Pathos (n.) is from an Ancient Greek word meaning "suffering" that has long been used to relay feelings of sadness or strong emotion. It was adopted into the English language in the 16th century to describe a quality that stirs the emotions, often produced by a real-life tragedy or some moving music or speech.
Pathos became the foundation for many other English words. Take empathy, for example. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel the emotions of others. Pathology is another term derived from pathos. Pathology is the study of disease, something which can surely cause suffering. How about the adjective pathetic? When we ascribe the term pathetic to someone or something, it usually points toward pity.
Since the English language is beautiful and textured, the list of words derived from pathos goes on and on. How about sympathy or sociopath? Two very different words, but each has its base in the Greek term páthos and its original meaning of suffering.
It's worth taking a moment to discuss the word ethos (n.). Ethos and pathos are often linked. In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle cites three modes of persuasion: pathos, ethos, and logos. While pathos appeals to emotion by citing tragedy or sadness, ethos appeals to authority or credibility. For example, a person or organization may have a certain ethos, or distinguishing character. Typically, that ethos is intended to serve as a guiding principle, similar to a mission statement. Logos focuses on facts and reason, as opposed to emotional appeals.
Examples of Pathos
Aristotle was onto something when he categorized pathos as as mode of persuasion. Humans are very emotional beings. This gives pathos a very real existence in our day-to-day lives, be it rhetoric, music or literature.
Pathos in Literature
Literature will often make use of pathos to evoke certain feelings from the reader.
Here are a few examples.
- Given the origin of pathos, it will come as no surprise that Greek literature is steeped in it. Are you familiar with Prometheus? After stealing fire from the gods he was condemned to an eternity in chains while an eagle pecked out his liver, only to have the organ regrow and be pecked out all over again.
- Shakespeare probably had a strong affinity for ancient Greek literature; he was certainly a master of pathos. If Romeo and Juliet doesn't evoke feelings of tragedy, what does? How else would you describe the act of suicide at the thought of a lover dying?
- It would be difficult to discuss pathos without touching upon Pride and Prejudice - a literary masterpiece that's tugged on nearly every woman's heart since its publication. In it, George Wickham employs pathos, as he attempts to smear Mr. Darcy's name and endear himself to Elizabeth.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer uses pathos when we learn that the girl Tom loved treated him "like a dog - like a very dog." His heart is so trampled, he wishes he could die "temporarily." Indeed, pathos leads us straight to the doldrums of Tom's heart.
- Of Mice and Men is another brilliant piece of literature that stirs up feelings based on sadness or tragedy. This is John Steinbeck's tale of two migrant workers who keep resettling across California as they search for job opportunities in the midst of The Great Depression.
- Maya Angelou also evokes feelings of sadness in her piece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This section sums it up very well:
"But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreamshis shadow shouts on a nightmare screamhis wings are clipped and his feet are tiedso he opens up his throat to sing."
Pathos in Rhetoric
Of course, we see pathos in everyday life through rhetoric. Something as simple as a teenager begging for brand-name jeans, so as to not feel tragically left out by her peers, is an example of pathos. People are constantly trying to persuade you of something. What do you suppose is the number one goal of advertising? To persuade you to buy a product or service. And, like family members, advertisers aren't afraid to pull at your heartstrings with elements of pathos.
- A teenager tries to convince his parents to buy him a new car, as the old one continually breaks down, by saying if they cared about their child's safety they'd upgrade him.
- A man at the car dealership implores the salesman to offer the best price on a new car - he needs a car to get to his job so he can support his young family.
- A boyfriend begs his girlfriend to stay with him, claiming "If you really love me, you'll give me time to change my ways."
- A Subaru commercial depicted a teary-eyed parent saying goodbye to their child as they went off to college. Sad times, but they can rest assured that they're sending their child away in a reliable, safe car.
- Charity organizations such as Save the Children and World Vision depict images of starving orphans, living in dire conditions, who need your help with monthly financial support.
- AT&T's It Can Wait ad campaign showed a mother who sent a meaningless text while driving, only to flip over her car with her young child in the backseat.
Pathos in Music
There's a form of expression that can make you dance until your feet ache or cry your eyes out. Music has an ability to touch our lives through a careful correlation between lyrics and instrumentals. Let's take a look at a few popular examples.
- Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" is a powerful composition that stirs up feelings of emotion or pride in the United States. It was particularly poignant during the span of time following the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
- How about Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2U"? If that's not a song about the sadness that comes from missing an ex, what is?
- Adele's pretty good at working pathos, too. Her hit single "Someone Like You" also deals with feelings of sadness and despair. "Nevermind. I'll find someone like you. I wish nothing but the best for you," deals with one of the many stages of a breakup.
- "Say Something" was released by the band A Great Big World (with an assist from Christina Aguilera). It belts out lyrics like, "Say something. I'm giving up on you." Surely, giving up on someone is likely to warm up our tear ducts. The instrumentals are equally tear-jerking.
- Sam Smith is another crooner who can draw a tear or two. His single "Lay Me Down" is literally about being laid to rest next to a dead lover.
- Let's finish with The Beatles. Their hit "Eleanor Rigby" is about a woman who died, but nobody came to her funeral. Without doubt, the vision of an empty church and a corpse is enough to make some folks cry.
The Art of Persuasion
We can thank the Greeks for many elements of the English language. Their influence spans beyond riveting literature and into the spectrum of modern advertising. Human emotion is one of the most poignant elements of our being, and the Greeks kicked it all off with one six-letter word.
The next time you need to move someone out of the realm of indecision, consider what pathos can do for you. Will pathos help you connect with a character, earn that donation, or encourage your children not to text and drive? Give it a try. And, while you do so, you may want to turn up the volume on that Sam Smith tune!