The Fables of Aesop is out now!


 In this article Joshua continues his study of rhetoric with the second of the three modes of persuasion: pathos. You can read his essay on ethos here.

 We have been looking at how the three modes of persuasion are the basis for all human choice and how these three concepts function to influence us, or persuade us, to do/not do certain actions. We saw how a thing’s character, its ethos, is one of the main things that we look for when making decisions. Another powerful reason why we are persuaded to do or not do various things comes back to our emotions, or pathos.

Pathos is probably the easiest of the three modes of persuasion to begin to understand and identify as we are all emotional creatures, and it’s easy to see how our emotions play a vital role in our daily experiences. Without listing all the emotions that exist, I am talking about the obvious feelings like sadness, joy, rage, guilt, etc. Sometimes it can be tricky to distinguish between ethos and pathos, and we might confuse the two, because a thing’s ethos can trigger a particular emotion in us, and the connection between the two seems indistinguishable. For example, if you spend a long period of time in the aforementioned room (see previous article) that has an oppressive ethos, you might eventually find yourself feeling oppressed. This is what I meant when I said that, although we can talk about the three modes separately, they always function together synergistically. A thing’s ethos will inevitably evoke pathos from us, and there is usually a clear connection between the two (but not always!), so listening to music with a sad ethos will make you feel a corresponding sad emotion. Interestingly, we find that there is generally a connection between the ethos (or genre) of music that people listen to and the pathos that they enjoy experiencing. This is why we might have a “pump-up” playlist with songs that have a happy, upbeat ethos, and a “rainy day” playlist with a downtempo, sadder ethos. We either like to match our music to our mood or use our music to change our mood—but the relationship is one between ethos and pathos. The ethos you surround yourself with will always impact your emotions in some way—music is just one of the many ways we are influenced by pathos. 

 It’s worth noting that we moderns have a strange relationship with emotions. On the one hand, we all have them and experience them in varying ways every single day. On the other hand, we also live in a culture that has perfected the art of visually manipulating people’s emotions (advertisements, social media, mainstream media, art/film) and so we are very suspicious of pathos because we are wary of our emotions being toyed with. Over-sentimentalism has also made us suspicious of emotions, and many people end up seeing pathos and logos as being opposed to one another (the head vs the heart)—as if one were necessary and the other extraneous. We think that the cold, stoic rationality of science is more trustworthy (or subject to falsehood and deception) than emotion, and so we are quick to mistrust anything emotive. Except when we don’t want to. A careful examination of anyone’s life will reveal that many of our choices ultimately come back to some root desire that is the motivation for our choice. The persuasive power of desire cannot be understated. If you are honest with yourself, you will find that at the root of many of your choices is the vague yet convincing reason, “because I felt like it.”  

 Humans are made to live in harmony with their various parts. When logic supersedes pathos, there will be problems; when pathos supersedes logic, there will also be problems. Balance, wisdom, and propriety are necessary to know which is needed in particular circumstances. Various movies and shows have imaginatively explored what kind of character you get when you divorce pathos from humans (think Spock and Data from Star Trek or Agent Smith from The Matrix), and history is full of examples of what happens when either one or the other gets out of control (genocides can be carried out quite logically and rationally!). The danger comes when you elevate either pathos or logos as the ultimate good to always follow. Sometimes the head should listen to the heart, and sometimes the heart should listen to the head.  

 We can understand emotions as particularly important in the realm of empathy—the ability to imaginatively feel and experience what it is like to be in another person’s place. The ability to empathize with another person who is different from you is a prerequisite to being able to truly love. A person with no emotion cannot truly comfort another who is suffering, for they cannot enter into that person’s suffering and be present in it with them. A purely logical, rational being is more like a spirit than a human, and it is also probably worth noting that an inability to feel appropriate human emotions is one of the signs of serious mental psychopathy. While emotions are tricky, confusing, (sometimes) dangerous, and powerful, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater and try to purge all pathos from ourselves. Rather, we must harmonize these sweet and terrible noises together to create a symphony. Or, like Plato’s chariot driver, gain control of the wild horse that is our emotions so that we can reign them in and have them serve us—and not the other way around. 

 There are as many human emotions as there are human experiences, but some of the words we use to describe them are more general than others. Happiness, bliss, ecstasy, and joy might all be generally positive emotions, but there are subtle differences between the emotions that each of these words communicate. Don’t get caught up by the big, obvious emotions that come to mind right off the bat. Remember that things like disgust, pity, lust, remorse, and apathy (paradoxically, without emotion!) are not as immediately obvious emotions, but closer inspection reveals these to be powerful drivers of human action and choice. Emotions might seem pretty straightforward at first, but the more you explore them the more you can see layers of diverse strata buried beneath the surface. 

 Next time: Logos! 



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