Aristotle’s Contributions to Communication Theory

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), was the son of Nichomachus (the physician to the king of Macedonia). He was born in the city of Stagira in the northern Greece. He had initially been exposed to medical training after which in 367 BC enrolled to study philosophy with his teacher, Plato in Athens.
He proved to be a very brilliant student but who constantly disagreed with almost everything his teachers taught. This was fundamentally because Plato always understood the world abstractly but Aristotle was more for a changing world. Aristotle believed in empirical knowledge which involved cataloguing of observable phenomena in explaining everything in nature.

Due to this belief and attitude, he wrote literally about all aspects of nature and human societies including: metaphysics, physics, embryology, ethics, poetry, mathematics, meteorology, physiology, politics, dreams, anatomy, rhetoric and many others (Randall, 1960, p.23).

Aristotle is a great icon when it comes to the aspect of difficult and rational philosophical thinking and especially one that is of abstruse nature. Even among the very well educated and read persons, he remains a legend who wrote with the precision of a superhuman and his thinking was superb with clarity that is quite incredible.

His works however are easily read and the western culture or global modern culture cannot be talked about without an association with this inspiring historical philosopher though he himself never came into terms with almost everybody leave alone Plato, his famous teacher.

More than 2,300 years down the line, Aristotle, who is considered the guru of rhetoric, laid the fundamental foundation of a good rhetoric (many people being addressed by one person) by saying that it should be ethical as well as persuasive.

He defined rhetoric as the faculty that concerns itself with availability of persuasive means as may be observed in any particular case. Aristotle specifically divided public oratories into three categorical classes: the ceremonial, forensic and political oratory (Shields, 1999, p.15).

Oratory in ceremonial situations is used particularly to censure or give some praise to an individual. Political oratory is mainly meant to urge or compel the audience to accept or not to accept something whereas forensic speaking usually defends or attacks a person in a given case and is the most relevant and widely applied in courtroom proceedings. It focuses at establishment of injustices or justice of a specific action.

He believed that rhetoric must possess three proofs which are ethics (ethos), emotion (pathos) and logic (logos). He had observed the audiences being publicly manipulated by skillful speakers of his time who had no regard of the truth in their communication and this didn’t auger well to him and to Plato, his teacher. He therefore saw no apparent need or value of such rhetoric’s and this prompted him to study rhetoric in a deeper and on a different perspective.

Logos is the logic contained in the actual communicated words by the speaker in a speech. The audience and their emotions or feelings in the process of rhetoric is the pathos whereas ethos is the character and disposition of the speaker as revealed by him/her, and perceived by the audience during the process of the communication.

During Aristotle’s days, the pathos idea was a novel one though not many speakers today would communicate without putting their audiences’ auspice into consideration.

Audiences and audience’s perception of a speaker is a very integral part of any communication as was first stipulated by Aristotle. As a matter of fact, the arousal of an audience’s emotions represents effectiveness of a speech. This has severally been employed in many great and historical speeches.

For example, the famous Martin Luther King Junior’s speech in a letter he wrote while in a Birmingham jail incorporated the three necessary ingredients, the ethos, logos and pathos thus making his audience convinced of the truth and importance of his speech (Shenk, 1995, p.56).

According to Aristotle, persuasion is demonstrative in the sense that it is through the character of a speaker that it can be achieved. The audience will always consider the speaker’s credibility from his/her spoken word to be convinced, after apparently discerning some truth from the presented arguments.

Aristotle went beyond the explanation of ethos as merely competence in morality of the speaker to include knowledge and expertise. Although the word ethics, derived from the Greek word ethos (meaning disposition or theory of living), it is the study of morality.

Aristotle gave indubitable remarks that it is not what the audience thinks of the speaker’s character prior to the speech that matters but by the content of the speech.

However, several writers today dispute this and argue that it is the speakers overall history and morality that matters in determining the validity or invalidity of the argument. For example they argue that some ethos can be violated through a number of reasons which include the following (Broadie, 1991, p.68).

Firstly, the speaker may have some motives that may be ulterior or some interests vested in the debates final outcome. The interests may be direct such as in a case where an individual who has been involved in a crime pleads ignorance and innocence of the same.

Secondly, it may be that the speaker’s expertise is doubtable e.g. a doctor’s lecture on architectural designs has less impact than an architecture giving a speech on the same.

Pathos, another mode of persuasion, implies “emotion” or to “suffer” as derived from the Greek word paschein. The audience’s emotions can be appealed to in a number of ways. Particularly, it can be very powerful when passion in general together with some items of emotional arousal is skillfully applied in the speech.

Moreover, it can be through telling stories using some metaphorical connotations as commonly used in non-fictional or fiction materials evoking paramount pity and/or sorrow. Pathos is more psychologically appealing to audiences especially when it results to rejection fear if the audience is in disagreement with the speaker’s arguments.

When pathos is excessively applied, it leads to over-emotionalism. Appealing to the emotional aspect of the audience, one can easily inspire happy, sad or angry reactions as well as patriotism among many others (Whaley, Samter, 2006, p.47).

Logos is defined as the application of logic in the process of making arguments or in other words the reason appealing technique. It is the factual and rational modality upon which the position of the speaker is based and supported. By the use of arguments that are persuasive in nature, persuasion itself can be affected by the very speech when an apparent truth or a truth has been proven in a particular case.

The attorneys will always desire to appeal to the logical sense of the fact finder at one point or another during the process of trial in a case. By use of logos, individuals want to convince an adoption for no other conclusion but theirs alone (Shenk, 1995, p. 104).


Broadie Sarah (1991) Ethics with Aristotle. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp.68.

Randall John (1960) Aristotle. Columbia, Columbia University Press, pp.23, 49.

Shenk Robert (1995) Ethos at Sea. Business Communication Quarterly, Vol.58, pp. 56.