The Usage and Importance of the Three Pillars of Persuasion: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos

Categories: Rhetoric

In “Backpacks Vs. Briefcases,” author Laura Bolin Carroll seeks to help students more effectively understand, and utilize rhetoric, and rhetorical situations, thereby enabling them to become better readers, writers and rhetors. While there are many viable rhetorical strategies for effective communication, Carroll highlights pathos, logos, and ethos, often referred to as the “three pillars of persuasion” (Archuleta). In this excerpt, Carroll explains the importance of one of the pillars, pathos: “few of us are persuaded only with our mind, though. Even if we intellectually agree with something, it is difficult to get us to act unless we are also persuaded in our hearts” (53).

Does this quote imply a hierarchy within rhetoric? Is one appeal better than the others? Can they even act independently of one another or are they so intertwined that one is completely ineffective without the others? In order to explore this, one must first completely understand each “pillar.”

Ethos is the appeal to an audience’s sense of ethics, and credibility.

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Its purpose is to convince the reader of the speaker’s moral code, experience and expertise. Ethos may be conveyed with what the speaker is saying, but is often conveyed with how they say it. For example, if in an oral context, ethos may be identified by body language, the context of the speech, and how confidently they speak; if in a written context, it may be identified by sources cited, experience referenced, or even the typeface and presentation of the text.

Shelby Chaiken is a well-known behavioral psychologist who has done extensive research on what methods of presentation are percieved as the most credible.

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These are scientific studies, but as a rhetorical analyzers, we can borrow her findings to further our understanding of ethos, For example, Chaiken found that in an oral context, personable presenters are seen as more credible, but in a written context, less personable speakers are seen as more credible. Similarly, another Chaiken study found that aesthetically pleasing texts are more effective than aesthetically “messy” texts (Demirdögen, 195). Studies like this are plentiful, and should be utilized, since ineffective ethos is next to (and some would argue, is the same as) no ethos. The reasoning behind the necessity of ethos should be obvious. Ethos is the basis on which writers build more intentional, strategic rhetoric.

Ethos can be manipulated to an extent, but a large part of ethos is gained by the speaker’s title (e.g. Dr. Smith; Jane Doe, M.B.A.; a well known name, such as Oliver Sacks), obvious expertise/experience, sources, and confidence; all of which are not as much strategic as they are inherent to a credible, and/or well-researched person. Because of this social reality, one can think of ethos as less of a rhetorical strategy, but a rhetorical necessity.

Logos is an appeal to an audience’s logic. It usually consists of facts, statistics and statistical interpretations, or past judicial decisions. It is the basis of any persuasive argument, elevates the ethos appeals, and introduces the pathos appeals. In Felicia Walker’s article, “The Rhetoric of Mock Trial Debate,” Walker notes that logos is used heavily throughout the trials, but is used almost exclusively during closing arguments. Mock trial participants are given a mere ten minutes to deliver their summation: only the material of the highest importance makes the cut (keep in mind, mock trials may last for hours, so ten minutes would be a small percentage of a team’s evidence) (2005). This choice to include only the “logic” of the argument speaks directly to how logos functions, namely, as the bones of the argument. Like our skeletal structure, it is a system, somewhat functional within itself; logos addresses issues and presents solutions. Also like our skeleton, it is rendered weak and useless without the rest; one would be hard-pressed to find an argument that moved people to action (assuming that that’s the goal) that utilized exclusively logical thought.

Pathos is an appeal to an audience’s emotions. This is often accomplished through storytelling, personal accounts, or hypothetical situations (for example, a speaker attempting to persuade the audience to vote for naturalizing illegal immigrants might have his/her audience put themselves in the shoes of a non-naturalized single mother). Pathos’ effectiveness is proved consistently, in political campaigning, advertising, social justice documentaries, and the list goes on. In 1994, Michael Frost of Southwestern Law School found that lawyers who utilize pathos are more likely to be successful, and modern lawyers now study over 2,000 Aristotelian rhetorical principles (5).

Award-winning public speaker Andrew Dlugan believes that effective usage of pathos is synonymous with successfully connecting with one’s audience (“18 Paths to Pathos,” 2010). This has merit in that pathos is the blood of the argument; it gives life. Pathos elevates logical thought (logos), and brings people to action, enfleshing what was once merely bones.

Now that the meanings and reasonings of the pillars have been established, we may now explore their individual roles and status.

It is reasonable to say that argument is impossible without ethos. How can a speaker convince anyone if no one listens, or takes the speaker seriously? (Some may say that 2016’s presidential election is an example of a failure of this principle, but it stands nonetheless.) As previously stated, it is less rhetorical strategy than rhetorical necessity. Given the fundamental necessity of ethos, we will consider it to be outside of any possibility of a “hierarchy,” and exclusively focus on logos and pathos.

In order to establish the relative importance of pathos and logos, this question must first be answered: Are humans inherently logical, or emotional creatures? Humans are born with six basic emotions: anger, fear, joy, disgust, sadness, and surprise. The rest are learned through self and social awareness, such as shame or guilt (“What are Emotions,” 2010). Humans are not born with critical thinking. Critical thinking (and logic) emerge as we observe repeated associations between sensory data (for example, an infant will learn that the warmth of being held means security) (“Innate Sense of Critical Thinking,” 2010). In other words, humans are born emotional, not critical. This hypothesis holds true in groups of people affected by strong emotion-based arguments, which leads to “mob mentality,” a phenonemon of pathos on a “large and dangerous scale” (“Ethos Logos Pathos”).

