Arete: History and Etymology

Arete (moral virtue)
Wikipedia

Arete (Greekἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”.[1] The term may also mean “moral virtue”.[1] In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

The term from Homeric times onwards is not gender specific. Homer applies the term of both the Greek and Trojan heroes as well as major female figures, such as Penelope, the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus. In the Homeric poems, Arete is frequently associated with bravery, but more often with effectiveness. The man or woman of Arete is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties—strength, bravery and wit—to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, Arete involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans.

In some contexts, Arete is explicitly linked with human knowledge, where the expressions “virtue is knowledge” and “Arete is knowledge” are used interchangeably. The highest human potential is knowledge and all other human abilities are derived from this central capacity. If Arete is knowledge and study, the highest human knowledge is knowledge about knowledge itself; in this light, the theoretical study of human knowledge, which Aristotle called “contemplation”, is the highest human ability and happiness.[2]

History

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, where it can be seen in the Allegory of the Cave.[3] In particular, the aristocratic class was presumed, essentially by definition, to be exemplary of arete: “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.”[4]

By the 5th and 4th 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,[5] but it was in the work of Aristotle that the doctrine of arete found its fullest flowering. Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean is a paradigm example of his thinking.

Arete has also been used by Plato when talking about athletic training and also the education of young boys. Stephen G. Miller delves into this usage in his book “Ancient Greek Athletics”. Aristotle is quoted as deliberating between education towards arete “…or those that are theoretical”.[6] Educating towards arete in this sense means that the boy would be educated towards things that are useful in life. However, even Plato himself says that arete is not something that can be agreed upon. He says, “Nor is there even an agreement about what constitutes arete, something that leads logically to a disagreement about the appropriate training for arete.”[7] To say that arete has a common definition of excellence or fulfillment may be an overstatement simply because it was very difficult to pinpoint arete, much less the proper ways to go about obtaining it. […]

Homer

In Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, “arete” is used mainly to describe heroes and nobles and their mobile dexterity, with special reference to strength and courage, but it is not limited to this. Penelope‘s arete, 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‘s wife.

According to Bernard Knox‘s notes found in the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, “arete” is also associated with the Greek word for “pray”, araomai.[8]

All Things Shining
by Hubert Dreyfus
pp. 61-63

Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life, that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being.6 Many admirers of Greek culture have attempted to define this notion, but success here requires avoiding two prominent temptations. There is the temptation to patronize that we have already mentioned. But there is also a temptation to read a modern sensibility into Homer’s time. One standard translation of the Greek word arete as “virtue” runs the risk of this kind of retroactive reading: for any attempt to interpret the Homeric Greek notion of human excellence in terms of “virtue”—especially if one hears in this word its typical Christian or even Roman overtones—is bound to go astray. Excellence in the Greek sense involves neither the Christian notion of humility and love nor the Roman ideal of stoic adherence to one’s duty.7 Instead, excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder.

Nietzsche was one of the first to understand that Homeric excellence bears little resemblance to modern moral agency. His view was that the Homeric world understood nobility in terms of the overpowering strength of noble warriors. The effect of the ensuing Judeo-Christian tradition, on this Nietzschean reading, was to enfeeble the Homeric understanding of excellence by substituting the meekness of the lamb for the strength and power of the noble warrior.8

Nietzsche was certainly right that the Homeric tradition valorizes the strong, noble hero; and he was right, too, that in some important sense the Homeric account of excellence is foreign to our basic moralizing assumptions. But there is something that the Nietzschean account leaves out. As Bernard Knox emphasizes, the Greek word arete is etymologically related to the Greek verb “to pray” (araomai).9 It follows that Homer’s basic account of human excellence involves the necessity of being in an appropriate relationship to whatever is understood to be sacred in the culture. Helen’s greatness, on this interpretation, is not properly measured in terms of the degree to which she is morally responsible for her actions.

What makes Helen great in Homer’s world is her ability to live a life that is constantly responsive to golden Aphrodite, the shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence. Likewise, Achilles had a special kind of receptivity to Ares and his warlike way of life; Odysseus had Athena, with her wisdom and cultural adaptability, to look out for him. Presumably, the master craftsmen of Homer’s world worked in the light of Hephaestus’s shining. In order to engage with this understanding of human excellence, we will have to think clearly about how the Homeric Greeks understood themselves. Why would it make sense to describe their lives in relation to the presence and absence of the gods?

