What Is Pathos? Definition of Pathos With Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 23, 2019 • 3 min read

The power of emotion can be overwhelmingly compelling even when it runs up against our sense of logic or reason. Pathos is a term used to describe an appeal to emotion in persuasive rhetoric or other forms of writing. Understanding what pathos is and how to employ it effectively is an essential tool for any good writer.


What Is Pathos?

Pathos is an appeal made to an audience’s emotions in order to evoke feeling. Pathos is one of the three primary modes of persuasion, along with logos and ethos. Pathos is a also a key component of literature which, like most other forms of art, is designed to inspire emotion from its readers.

What Are the Origins of Pathos?

Pathos is originally a greek word meaning “suffering” or “experience”. The concept of pathos as a mode of persuasion originated with the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his book Rhetoric, Aristotle describes three primary modes of persuasion: pathos, egos and logos. Aristotle writes that pathos is a means of awakening people’s emotions in order to sway their opinion towards that of the speaker.

Plato, Aristotle’s predecessor, took a somewhat skeptical view of pathos. Plato argued that pathos should be used more sparingly than other forms of rhetoric. Plato argued that an emotional appeal could be misused to manipulate audiences and suggested that appeals to logic or character were more beneficial to the public discourse.

How Is Pathos Affected by Ethos and Logos?

When employing pathos as a means of persuasion, it’s important to balance it out with the use of ethos or logos. Arguing based on emotion alone can lead to flawed arguments, also known as logical fallacies. Oftentimes writers can appeal to emotion when the logic of their argument is faulty or they lack credibility or knowledge in the subject they are addressing.

  • Ethos: An ethical appeal is designed to highlight the writer’s knowledge and credibility on a given subject. Ethos builds trust with the audience by emphasizing the writer’s background and experience, as well as their strong moral character.
  • Logos: A logical appeal builds the case for an argument methodically and rationally. Out of the three primary rhetorical techniques, a logical argument depends the least on who the writer is that is making the argument or how the argument is being delivered.

How Is Pathos Used in Building Arguments?

Using pathos is a very common tactic in argument or persuasion. Appealing to emotion can be a very effective means of sharing your frame of mind and persuading your audience to agree with your point of view. Examples of pathos in persuasion or debate include:

  • Opinion pieces. An Op-Ed arguing against military intervention documents the human toll of warfare, appealing to the emotions of the reader to sway their thoughts on the topic..
  • Court rooms. A defense attorney describes her client’s tough upbringing in order to evoke sympathy from a jury.
  • Politics. A politician tells the story of a struggling single parent whose life would be positively impacted by a policy the politician is advocating.

How Pathos Is Used in Writing

Of all the rhetorical techniques highlighted in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, pathos is probably most prevalent in literary writing. Most pieces of writing are designed to evoke emotion regardless of whether they are intended to persuade. Pathos pops up in practically all forms of literature and writing including:

  • Poems: Poems are often abstract and designed to be evocative and inspire emotion. Pathos is a driving force in most popular poetry.
  • Plays: Plays dramatize the lives and emotions of fictional characters. A good play captures pathos in the feelings and struggles of its characters.
  • Memoir: Memoirs often focus on the most emotional and dramatic chapters of their writer’s lives. Pathos is what separates a successful memoir from a dry recounting of the writer’s life and accomplishments.
  • Novels: Most novels are driven by the emotional lives of their characters. Novels depend on pathos to connect readers with the characters and narrative.

Learn more writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.