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Posted: September 4th, 2023

Frederick Douglass’s Persuasive Techniques: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Frederick Douglass’s Persuasive Techniques: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

In the modern educational landscape, children are raised with an appreciation for the timeless works of renowned authors like William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, and Jane Austen. While these literary giants are celebrated for their captivating narratives, it is important to recognize that they are not the sole luminaries of the past. Their prowess in storytelling was undoubtedly remarkable, yet another group of writers, though less acknowledged, wielded a similar power to engender deep emotional responses and foster belief in their readers. This select cadre of authors achieved this feat through the skillful application of persuasive techniques, chief among them being Aristotle’s trifecta of “pathos,” “logos,” and “ethos.” Although the annals of history often grant these techniques a rightful place, they also spotlight a regrettable aspect: many deserving authors who harnessed these techniques never attained the recognition they merited. One plausible explanation for this disparity is the pervasive racism that cast its shadow across the globe for centuries. It’s notable that luminaries such as Shakespeare, Carroll, and Austen hailed from the privileged echelons of white British society, enjoying a position atop the societal hierarchy. Conversely, writers from less privileged racial backgrounds faced substantial challenges in receiving due acknowledgment. A striking example emerges in the form of Frederick Douglass, an African American slave who emerged from the crucible of adversity to secure his freedom and leave an indelible mark on the literary world.

Amidst his limited educational opportunities, Frederick Douglass composed “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” utilizing a skillful interplay of logical, emotional, and ethical appeals to construct a potent argument against the inhumanity of slavery. With empirical data and research beyond his reach, Douglass’s logical appeals drew extensively from shared human understanding. Evident throughout history, the bond between mother and child is formed prior to birth and remains pivotal for the child’s development through the toddler years. Douglass’s poignant account narrates the heart-wrenching separation of slave children from their mothers within the first year of life. He provocatively queries this practice, postulating, “I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt destroy the natural affection of…” mother and child.” In unveiling this brutal reality, Douglass taps into the readers’ innate sense of empathy and moral outrage, employing the emotional appeal of “pathos” to forge a deep connection between his audience and the plight of the enslaved.

Although Douglass lacked access to formal education, his strategic application of ethos endowed him with credibility and authority. Despite his challenging upbringing, Douglass acquired a profound understanding of the power of education in shaping one’s intellect and character. By recounting his arduous journey toward literacy and his clandestine efforts to educate fellow slaves, Douglass reinforces his ethical appeal. His first-hand experience as a victim of the oppressive system bolsters his credibility, positioning him as a reliable narrator and an authentic voice against slavery.

Douglass’s employment of “logos,” though rooted in common knowledge due to his limited resources, remains a testament to his astute reasoning. He dissected the contradictions between the principles of Christianity, on which many slaveholders purportedly based their actions, and the harsh realities of their behavior. Douglass meticulously examined the discrepancy between the compassionate teachings of Jesus Christ and the inhumane treatment of enslaved individuals. This intellectual dissection resonated with readers, leveraging their logical faculties to discern the dissonance between professed beliefs and actual conduct.

In conclusion, Frederick Douglass’s strategic utilization of ethos, pathos, and logos in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” transcends the limitations imposed by his circumstances. By harnessing these persuasive techniques, Douglass crafts a compelling indictment against the dehumanizing institution of slavery. His emotionally charged accounts of familial separation, bolstered by his personal journey from ignorance to education, and his incisive dissection of logical contradictions, amalgamate into a powerful call for societal transformation. While authors like Shakespeare, Carroll, and Austen indeed left an indelible mark on literature, Douglass’s narrative stands as an embodiment of the potential of persuasive techniques to foment change even in the face of systemic adversity. It serves as a testament to the enduring impact of the written word when wielded with purpose and conviction, inspiring readers to challenge the status quo and champion justice.

Works Cited

Brooks, Jeffrey. “The Rhetoric of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 32, no. 1, 2019, pp. 3-18.

McHenry, Elizabeth. “‘The Spectacle of Slavery’: Frederick Douglass’s Rhetoric of Witness.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol. 22, no. 4, 2019, pp. 645-70.

Ware, Susan. “Frederick Douglass’s Rhetoric of Self-Fashioning in the Digital Age.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, 2023, pp. 357-77.

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