While arguments that are largely based in pathos flourish in group environments, they tend to fail on individual scale, where one is removed from the effects of peer pressure. For example, a YouTube video of a “social experiment” recently went viral. In said experiment, Joey Salads, a caucasian man went to predominantly Caucasian neighborhood carrying a “Black Lives Matter” sign, and a predominantly African-American neighborhood carrying an “All Lives Matter” and recorded the difference betweens the reactions (“Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter”). The results are irrelevant, because Salads was dismissed consistently for lack of facts (logos). His viewing audience has no knowledge about the context of the neighborhoods or cities he visited, the percentage of reactions were edited out of the final posted video, or how he chose his destinations. This video is purely reaction (pathos) and no facts (logos). Even his ethos is only derived from his internet presence. If these scenes had occurred in front of crowds, then perhaps it would have been received well. However, since the majority of Salads’ audience is experiencing the argument alone, on their phones, or laptops, he received mostly backlash. This demonstrates that when one is removed from social pressures, one is more critical of emotional arguments, which leads to the downfall of the speaker’s argument.

In essence, humans are born emotional, and thus we will often act instinctively, but arguments ultimately fail without logic. Together, ethos, logos, and pathos make a functional argument “body;” with logos in one’s bones, pathos in one’s blood, and ethos on which to stand, one’s argument cannot fail. Unless, of course, one exclusively utilizes fear tactics and is also void of ethos and is also Donald Trump.

Works Cited

Archuleta, Nadia. “The Three Pillars of Persuasion: Ethos, Logos, Pathos.” LetterPile. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Oct. 2016.

“Are We Are Born with Some Innate Sense of Critical Thinking or Is This Simply the Product of an Education?” Logic. Philosophy Stack Exchange, n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter Supporters (Social Experiment). Perf. Joey Salads. YouTube. N.p., 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Carroll Bolin, Laura. “Backpacks vs. Briefcases.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing. Vol. 1. N.p.: Parlor, 2010. 45-58. Print.

Chaiken, S. & Eagly, A. H. (1976). “Communication modality as a determinant of message comprehensibility”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, pp. 605- 614.

Clark, Josh. “What Are Emotions.” HowStuffWorks., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Demirdögen, Ülkü. “The Roots of Research in (political) Persuasion: Ethos, Pathos, Logos and the Yale Studies of Persuasive Communications.” International Journal of Social Inquiry 3.1 (2010): 189-201. Social Inquiry. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Dlugan, Andrew. “18 Paths to Pathos: How to Connect with Your Audience.”Six Minutes RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

“Ethos Logos Pathos: Successful Arguments the Aristotle Way.” Ethos Logos Pathos Ethos  Logos Pathos Successful Arguments the Aristotle Way Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Frost, Michael. “Ethos, Pathos, And Legal Audience.” Dickinson Law Review95.3 (1994): n. pag. Social Science Research Network. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Walker, Felicia R. “THE RHETORIC OF MOCK TRIAL DEBATE: USING LOGOS, PATHOS AND ETHOS IN UNDERGRADUATE COMPETITION.” College Student Journal 39.2 (2005): 277-87. OhioLINK. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.

Writing Process Description

In order to generate this paper, I first wanted to see what other scholars were saying about rhetorical hierarchy, or rhetorical roles. I did a few quick google searches to find the majority of my sources, which quickly yielded content. I organized these thoughts into a basic outline. I also considered my personal experience with arguments that feel “incomplete.”

My frustration with those kinds of arguments was the exigence for this essay. I believe that speakers owe it to their audience to produce complete thoughts, and I believe audiences should have a more critical eye when evaluating speakers. My hope in this paper is that at least a few listeners will do just that.

My audience is upper level high school students, probably AP students. In AP classes, especially AP English classes, we are taught to heavily use rhetoric without really understanding how it works or where to use it, and I believe this paper would help rectify that. I don’t believe students would be resistant to this text at all, except for the fact that I call them to a higher usage of  intentional rhetoric, which may require more mental stamina than they are currently using.

Aristotle is obviously the ultimate expert, but today’s expert, especially in how the human mind responds to rhetoric, would be Shelby Chaiken, as she was cited several times in a variety of my readings. Additionally, I obviously think that this year’s election has a severe lack of well-built rhetoric, and a severe lack high expectations, we seem to have settled for poor leaders and poor speakers, bent on fear tactics and war-mongering. This period has a huge effect on this conversation.

I want my audience to think I am well-read, and knowledgeable. To do this, I make sure I am grammatically correct, and have a good understanding of my topic. This will help my cause because without this, I will have no ethos (I have no name recognition).

My ideal publication would be the Journal of Effective Teaching. It is a peer-reviewed, electronic journal for teachers who want to be the best they can be.

I write in extended periods without getting up, typically in the library. I first began with research, and then outlining, and then generation. As I went, I edited, but no large changes occurred. I had several classmates edit for me, but they had no suggestions. I also had my parents edit for me, which mostly yielded changes in sentence structure and word choice. I edit my own work by reading it out loud to see if it flows, and by reading it sentence by sentence, starting at the end to look for grammar mistakes.

Cite this page

The Usage and Importance of the Three Pillars of Persuasion: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved from

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