Arete: The Spirit of Excellence
Hundreds of the minor gods and goddesses of ancient Greece personified specific virtues or ideals. They typically shared their names with their function and were the literal embodiment of the functions they represented.
One goddess, though, embodied the very definition of virtue as a whole. Arete was the goddess of excellence, representing the height of virtue, goodness, and achievement.
Arete as an idea was a lot more than just living a good life. Only the absolute best could be described as arete.
So what did Arete represent, and how could one achieve greatness in the Greek world? Keep reading to find out!
In ancient Greek, the word arete meant virtue or excellence.
The concept was a complex one in the Greek world, combining personal fulfilment with status and reputation.
Arete could be loosely applied to describe any type of valor or virtue, from exceptional bravery in war to loyalty and resolve. But for a person themselves to be described as having arete was not so simple.
The Greeks believed that virtue was an intrinsic part of who a person was. To be a person of arete was to exemplify the greatest ideals of humanity as the Greek people understood them.
Homer, for example, used the word to describe the great heroes of the Trojan War. The word was not only used for men, however; he also said Penelope, the loyal wife of Odysseus, was a person of arete.
The idea of excellence depended entirely on who or what it was being applied to. The heroes were arete for their courage, strength, and devotion to the gods, while a dog could be arete for guarding its owner’s home diligently and herding his sheep with care.
Over time, the idea developed and was incorporated into philosophy to describe the sum of all the virtues one could possess.
Arete did not necessarily mean virtue simply as doing good works or showing devotion to the gods in the right way. A person could be kind, charitable, and follow the law and still not be considered a person of arete.
To be described as having the quality of arete, one had to truly excel. The word meant fully achieving one’s potential or purpose, whether it was a soldier displaying prowess in battle or a horse pulling its cart at a steady pace.
While philosophers spoke at length about arete, even they admitted that there was no consensus on what it meant or exactly how to achieve it. Most, however, believed that a lifetime of diligence and study could make it possible to reach that state.
The Greeks believed that a person could not achieve arete and live to their full potential unless they were a fully-rounded human being.
In the ancient world, Greece was at the forefront of education, philosophy, and the sciences. It was still, however, a place in which physical strength was necessary for survival and the ancient gods held an important place in everyday life.
To achieve true excellence, therefore, a person had to possess all the qualities that the Greeks valued, at least to some degree. The idealised person might excel in one field, but had a measure of proficiency in many others.
Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle maintained that education was a necessary component of arete. The development of one’s mind was vital for a person, particularly a young man of the upper classes, to truly live up to his greatest potential.A person of arete also needed to be spiritually sound. Click To Tweet
This included not only devotion to the gods and obedience to the law, but also an understanding of music and the arts as spiritual pursuits.
Finally, a person could not truly display excellence unless their body was also in good condition. Athletics did not have to be a person’s primary focus, but exercise and health were important for a person to be at their best.
The Greeks believed that arete in people required the development of the mind, body, and soul all together. Therefore, the concept formed a cornerstone in Greek education.
Young men who received an education in the ancient Greek world were expected to cultivate all of these parts of themselves. They did far more than learn logic, rhetoric, and mathematics from their tutors.
The gymnasia were built to encourage the development of a healthy body. Young men studied music and poetry and were taught religion to develop their souls.
Even the academic curriculum focused on creating a well-rounded person. Young men studied oratory skills and rhetoric so they could display their knowledge of spiritual as well as earthly affairs.
The Greek notion that only a well-rounded person could attain true excellence became a cornerstone of education. Modern liberal arts studies owe their concept of a broad education to the Greek pursuit of arete.
Like many abstract ideas in Greek culture, arete was also personified as an individual deity. The goddess Arete was the personification of the virtue, excellence, and valor well-rounded men strove to attain.Arete was often depicted as a beautiful and regal goddess, dressed in white. Click To Tweet
She was the daughter of Praxidike, the goddess of justice. Her sister was Homonia, the spirit of concord.
Some said that her father was Soter, the deity of safety and preservation.
As with many of the daimones, or minor gods of personifications, it is often difficult to tell in context whether a writer is referring to the idea of arete or the goddess Arete. As the embodiment of excellence, Arete is often described as being present with great figures, but this could mean they possessed excellent virtue or were literally accompanied by its spirit.
Aristotle was more clear in writing about what Arete, and the idea she represented, meant to the people of Greece in his mind:
Areta (Arete, Virtue), you who bring many labours for the race of mortals, fairest quarry for a man’s life, for the sake of your beauty, maiden, even to die is an enviable fate in Greece, or to endure cruel unresting toils: such a fruition, as good as immortal, do you bestow on the mind, better than gold or parents or soft-eyed sleep; on your account noble Herakles and the sons of Leda endured much in their exploits, hunting your power; in their desire for you Akhilleus (Achilles) and Aias (Ajax) went to the dwelling of Haides: and on account of your dear beauty the nursling Atarneus left desolate the rays of the sun. Therefore he is glorified in song for his exploits, and the Mousai (Muses), daughters of Mnamosyna (Mnemosyne), will exalt him to immortality, exalting the majesty of Zeus, god of hospitality, and the privilege of secure friendship.
-Aristotle, Fragment 842 (from Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner) (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric V)
Another writer, Simonides, claimed that Arete lived in a holy place high on unclimbable rocks. Few men would ever see her, and she would only visit those who had reached “the peak of manliness.”
Daimones in Greek mythology often travelled in groups. As the personifications of abstract ideas, they often served closely-linked functions.
Sometimes they were so closely related that they became virtually indistinguishable from one another. Eris, the goddess of strife, and Enyo, who personified the destruction of war, for example, were so closely linked that their names were often used interchangeably.
