Pathetic Appeals

In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle described ways a rhetor might stir an audience’s feelings, including these two:

Enargeia involves vivid description, a bringing before the eyes or actualization, a way of speaking or writing that makes the lifeless living through metaphor, especially striking or unfamiliar metaphor. One of the most effective means of pathetic appeal, enargeia gives the listener or reader a sense that s/he is there, experiencing what is being described. Moving personal narratives that turn an abstraction into something palpable and present accomplish this. Aristotle didn’t talk about images, obviously, but their ability to show can be extremely powerful. Aristotle focuses in on the power of active metaphors to accomplish this goal. Enargeia often involves personification and/or ethopoeia.

  • Personification (prosopopoeia) involves granting human-like qualities and perhaps voice to something you’re describing that doesn’t really have those qualities: you might suggest that your new iPad is calling to you or winking at you, or you may represent someone who has died as if she were present, etc. (“The ground is thirsty,” “the light dances across the water,” etc.)
  • Ethopoeia (character portrayal) involves vividly depicting someone’s physical characteristics or personality. Sometimes involves exaggerating or mocking negative characteristics, but can also involve impersonating singular but endearing traits.

Using emotionally charged language and delivery—showing signs yourself of the very emotion you hope to arouse in your audience. Actors win awards for their ability to make you feel what their character is feeling by performing it for you. Exclamation points or ellipses can be ways to convey emotion through punctuation. In a verbal address, the rhetor’s voice can demonstrate the emotion s/he hopes to arouse in the audience.

But almost anything can function as a pathetic appeal, via any media, and you’re presented with them all the time. Ambiance is important, too: every context has a kind of mood. The mood of a legal proceeding–say, the impeachment hearings this afternoon–will feel very different than the mood of a romantic dinner or a party. Music can make you feel happy, sad, relaxed, anxious. It can evoke excitement or dread… But back to Aristotle…

Aristotle presents pathetic appeals as a two-step process:

  1. the rhetor offers something to arouse, intensify, or change the audience’s emotion or feelings;
  2. and then those feelings function as a reason for embracing an idea or taking action: If the emotionally charged appeals made by students who survived the Parkland shooting overwhelm me with a mix of compassion, anger, and hope, for example, I might call my congressperson and encourage them to produce some effective gun control legislation.