Arete (Greek: ἀρετή; in English), in its basic sense, means "goodness", "excellence" or "virtue" of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function; the act of living up to one's full potential.
"The root of the word is the same as "aristos', the word which shows superlative ability and superiority, and "aristos" was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility." (See Aristocracy.) The Ancient Greeks applied the term to anything: for example, the excellence of a chimney, the excellence of a bull to be bred and the excellence of a man. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes, since everything has its own peculiar excellence; the arete of a man is different from the arete of a horse. This way of thinking comes first from Plato, in whose "Allegory of the Cave" it can be seen..
By the fourth and fifth centuries BC, arete as applied to men had developed to include quieter virtues, such as dikaiosyne (justice) and sophrosyne (self-restraint). Plato attempted to produce a moral philosophy that incorporated this new usage (and, in so doing, developed ideas that played a central part in later Christian thought), but it was in the work of Aristotle that the doctrine of arete found its fullest flowering. Aristotle's "Doctrine of the Mean" (not to be confused with Confucius's "Doctrine of the Mean") and "The Four Causes" are good examples of his thinking.
" is used mainly to describe heroes
and nobles and their mobile dexterity, with special reference to strength
, but it is not limited to this. Penelope
, for example, relates to co-operation
, for which she is praised by Agamemnon
. The excellence of the gods generally included their power, but, in the Odyssey
(13.42), the gods can grant excellence to a life, which is contextually understood to mean prosperity. Arete
was also the name of King Alcinous
Arete was occasionally personified as a goddess
, the sister of Homonoia
(a personification of concord), daughter of the goddess of justice Praxidike
Arete and Homonia were known jointly as the Praxidikai (Exacters of Justice). As with many minor Greek deities, there's little or no real mythical background to Arete, who is used at most as a personification of virtue. The only story involving Arete was originally told in the 5th century BC by the sophist Prodicus, and concerns the early life of the hero Heracles.
At a crossroads, Arete appeared to Heracles as a young maiden, and offered him glory and a life of struggle against evil; her counterpart, Kakia (κακία, "badness"), offered him wealth and pleasure. Heracles chose to follow the path of Arete.
This story was later used by Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Basil of Caesarea, use Prodicus' story, but Justin and Basil change Arete from a modest and attractive maiden into a squalidly dressed and unattractive figure.
Arete is a significant part of the paideia
of ancient Greeks: the training of the boy to manhood. This training in arete included: physical training
, for which the Greeks developed the gymnasion
, mental training, which included oratory
, and basic sciences
, and spiritual
training, which included music
and what is called virtue
Examples of usage
- "Virtue (arete) then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it." Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, II vi 15, translated H. Rackham (1934: Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press)
- "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." New Testament, Philippians 4.8.
- Robert Pirsig uses "arete" as a synonym for Quality in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This includes an extensive discussion of Plato's "Phaedrus" and the historical contrast between Dialectic and Rhetoric. "And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good -- Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" - Socrates
Sources and reading
- Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott (1883: Oxford, Oxford University Press)
- Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger, trans. Gilbert Highet (1945: New York, Oxford University Press)
- "Arete/Agathon/Kakon", G.B. Kerferd (in Paul Edwards [ed.-in-chief] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967: New York, Macmillan & The Free Press)
- Paideia, Vol. I, pg. 15.