of the author’s credibility or character.

An author would use ethos to show to his audience that he is a credible source and is worth listening to. Ethos is the Greek word for “character.” The word “ethic” is derived from ethos.

Ethos can be developed by choosing language that is appropriate for the audience and topic (also means choosing proper level of vocabulary), making yourself sound fair or unbiased, introducing your expertise or pedigree, and by using correct grammar and syntax.

Pathos or the emotional appeal, means to persuade an audience by appealing to their emotions.

Authors use pathos to invoke sympathy from an audience; to make the audience feel what what the author wants them to feel. A common use of pathos would be to draw pity from an audience. Another use of pathos would be to inspire anger from an audience; perhaps in order to prompt action. Pathos is the Greek word for both “suffering” and “experience.” The words empathy and pathetic  are derived from pathos.

Pathos can be developed by using meaningful language, emotional tone, emotion evoking examples, stories of emotional events, and implied meanings. 

Logos or the appeal to logic, means to convince an audience by use of logic or reason.

To use logos would be to cite facts and statistics, historical and literal analogies, and citing certain authorities on a subject.Logos is the Greek word for “word,” however the true definition goes beyond that, and can be most closely described as “the word or that by which the inward thought is expressed, Lat. oratio; and,  the inward thought itself, Lat. Ratio. (1) The word “logic” is derived from logos.

Logos can be developed by using advanced, theoretical or abstract language, citing facts (very important), using historical and literal analogies, and by constructing logical arguments.

In order to persuade your audience, proper of Ethos, Pathos and Logos is necessary.

Examples of Ethos, Logos and Pathos:

Example of Ethos: 

"I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future."

Democratic Presidential Candidate Acceptance Speech by Barack Obama. August 28th, 2008.

Example of Pathos:

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed."

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr. August 28th, 1963.

Example of Logos:

"However, although private final demand, output, and employment have indeed been growing for more than a year, the pace of that growth recently appears somewhat less vigorous than we expected. Notably, since stabilizing in mid-2009, real household spending in the United States has grown in the range of 1 to 2 percent at annual rates, a relatively modest pace. Households' caution is understandable. Importantly, the painfully slow recovery in the labor market has restrained growth in labor income, raised uncertainty about job security and prospects, and damped confidence. Also, although consumer credit shows some signs of thawing, responses to our Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices suggest that lending standards to households generally remain tight."

The Economic Outlook and Monetary Policy by Ben Bernanke. August 27th, 2010.