Pathos: Understanding Its Definition, Impact & Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is Pathos?
  2. How Pathos impacts rhetoric
  3. Examples of Pathos in literature
  4. Examples of Pathos in speeches
  5. Pathos in advertising
  6. How to use Pathos effectively
  7. Pathos vs. Ethos and Logos

When you read a book, watch a movie, or listen to a speech that tugs at your heartstrings, you're experiencing the power of a concept known as pathos. In a nutshell, it's a communication tool that stirs emotions. But what exactly is it? Let's explore the definition of pathos, understand its impact, and look at examples that bring this concept to life.

What is Pathos?

Pathos, a Greek word meaning 'suffering' or 'experience,' is one of the three modes of persuasion that Aristotle introduced. But before you start thinking this is some ancient, dusty theory — it's not. In fact, the definition of pathos is quite straightforward: it's a method of convincing people with an argument drawn from a passionate or emotional appeal.

Here's a simpler way to understand the definition of pathos: Imagine you're trying to convince your friend to adopt a pet from the shelter. Instead of bombarding them with statistics about pet homelessness, you show them heart-touching pictures of pets waiting for their forever home. You've just used pathos!

Pathos can be a powerful tool when used correctly. It can make your audience feel something, and those emotions can then drive them to think or act a certain way. Whether it's making someone laugh, cry, or feel inspired, pathos can be your secret weapon in communication.

Now, let's dive deeper into how pathos impacts different areas like rhetoric, literature, speeches and even advertising.

How Pathos impacts rhetoric

Ever wondered why some speeches or articles move you while others leave you indifferent? The secret ingredient is often pathos. It's like the seasoning in your favorite dish: not the main ingredient, but the one that gives everything else its flavor.

Pathos in rhetoric aims to stir feelings that will drive the audience to believe or act in a certain way. It's like an emotional shortcut, bypassing the need for long-winded explanations and going straight to the heart of the matter.

Let's say you're trying to convince your community to plant more trees. You could throw around facts and figures about climate change, but what if instead, you painted a picture of a future where kids can't play outside because it's too hot, or where there are no more birds singing in the morning? That's pathos: it's powerful, direct, and can be incredibly effective.

However, pathos isn't about manipulation or deceit. It's about speaking to the heart as well as the mind, and recognizing that sometimes, emotions can be just as persuasive as facts. Remember, the most memorable messages are often the ones that make us feel something.

Examples of Pathos in literature

Now, let's take a quick journey into the world of literature to understand how pathos works its magic. It's like a secret weapon that authors use to pull you into their stories and make you feel for their characters.

First up, we have "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. Remember that moment when Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson in court? The raw emotion in his speech is a prime example of pathos. He doesn't just present the facts; he also appeals to the jury's sense of fairness and compassion.

Next, we have "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank. The mere fact that it's a real-life account of a young girl hiding from the Nazis during World War II makes it a powerful exercise in pathos. You feel her fear, her hope, her despair — and it's all the more impactful because it's real.

Finally, let's look at "1984" by George Orwell. The bleak vision of a dystopian future where individuality is crushed and freedom is only a dream, stirs feelings of dread and unease. That's pathos at work, making you care about a future you'd rather not imagine.

So, the next time you pick up a book or a story, try to spot the pathos. You'll find it's often the moments that pull at your heartstrings, make you laugh, or send chills down your spine. That's the power of pathos in literature: it makes the story come alive in your heart and mind.

Examples of Pathos in speeches

Have you ever listened to a speech that made your heart pound, or your eyes well up with tears? That, my friend, is pathos in action. Let's explore some famous speeches to clarify this.

Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech is a shining example of pathos. King didn't just talk about his dream for racial equality; he made you feel it. He painted a picture of a world where his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." By appealing to our shared dreams and values, he moved a nation.

Next, we turn to Winston Churchill's "We Shall Fight on the Beaches" speech. In the midst of World War II, Churchill used pathos to inspire his people. He didn't sugarcoat the challenges they faced. Instead, he acknowledged the fear and uncertainty, then rallied his audience with a vision of relentless courage and determination.

