The idea of arete in Greek philosophy is one that is difficult to translate for modern audiences.
In simple terms, it could be translated as excellence or superior virtue. In practice, though, it was a complex set of ideals that confounded even the greatest philosophers.
For mankind, arete was the pinnacle of virtue and achievement. Whether it was strength in battle or loyalty to one’s spouse, arete was associated with being at one’s best.
But someone would not be a person of arete just through a few favorable actions. True arete came from a lifetime of excellence in all areas of life.
Just how hard was it to attain arete? The answer to that was in what type of person you were, your status in life, and even whether you were a human or animal.
In ancient Greek, the word arete meant virtue or excellence.
The concept was a complex one that combined status, reputation, and personal achievement. Even the great philosophers of Greece conceded that there was no single way to define or achieve arete.
The word could be applied in some way to describe any type of valor or virtue. Exceptional bravery in war, loyalty to a partner, and dedication to a cause could all be displays of arete.
For an individual to be described as having arete was not so simple, however. A person could display acts of arete but still not be described as a person of arete.
The Greeks believed that virtue was an intrinsic part of who a person was. A person could work toward the ideal, but not everyone would be capable of achieving or maintaining that state.
A single act of virtue was not enough to be a person of excellence, but rather a lifetime of achievement was needed. In early Greek philosophy particularly, only the most truly exceptional people were described as having arete.
These people were thought to have reached their full potential. Their bodies, minds, and souls were as close to perfect as was possible.
The idea of excellence also depended on who or what it was being applied to. The heroes were men of arete for their courage, strength, and devotion to the gods, while Penelope was a woman of arete for her unwavering devotion to Odysseus.
A dog could be a creature of arete for guarding its owner’s property and livestock. While a cart of arete worked well, however, the word was understood to have a different gravity than it did when applied to a person.
In all these cases, arete was achieved by fulfilling a purpose and ideal not just once, but over the course of a lifetime.
Among humans, the Greeks believed those born into high status were more likely to achieve excellence than commoners. Because social position was ordained by fate and the will of the gods, members of the nobility were more naturally inclined toward achievement and fulfillment.
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, who was dressed in pure white robes. She was the daughter of Praxidike, the goddess of justice.
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. Arete is often described as being present with great figures, but this could mean they carried virtue within themselves or were literally accompanied by its spirit.
Arete appears often in Greek writings, both as an idea and as a personification.
It is a concept that is difficult to translate for modern English-speaking audiences. While Greek philosophers debated the nature of arete in familiar terms, it seems like a foreign concept to most people today.
Arete was, in some ways, a contradictory ideal.
It could be used to talk about an animal who performed a simple task well, but for human it only applied to people who lived truly exceptional lives. People were encouraged to work toward arete but most philosophers agreed that it was almost impossible to attain.
In Greek writer described the goddess Arete as living on a treacherous mountaintop which she rarely left. Entire generations could pass without a living man having a chance of seeing Arete in her truest form.
Arete represents a very Greek view of the world. Perfection was something to be valued and reached for, but most people never had a chance of obtaining it.
Greek art, for example, celebrated the perfect human form. Sculptures from the classical era often look very static and impersonal because they represented bodies based on mathematical perfection rather than realism or individuality.
This physical perfection was recognized as something that could never be attained by the majority of people. Even the slightest imperfection in symmetry or proportion would make the Greek ideal of beauty and impossibility no matter how well-groomed or physically active a person was.
Even the Greek afterlife was noteworthy for the impossibility of reward. Later Greek thought developed ideas of the Elysian Fields and the Isles of the Blessed to reward those who lived well, but those realms were almost impossible for most people to reach.
To receive a better afterlife, of course, a person must display arete.
The Greeks believed that only a select few were chosen by fate to be exceptional in any way. The ideals that philosophers and artists held in such high esteem were impossible for any but the most privileged members of society to reach.
The men and women who achieved arete in literature were often great figures. Kings, queens, and heroes, they were powerful people who most likely had close ties to the gods.
Horses and dogs could achieve arete easily because their purpose in life was simple and straightforward. Mankind, however, had to truly work to balance their minds, bodies, and faith.
While Elysium or arete may have been virtually impossible, however, the educated people of Greece continued to hold them in high regard. They could hope to be among the handful of everyday people who reached the pinnacle of human worth, even if the odds were against them.
Arete was the Greek notion of excellence. Personified by a goddess of the same name, the complex ideal of virtue required extreme commitment to attain.
A person of arete was not just well-behaved or heroic. They were someone who truly lived up to the best of their potential and exemplified the values of Greek culture.
The nobility had a better chance of arete than commoners because their position was a sign of the gods’ favor. Even for them, however, arete was almost impossible to achieve.
Greek culture valued seemingly impossible ideas, from perfect behavior to a mathematically-precise form of physical beauty. Arete was one of these ideas, and it required perfection in most if not all of these fields.