Several questions focus this kind of approach. What is the phenomenon that Homer is responding to when he says that a god intervened or in some way took part in an action or event? Is this phenomenon recognizable to us, even if only marginally? And if Homer’s reference to the gods is something other than an attempt to pass off moral responsibility for one’s actions, then what exactly is it? Only by facing these questions head on can we understand whether it is possible—or desirable—to lure back Homer’s polytheistic gods.

The gods are essential to the Homeric Greek understanding of what it is to be a human being at all. As Peisistratus—the son of wise old Nestor—says toward the beginning of the Odyssey, “All men need the gods.”10 The Greeks were deeply aware of the ways in which our successes and our failures—indeed, our very actions themselves—are never completely under our control. They were constantly sensitive to, amazed by, and grateful for those actions that one cannot perform on one’s own simply by trying harder: going to sleep, waking up, fitting in, standing out, gathering crowds together, holding their attention with a speech, changing their mood, or indeed being filled with longing, desire, courage, wisdom, and so on. Homer sees each of these achievements as a particular god’s gift. To say that all men need the gods therefore is to say, in part at least, that we are the kinds of beings who are at our best when we find ourselves acting in ways that we cannot—and ought not—entirely take credit for.

The Discovery of the Mind
by Bruno Snell
pp. 158-160

The words for virtue and good, arete and agathos, are at first by no means clearly distinguished from the area of profit. In the early period they are not as palpably moral in content as might be supposed; we may compare the German terms Tu end and gut which originally stood for the ‘suitable’ (taugende) and the ‘fitting’ (cf. Gatte). When Homer says that a man is good, agathos, he does not mean thereby that he is morally unobjectionable, much less good-hearted, but rather that he is useful, proficient, and capable of vigorous action. We also speak of a good warrior or a good instrument. Similarly arete, virtue, does not denote a moral property but nobility, achievement, success and reputation. And yet these words have an unmistakable tendency toward the moral because, unlike ‘happiness’ or ‘profit’, they designate qualities for which a man may win the respect of his whole community. Arete is ‘ability’ and ‘achievement’, characteristics which are expected of a ‘good’, an ‘able’ man, an aner agathos. From Homer to Plato and beyond these words spell out the worth of a man and his work. Any change in their meaning, therefore, would indicate a reassessment of values. It is possible to show how at various times the formation and consolidation of social groups and even of states was connected with people’s ideas about the ‘good’. But that would be tantamount to writing a history of Greek culture. In Homer, to possess ‘virtue’ or to be ‘good’ means to realize one’s nature, and one’s wishes, to perfection. Frequently happiness and profit form the reward, but it is no such extrinsic prospect which leads men to virtue and goodness. The expressions contain a germ of the notion of entelechy. A Homeric hero, for instance, is capable of ‘reminding himself’, or of ‘experiencing’, that he is noble. ‘Use your experience to become what you are’ advises Pindar who adheres to this image of arete. The ‘good’ man fulfils his proper function, prattei ta heautou, as Plato demands it; he achieves his own perfection. And in the early period this also entails that he is good in the eyes of others, for the notions and definitions of goodness are plain and uniform: a man appears to others as he is.

In the Iliad (11.404—410) Odysseus reminds himself that he is an aristocrat, and thereby resolves his doubts how he should conduct himself in a critical situation. He does it by concentrating on the thought that he belongs to a certain social order, and that it is his duty to fulfill the ‘virtue’ of that order. The universal which underlies the predication ‘I am a noble’ is the group; he does not reflect on an abstract ‘good ’but upon the circle of which he claims membership. It is the same as if an officer were to say: ‘As an officer I must do this or that,’ thus gauging his action by the rigid conception of honour peculiar to his caste.

Aretan is ‘to thrive’; arete is the objective which the early nobles attach to achievement and success. By means of arete the aristocrat implements the ideal of his order—and at the same time distinguishes himself above his fellow nobles. With his arete the individual subjects himself to the judgment of his community, but he also surpasses it as an individual. Since the days of Jacob Burckhardt the competitive character of the great Greek achievements has rightly been stressed. Well into the classical period, those who compete for arete are remunerated with glory and honour. The community puts its stamp of approval on the value which the individual sets on himself. Thus honour, time, is even more significant than arete for the growth of the moral consciousness, because it is more evident, more palpable to all. From his earliest boyhood the young nobleman is urged to think of his glory and his honour; he must look out for his good name, and he must see to it that he commands the necessary respect. For honour is a very sensitive plant; wherever it is destroyed the moral existence of the loser collapses. Its importance is greater even than that of life itself; for the sake of glory and honour the knight is prepared to sacrifice his life.

