Aristotles Rhetoric, writing an academic paper

Aristotle's Rhetoric

May 22, 2013
The art of presenting an argument has been discussed for thousands of years-probably since people first learned how to speak. From ancient Greek forums to the communication department at your university, people love to debate the methods and importance of verbal communication. And while it's still discussed today, many of the oldest ideas about rhetoric-the art of persuading or informing with words-are still the standard when it comes to good communication.

What is Rhetoric?

For many people rhetoric, if it's a word they know at all, means something like trickery or deception. If a salesman pitches a useless product to you or a friend tells you a sob story so you'll lend him money, that's rhetoric. But in the academic definition rhetoric isn't simply using words to change someone's mind. In fact it's not negative at all-it's simply the art of using words to communicate, whether that be to persuade, motivate, or merely inform.

Aristotle's Rhetoric

One of the oldest and best-known studies of rhetoric comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote The Art of Rhetoric in the 4th century B.C. The book covers a wide range of topics, from the role of rhetoric in judicial proceedings to the use of metaphors, but the most famous sections deals with the art of persuasion. While the entire work is required reading for those interested in the study of rhetoric, the section on modes of persuasion is the one that every student needs to be familiar with.

Why Should You Care About Modes of Persuasion?

Before we start exploring Aristotle's modes of persuasion, it's a good idea to discuss why they're important in the first place. If you're a student sitting down to write an essay or research paper, why should you care about what Aristotle has to say?
The main reason that the idea of rhetorical persuasion is important is that it's at the heart of academic writing. Think about what you're doing when you write a paper about Shakespeare or draw up a lab report for chemistry class: you're making an argument. Maybe you've got a thesis about Hamlet's soliloquies or you want to show that a specific test can be used to determine the concentration of a chemical; whatever you're discussing, chances are that you've gathered evidence and are using your paper to present that evidence to the reader and persuade them that your argument is accurate.
Aristotle's modes of persuasion define the main ways in which we all try to persuade other people to believe what we're saying. Some of them, like logically drawing connections between pieces of evidence, are considered good in academic writing, while others, like appealing to emotion, are frowned upon. When you understand the differences between these modes, you'll understand what makes a good academic paper and what type of writing is best saved for other audiences.

The Modes of Persuasion

Aristotle defines three modes of persuasion, each of which as its own role to play in communication.


The Greek word for character, ethos is defined by Aristotle as the character of the speaker or author. Basically, it's the level of credibility that the speaker bring to the conversation just by virtue of being who they are. In modern rhetoric, the idea of ethos centers of the audience's valuation of the speaker. Based on what they know about him or her, how likely are they to believe what his or she says?
According to Aristotle, the speaker (or writer) builds ethos as they speak, but others believe that everything about that speaker can be used by the audience to evaluate ethos. We hear this all the time in our daily lives: every time an "expert from so-and-so university" speaks on TV or a friend tells you that she heard a rumor "from the source," the speaker is relying on ethos to get you to believe her.
There are three main ways that Aristotle believed that a writer could build ethos.
  1. Practical skills or knowledge (you believe your car mechanic when he tells you something is wrong because he has practical knowledge)
  2. Goodness (you believe your friend when he tells you something because you believe him to be a good person)
  3. Goodwill toward the audience (you believe you doctor because you believe he has your best interests at heart).
Of course, all of those ideas can work in reverse as well. You might decide not to believe your car mechanic because you believe he doesn't have goodwill toward you, i.e., he's trying to cheat you, or you might not believe a friend who reports a rumor because you know he is trying to stir up trouble.
The idea of speaker authority is very important to academic writing. When you write, you position yourself as an authority, meaning you have to convince your audience that your word is believable. In academic work, usually this is done by displaying practical knowledge and expertise. When you do your research, and demonstrate to the audience that you understand the ideas you're discussing, then they're more likely to believe you.
Ethos is also important during the research process. Whenever you cite a book or journal article in a paper, you're using that information as a source of authority, which means you yourself have to evaluate the authority of the work you're presenting. If you cite articles or essays with obviously biased authors or mishandled data, that lack of credibility will transfer to you.


The most important form of persuasion for academic writers is logos, or logical reasoning. When you provide quotes from a text, data from an experiment, or a citation of a journal article, you're presenting evidence; when you are able to logically draw a conclusion from that evidence, then you're using logos to prove your argument.
Unlike ethos, which relies on the character of the author, and pathos, which involves the audience's feelings (more on that below), logos involves only the argument itself. It doesn't matter who you're speaking to or who's reading your work-if you carefully construct a logical argument, then your work will be successful.
Obviously, logos is highly valued in academic work. Of the three modes of persuasion discussed by Aristotle, it's viewed as the most impartial, a trait that's highly valued in research. Theoretically, an argument that relies on logos will be understood by multiple audiences and effective no matter who is presenting it. In academic writing, where the substance of an argument should be the main focus, logos should be the main rhetorical device used.


Last up is pathos, which refers to the audience's experiences or feelings. In rhetoric, pathos means an appeal to the audience's emotions. So, instead of presenting facts or evidence to sway the audience, when you use pathos you try to get an audience to feel a particular way. Then, when they're happy, sad, afraid, or nervous, you can use that emotion to bring them around to your side.
Pathos is incredibly common in all sorts of communication, including advertising and fiction. When a salesperson tries to get you to buy diet pills, they're tapping into your fear of being ugly and ostracized; when a fiction writer describes a beautiful scene, they're trying to create a feeling of happiness and serenity in the audience. These tactics can be very effective.
Aristotle didn't necessary view the use of pathos as bad or wrong-as shown above, it's often a useful rhetorical strategy. But many other philosophers and scholars, particularly those who prize logical arguments, view pathos as the least respectable form of persuasion, and that viewpoint has been carried into modern academia.
While it can be very effective to tug at an audience's heartstrings with a sad story or get them all fired up over an injustice, those techniques are not acceptable in academic writing. If you hand in an English paper that tries to make your audience (i.e., your teacher) feel a certain way instead of presenting facts to support your argument, your paper is probably going to be judged pretty harshly.

Using Rhetoric in Academic Writing

At its core, academic writing is an exercise in persuasion. Particularly if you move forward in academia and start presenting original research, persuading the audience to listen to you and believe in your work is an key part of the job. But even for high school and college students, the papers you write will be persuading your teacher (usually to give you a good grade!).
When working on essays and research papers, it's important to keep all three of Aristotle's modes of persuasion in mind because it's likely that these papers will rely on a mix of all three. Clearly logos should be the foundation for any academic argument, but that doesn't mean you won't sometime rely on ethos or even pathos in your work. The key to any good rhetoric is being able to identify which mode of persuasion will work best and being able to apply that to your own work.
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