Definition of Logos

In literature and rhetoric, logos is an appeal to logic. It is one of the three modes of persuasion that Aristotle defined in his Ars Poetica. The other two modes of persuasion, as delineated by Aristotle, are pathos (an appeal to the audience’s emotions) and ethos (an appeal to the ethics of the audience). Speakers and authors use logos, which is to say they make arguments based on reason, because it is most difficult to argue against fact. Audience members and readers tend to believe things which seem like they can be backed up with evidence, while may feel suspicious of arguments built on emotion (though these can be quite powerful). Using logos also makes the author or orator sound knowledgeable and thus increases the audience’s trust in that person. However, data can and is frequently manipulated to suit the speaker’s needs, and thus arguments based on logos are not necessarily trustworthy.

The word logos comes from the Greek word lego, which means “I say.” There are many other definitions of logos in many different fields, especially in different religious contexts. Some religions, such as Christianity and Sufism, have concepts of Logos as representing the divine. Some literary theorists have also created a definition of logos in which it refers to the “premise” or the writer or rhetorician. This is very similar to Aristotle’s definition, and relates to the logical foundation that the writer or rhetorician starts from in order to make more arguments based on this common ground.

Common Examples of Logos

The majority of orators use at least some examples of logos in order to convince the audience that his or her arguments are logically sound. Here are some logos examples from famous speeches:

It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government – the ballot.

—Susan B. Anthony, On Women’s Right to Vote

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year¹s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year–a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United Stated, for we have given this program a high national priority–even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.

—John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon” speech

But tonight, we turn the page. Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before. More of our people are insured than ever before. And we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.

—Barack Obama, State of the Union 2015

Significance of Logos in Literature

Logos can be used influentially by authors. Authors of fiction, drama, and poetry are not necessarily trying to persuade their readers of a logical argument. However, authors can use believable situations and characters to subtly change the reader’s mind or confirm opinions about certain issues. Logos is, of course, of utmost importance in some forms of writing such as journalism and creative non-fiction. The most common use of logos in literature is when characters try to persuade each other using logic, as we will see in some of the following examples of logos.

Examples of Logos in Literature

Example #1

PORTIA: Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh:’
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

In this famous courtroom scene from William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, the character of Portia assumes a false guise to play the part of a lawyer. The character of Shylock is looking to get legal permission to take a pound of flesh from the man he lent money to, Antonio, who did not repay him in the right amount of time. Portia uses logic to judge that while Shylock is legally allowed this “pound of flesh,” he is not permitted to spill any blood. Her logic shows that the initial contract was flawed in its construction and that Shylock cannot have what he is desiring.

Example #2

The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence to the effect that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant. The defendant is not guilty, but somebody in this courtroom is.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

In another famous courtroom scene in literature, the character of Atticus Finch argues the case of Tom Robinson. He shows via logic that there is no evidence to suggest that Tom is at all guilty, and hopes that logic alone will lead to an innocent verdict for Tom. Unfortunately, this is an example of logos in which the jury is not swayed by logic.

Example #3

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

(1984 by George Orwell)

George Orwell was familiar with the way that data and facts can be manipulated by the ruling party in order to support their premises and beliefs. In this famous perversion of logos from his novel 1984, Orwell writes that eventually the “Party” will demand the public believe something clearly false. Orwell understood the effectiveness of the use of logos and he also was highly suspicious of the way that these types of arguments were presented. The Party creates its own logic that the public must simply follow or be terminated.

Test Your Knowledge of Logos

1. Which of the following statements is the best logos definition?
A. An appeal to the emotions of the audience.
B. An appeal to the ethics of the audience.
C. An appeal to reason and logic.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following statements is an example of logos?
A. We must pass this bill or else all of the starving country in this nation will die.
B. Homelessness amongst children has risen 25% in this country in the past decade.
C. As a social worker, I can tell you from my direct experience that things have gotten worse for children in this country.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following quote from George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

What does this quote demonstrate?
A. The way a leader or orator can manipulate logic to convince the audience of something.
B. The absurdity of appealing to reason when making an argument.
C. The fact that no orators can be trusted.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. While some orators cannot be trusted because they manipulate logic, and while some attempts at logic result in absurd statements like this one, this is an example of manipulating logic to end at a false conclusion. This is an example of fallacy.[/spoiler]