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Aristotle and the 3 Methods of Persuasion

July 9, 2017

 

It could be argued that the goal of any kind of writing is to effect change upon the reader.

 

The goal of simple, argumentative writing is to persuade the reader that the writer’s ideas are valid, or more valid than someone else's. Aristotle divided persuasion into three categories - Ethos, Pathos, Logos.

 

Ethos

 

Ethos could be called ‘credibility’ or ‘ethical appeal’. Here, the character of the author itself is a persuasive factor: people tend to believe and follow those whom they respect. To be successful at this, the writer has to project the impression to the reader that he or she is someone worth listening to, an authority on the subject of the writing, but also someone who is likeable and worthy of respect. 

 

According to Aristotle, readers are naturally more likely to be persuaded by a person who, we think has personal warmth, is considerate of others, possesses a good mind and solid learning. In modern publishing, though, readers don’t meet writers and hardly ever know anything about them, so ethos has to be signalled in other ways. Sometimes we know something of the character of speakers and writers ahead of time, but normally in texts we hear or read, the way it is written or spoken, its content, convey impressions of the author's character. 

 

We also usually assume that a person selected for a position of responsibility is more credible than someone without that selection. Those are assumptions largely based on emotional expectations or desires and often do not have much basis in reality.

 

Pathos

 

Pathos appeals to the reader's emotions to effect change. Emotion means that we involve what’s been called the ‘limbic system’, that part of a human being’s make up which isn’t entirely rational but rather is instinctive. 

Everything from essays to contemporary advertisements use pathos. Pathos includes appealing to the audience's imagination as well as creating emotional responses, getting the reader to identify with the writer's point of view--to feel what the writer feels. 

 

Narrative or story, which can turn the abstractions of logic into something more palpable, uses pathos as a fundamental, creating an imaginative impact of the message on an audience, and containing much of the power with which the writer's message moves the audience to decision or action.

 

Many have considered pathos the strongest of the three of Aristotle’s categories. Pathos addresses our sense of identity and self interest; it exploits biases, bending readers in the direction of what seems advantageous. Writers can seem more compelling if they belong to groups that readers identify with, or create groups they can belong to; speakers or writers who flatter readers and work to create a positive image in their minds of the audience are often very effective. There are narrative devices that create an identity between the writer and reader so that the speaker can appear to be the audience addressing itself.

 

Arousing the reader's anger creates negative impressions, but handled skilfully can be persuasive. But direct appeals to the reader to feel an emotion are by no means as powerful as creating an emotion with words and images, recreating a scene or event that would in real circumstances arouse a particular emotion. Descriptions of painful or pleasant things work on negative emotions, as does outlining injustice or abuse.

 

Logos

 

Logos means persuading by the use of reasoning, hence ‘logical’. This was Aristotle's favourite - it was after all the form of persuasion used by him to try to persuade us about persuasion - and it breaks down into deductive and inductive reasoning. ‘Logos’, the Greek word for ‘word’, refers to the internal consistency of the message, its clarity, the logic of its reasons, and the effectiveness of its supporting evidence. The impact of logos on an audience is the argument's ‘logical appeal’.

 

Logic relies on definitions, analogies, comparisons, parallel cases. Testimonies or authorities and the views of experts play a part as well as statistics.

 

Given that readers rarely meet writers and that they largely seek out fiction as a source of amusement or emotional experience rather than logical argument, pathos is clearly the tool most used by fiction writers to produce effects upon readers. Hence we see that master authors often attempt to fill their readers with pity for somebody or contempt for some wrong quite early in their tales. In order to convey how to establish at will any desired state of emotion in readers, Aristotle wrote at length about how to create anger and how to create a sense of calm; he wrote about principles of friendship and enmity, and discussed how to create in readers a sense of fear and shame, virtue and vice. He warned, however, that playing on readers' emotions in ways that make them heedless of consequences can corrupt the judgment of both writers and society. 

 

In writing fiction, there is one tool which master authors use more than any other to manipulate emotion, and it seems Aristotle overlooked it. That’s easy to do: it’s a hard thing to see because its nature is to be invisible. 

 

This thing is what the book How Stories Really Work calls a ‘vacuum’. It’s the missing thing, the gap, the hole, the stolen item, the space, the absence of something. It is what attracts us towards characters - creating what Aristotle called ‘pity’ - and it is, in another form, what drives plots forward. It is what hooks us into stories, and what holds our attention to the end. Using the five basic forms of vacuum, master authors create pathos in various ways and manipulate readers’ emotions, or convey arguments whether or not they are logical.

 

That tool is described at length in How Stories Really Work. It’s about as vital to good story-telling as oxygen is to successful breathing.

 

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