pp. 169-172

The truth of the matter is that it was not the concept of justice but that of arete which gave rise to the call for positive individual achievement, the moral imperative which the early Greek community enjoins upon its members who in turn acknowledge it for themselves. A man may have purely egotistical motives for desiring virtue and achievement, but his group gives him considerably more credit for these ideals than if he were to desire profit or happiness. The community expects, and even demands, arete. Conversely a man who accomplishes a high purpose may convince himself so thoroughly that his deed serves the interests of a supra-personal, a universal cause that the alternative of egotism or altruism becomes irrelevant. What does the community require of the individual? What does the individual regard as universal, as eternal? These, in the archaic age, are the questions about which the speculations on arete revolve.

The problem remains simple as long as the individual cherishes the same values as the rest of his group. Given this condition, even the ordinary things in life are suffused with an air of dignity, because they are part of custom and tradition. The various daily functions, such as rising in the morning and the eating of meals, are sanctified by prayer and sacrifice, and the crucial events in the life of man—birth, marriage, burial—are for ever fixed and rooted in the rigid forms of cult. Life bears the imprint of a permanent authority which is divine, and all activity is, therefore, more than just personal striving. No one doubts the meaning of life; the hallowed tradition is carried on with implicit trust in the holy wisdom of its rules. In such a society, if a man shows unusual capacity he is rewarded as a matter of course. In Homer a signal achievement is, as one would expect, also honoured with a special permanence, through the song of the bard which outlasts the deed celebrated and preserves it for posterity. This simple concept is still to be found in Pindar’s Epinicians. The problem of virtue becomes more complex when the ancient and universally recognized ideal of chivalry breaks down. Already in Homeric times a differentiation sets in. As we have seen in the story of the quarrel over the arms of Achilles, the aretai become a subject for controversy. The word arete itself contains a tendency toward the differentiation of values, since it is possible to speak of the virtues of various men and various things. As more sections of society become aware of their own merit, they are less willing to conform to the ideal of the once-dominant class. It is discovered that the ways of men are diverse, and that arete may be attained in all sorts of professions. Whereas aristocratic society had been held together, not to say made possible by a uniform notion of arete, people now begin to ask what true virtue is. The crisis of the social system is at the same time the crisis of an ideal, and thus of morality. Archilochus says (fr. 41)that different men have their hearts quickened in various ways. But he also states, elaborating a thought which first crops up in the Odyssey: the mind of men is as Zeus ushers in each day, and they think whatever they happen to hit upon (fr. 68). One result of this splitting up of the various forms of life is a certain failure of nerve. Man begins to feel that he is changeable and exposed to many variable forces. This insight deepens the moral reflexions of the archaic period; the search for the good becomes a search for the permanent.

The topic of the virtues is especially prominent in the elegy. Several elegiac poets furnish lists of the various aretai which they exemplify by means of well-known myths. Their purpose is to clarify for themselves their own attitudes toward the conflicting standards of life. Theognis (699 ff.) stands at the end of this development; with righteous indignation he complains that the masses no longer have eyes for anything except wealth. For him material gain has, in contrast with earlier views, become an enemy of virtue.

The first to deal with this general issue is Tyrtaeus. His call to arms pronounces the Spartan ideal; perhaps he was the one to formulate that ideal for the first time. Nothing matters but the bravery of the soldier fighting for his country. Emphatically he rejects all other accomplishments and virtues as secondary: the swiftness of the runner in the arena, or the strength of the wrestler, or again physical beauty, wealth, royal power, and eloquence, are as nothing before bravery. In the Iliad also a hero best proves his virtue by standing firm against the enemy, but that is not his only proof; the heroic figures of Homer dazzle us precisely because of their richness in human qualities. Achilles is not only brave but also beautiful, ‘swift of foot’, he knows how to sing, and so forth. Tyrtaeus sharply reduces the scope of the older arete; what is more, he goes far beyond Homer in magnifying the fame of fortitude and the ignominy which awaits the coward. Of the fallen he actually says that they acquire immortality (9.32). This one-sidedness is due to the fact that the community has redoubled its claim on the individual; Sparta in particular taxed the energies of its citizenry to the utmost during the calamitous period of the Messenian wars. The community is a thing of permanence for whose sake the individual mortal has to lay down his life, and in whose memory lies his only chance for any kind of survival. Even in Tyrtaeus, however, these claims of the group do not lead to a termite morality. Far from prescribing a blind and unthinking service to the whole, or a spirit of slavish self-sacrifice, Tyrtaeus esteems the performance of the individual as a deed worthy of fame. This is a basic ingredient of arete which, in spite of countless shifts and variations, is never wholly lost.