Arete represented a lofty ideal, but the Greeks recognized that this ideal depended on other concepts. Arete could not arise out of nothing – it was always accompanied by specific actions or virtues.
These all had their own personifications. Among the gods mentioned in connection to Arete were:
- Calocagathia (Nobility) represented the Greek belief that goodness and beauty were connected in the combination of noble attributes that could lead to arete.
- Praxidike (The Execution of Justice) was her mother, and was responsible for both legal justice and personal vengeance.
- Soter (Savior), sometimes referred to as her father, was the god of deliverance from harm and assurance of safety.
- Homonoia (Concord) brought people to a similar mindset and ended enmity.
- Eucleia (Good Reputation) was necessary, as the Greek notion of virtue largely hinged on reputation within the community.
- Eunomia (Good Order) ensured lawful conduct and stability.
- Aidos (Shame) could drive a person toward arete by pushing them to improve.
- Eusebia (Faith) represented the belief in and devotion to the gods that enabled someone to reach the state of arete.
On the whole, nearly any virtue could be associated with Arete. She was not just an individual goddess; she was the sum of what all the other gods and goddesses of virtue brought to a person.
Of course, in the Greek world it was not possible for just anyone to meet Arete.
In the culture of ancient Greece, like many cultures that came before and after it, some people were considered inherently better than others. While any item or creature could have arete by its own standards, only the best people would ever reach the standard of excellence set for humans.
The aristocratic class was, but its nature, far more likely to attain the highest level of virtue and greatness in Greek culture.
In the ancient world, one did not become a part of the noble class by accident. Your station at birth was predestined, and the aristocracy by definition was closer to excellence than the common people.
In fact, the word aristos, from which we get “aristocrat,” shares its root with arete. Those destined to be great would almost certainly be born into the class that was defined by its greatness.
The idea that exceptional honor and virtue were accessible to the aristocracy is personified in the figure of Calocagathia. She personified the Greek idea that nobility involved a combination of moral virtue, intelligence, and physical beauty.
Of course, the fact that only those born into the higher social classes could attain excellence was grounded in more than just a belief in fate and destiny. There were practical reasons as to why only the wealthy could achieve greatness.
The foundations for excellence, as the Greeks understood it, were typically accessible only to those of high status. The classical education that produced a well-rounded balance of mind, body, and soul was available only to those with the means to pay.
While a farmer could achieve excellence in his field or an athlete could excel in his sport, only the nobility could have all the qualities that produced true arete. Some measure of goodness was available to everyone, but the goddess Arete would only bestow her favor on the greatest of men.
The one story involving Arete certainly does show favor to the greatest of all men.
Like many of the daimones, there were few specific myths about Arete. She was mentioned often, but was rarely an actual character.
In fact, there is only one known myth about Arete the goddess. The story, which became known as “Hercules at the Crossroads,” originated in the 5th century BC and continued to be popular through the Middle Ages.
Heracles, known as Hercules by the Romans, was a young man in this particular story. He had not yet decided on his path in life.
This was made literal when Heracles arrived as a crossroads while travelling. There, he was approached by two women.
The first was Arete. She was described as tall and regal, but modest, wearing pure white robes.
The second woman was the opposite of Arete, the goddess of vice Cacia. She was plump and wearing many jewels, with heavy makeup and revealing clothing.
Cacia ran to Heracles to convince him to take a road she described as pleasant and easy. She offered him a life full of delights in which he would not have to work hard to enjoy material comfort.
When the young man asked her name, she replied that she was Happiness, but called Vice by those who hated her for her joy.
Arete, too, approached young Heracles. She noted that she, like his parents, had watched him through his education and had seen the potential for great honor within him.
She confessed, however, that the road to reaching this honor would not be easy. He would face a life of great toil and difficulty, but in the end would be lauded as a man of virtue and nobility.
She also belittled the comforts that Cacia offered. The joys of a pleasant life were, according to Arete, worth nothing if a man did not earn them.
A soft bed was useless if you had not done the work that made you tired. Good food could not be enjoyed until one had truly become hungry.
Arete was, by her account, the most honored among all gods and men because none of their greatness would be possible without her. Cacia was scorned for making men waste their lives and potential.
Heracles, of course, chose the path of Arete. He gave up the promise of an easy life for one of hardship, hard work, and suffering that would lead to greater rewards in the end.
The story of Virtue and Vice competing for young Heracles remained popular well into the Middle Ages. Its moral of the long-term benefits of hard work continued to be applicable in the Christian world.
Some later writers depicted Arete as unattractive and dressed in ragged clothes to reflect the difficult path she represented. Even without the physical beauty of a noble woman, however, Heracles still chose Arete’s path.
In conclusion, Arete was the embodiment of virtue, honor, and greatness in the Greek world. She represented true excellence.
The Greeks used arete just as modern English speakers use “excellence.” A chair can be excellent in that it is sturdy, comfortable, and beautifully designed, but human excellence requires far more.
The Greek notion of arete meant achieving one’s full human potential. To do so, a person had to develop their mind, body, and soul through education and hard work.Arete was closely linked to the personifications of other virtues, particularly those that allowed humans to achieve great honor and respect. Click To Tweet
The circumstances one was born into could also lead toward arete. Members of the nobility were predisposed to greatness both because their position indicated a favorable destiny and because they had the means by which to develop themselves.
Arete as a goddess appeared only in one myth, in which she convinced Heracles to follow her even though a life in pursuit of greatness would be difficult. However, she represented an important concept in the Greek world and, as such, was mentioned both as an abstraction and a personification often.