Finally, let's consider the "Gettysburg Address" by Abraham Lincoln. In just a few minutes, Lincoln honored those who had fallen in the Civil War and challenged the living to ensure their deaths were not in vain. His words stirred deep emotions, reminding his listeners of the high stakes and the importance of their cause.

These speeches are remembered not just for their words, but for the emotions they evoked. That's the power of pathos. It doesn't just communicate ideas—it makes you feel them.

Pathos in Advertising

Have you ever watched a commercial that made you laugh, cry, or even feel a pang in your heart? If you have, then you've experienced the magic of pathos in advertising.

Consider those heartwarming holiday ads. Coca-Cola's "Holidays Are Coming" campaign, for example, creates a sense of joy and anticipation. The twinkling lights, the cheery music, the excited faces — all are designed to stir up warm, fuzzy feelings and associate them with the brand.

Or think about those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials. The sad music, the images of suffering animals — they're designed to pull at your heartstrings and open your wallet for a good cause. This is a clear-cut example of pathos in advertising.

Even humor, like the funny Old Spice commercials, is a form of pathos. By making you laugh, the ad catches your attention and forms a positive connection with the brand.

So, next time an ad makes you feel something, take a moment to appreciate the clever use of pathos at work. It's a powerful tool in the world of advertising, helping to create memorable brands and drive consumer behavior.

How to use Pathos effectively

Using pathos effectively isn't just about stirring up random emotions. It's about connecting with your audience on a deep, human level. Here are a few tips to do it right.

First, understand your audience. What are their hopes, fears, dreams, and concerns? An ad about saving for retirement might use fear or anxiety to connect with an older audience, while a movie trailer might use excitement or anticipation to draw in younger viewers.

Second, choose the right emotion. Not all emotions are created equal, and the wrong one can backfire. For example, a charity ad that makes people feel guilty might drive them away, while one that inspires hope and empathy may encourage donations.

Third, be authentic. People can tell when emotions are forced or fake. True stories, genuine testimonials, and real-life situations can create a stronger emotional connection than over-the-top drama or exaggerated claims.

Finally, balance pathos with logos and ethos. Emotions are powerful, but they need to be grounded in facts (logos) and ethical behavior (ethos). An emotional appeal without substance can come off as manipulative or dishonest.

Remember, the definition of pathos isn't just about making people feel. It's about making them feel something specific, something that moves them to think, act, or change in some way. And when done right, it can be a game-changer in communication, persuasion, and storytelling.

Pathos vs. Ethos and Logos

Now that you understand the definition of pathos and how to use it effectively, let's discuss how it compares to its siblings in the rhetorical family: ethos and logos.

Pathos is all about the emotional connection, remember? It's like the heart of a persuasive argument. It tugs at your feelings, evokes emotional responses, and helps create a bond between the speaker and the audience.

On the other hand, ethos is like the character or the integrity of the argument. It's all about credibility and trust. It's the speaker saying, "Trust me, I know what I'm talking about." A speaker with strong ethos might be a respected expert in their field, or someone with a compelling personal experience.

And then we have logos, the brain of the argument, if you will. It's all about logic and reason. It makes use of facts, statistics, and logical reasoning to prove a point. This is where the cold, hard data comes in.

While each of these elements—pathos, ethos, and logos—have their own strengths, they are most powerful when used together. A well-crafted argument will appeal to the audience's emotions (pathos), establish the speaker's credibility (ethos), and use solid evidence to support its claims (logos).

So, in the grand scheme of things, understanding the definition of pathos is just a part of the bigger picture. It's one tool in your persuasion toolbox, and knowing how to use it in harmony with ethos and logos can make your arguments more persuasive and impactful.

If you're intrigued by the concept of pathos and want to further explore the relationship between emotions and creativity, we highly recommend Jessy Moussallem's workshop, 'Empathy vs Creativity.' In this workshop, Jessy delves into the delicate balance between empathy and creativity, helping you harness the power of emotions to enhance your creative process.