Logos, pathos, ethos

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
-George Box

For centuries, philosophers have grappled with the concept of the metaphysical transcendence: what are the most fundamental divisions in reality, the ur-categories out of which all other categories emerge?

For medieval philosophers high on an epic blend of Plato and Christian theology, the answer was Beauty, Truth and Goodness, which they saw as three aspects of the same mystical ultimate One (also in their thinking synonymous with God in his glory and perfection).

A funny thing about transcendental categories is that everyone seems to have their own list. For Plato, a classic minimalist, it was one and done: the form of the Good, full stop. For Aristotle, a maximalist, there were 10 (!): substance, quantity, quality, relativeness, somewhere, sometime, location, having, acting, and being.

The aforementioned medieval philosophers experimented with various other models before finally settling on Beauty, Truth and Goodness as the officially official triumvirate of transcendence.

Which calls the whole exercise into question. After all, if everyone has their own set of indisputable bedrock universals, then perhaps the whole concept of bedrock universals is a flawed one?

That’s before we even get into the fact that the concepts of capitalized Truth, Beauty and Goodness have been vehemently questioned by critics on the left side of the political spectrum in recent years.

All of which is to say that I find the notion that this tripartite model offers some special insight into the deep underlying fabric of reality to be questionable at best, to say the least.

HOWEVER, I’ve personally found it useful all the same, simply as a handy framework for reflecting on how I am doing vis a vis some things that are dear to me: aesthetics and beauty, science and reason, and the idea, however wooly, of trying to do some good in the world.

I tend to prefer the slightly less loaded Greek terms: logos for truth, pathos for beauty, ethos for goodness to help differentiate my usage from the more absolutist one.

  Logos  Pathos Ethos
Methods deduction, induction association, iteration empathy, action
Domains science, philosophy, history art (music, film, etc.), design, aesthetics moral philosophy, social work, religion
Goals comprehension, reality, factual accuracy pleasure, epiphany, catharsis justice, compassion, aid
Formula truth = good + beautiful beauty = true + good goodness = beauty + truth