Philosophy Before Socrates
by Richard D. McKirahan
pp. 366-369

Aretē and Agathos These two basic concepts of Greek morality are closely related and not straightforwardly translatable into English. As an approximation, aretē can be rendered “excellence” or “goodness” (sometimes “virtue”), and agathos as “excellent” or “good.” The terms are related in that a thing or person is agathos if and only if it has aretē and just because it has aretē. The concepts apply to objects, conditions, and actions as well as to humans. They are connected with the concept of ergon (plural, erga), which may be rendered as “function” or “characteristic activity.” A good (agathos) person is one who performs human erga well, and similarly a good knife is a knife that performs the ergon of a knife well. The ergon of a knife is cutting, and an agathos knife is one that cuts well. Thus, the aretē of a knife is the qualities or characteristics a knife must have in order to cut well. Likewise, if a human ergon can be identified, an agathos human is one who can and on appropriate occasions does perform that ergon well, and human aretē is the qualities or characteristics that enable him or her to do so. The classical discussion of these concepts occurs after our period, in Aristotle,6 but he is only making explicit ideas that go back to Homer and which throw light on much of the pre-philosophical ethical thought of the Greeks.

This connection of concepts makes it automatic, virtually an analytic truth, that the right goal for a person—any person—is to be or become agathos. Even if that goal is unreachable for someone, the aretē–agathos standard still stands as an ideal against which to measure one’s successes and failures. However, there is room for debate over the nature of human erga, both whether there is a set of erga applicable to all humans and relevant to aretē and, supposing that there is such a set of erga, what those erga are. The existence of the aretē–agathos standard makes it vitally important to settle these issues, for otherwise human life is left adrift with no standards of conduct. […]

The moral scene Homer presents is appropriate to the society it represents and quite alien to our own. It is the starting point for subsequent moral speculation which no one in the later Greek tradition could quite forget. The development of Greek moral thought through the Archaic and Classical periods can be seen as the gradual replacement of the competitive by the cooperative virtues as the primary virtues of conduct and as the recognition and increasing recognition of the significance of people’s intentions as well as their actions.7

Rapid change in Greek society in the Archaic and Classical periods called for new conceptions of the ideal human and the ideal human life and activities. The Archaic period saw different kinds of rulers from the Homeric kings, and individual combat gave way to the united front of a phalanx of hoplites (heavily armed warriors). Even though the Homeric warrior-king was no longer a possible role in society, the qualities of good birth, beauty, courage, honor, and the abilities to give good counsel and rule well remained. Nevertheless, the various strands of the Homeric heroic ideal began to unravel. In particular, good birth, wealth, and fighting ability no longer automatically went together. This situation forced the issue: what are the best qualities we can possess? What constitutes human aretē? The literary sources contain conflicting claims about the best life for a person, the best kind of person to be, and the relative merits of qualities thought to be ingredients of human happiness. In one way or another these different conceptions of human excellence have Homeric origins, though they diverge from Homer’s conception and from one another.

Lack of space makes it impossible to present the wealth of materials that bear on this subject.8 I will confine discussion to two representatives of the aristocratic tradition who wrote at the end of the Archaic period. Pindar shows how the aristocratic ideal had survived and been transformed from the Homeric conception and how vital it remained as late as the early fifth century, and Theognis reveals how social, political, and economic reality was undermining that ideal.

p. 374

The increase in wealth and the shift in its distribution which had begun by the seventh century led to profound changes in the social and political scenes in the sixth and forced a wedge in among the complex of qualities which traditionally constituted aristocratic aretē. Pindar’s unified picture in which wealth, power, and noble birth tend to go together became ever less true to contemporary reality.

The aristocratic response to this changed situation receives its clearest expression in the poems attributed to Theognis and composed in the sixth and early fifth centuries. Even less than with Pindar can we find a consistent set of views advocated in these poems, but among the most frequently recurring themes are the view that money does not make the man, that many undeserving people are now rich and many deserving people (deserving because of their birth and social background) are now poor. It is noteworthy how Theognis plays on the different connotations of uses of the primary terms of value, agathos and aretē, and their opposites kakos and kakia: morally good vs. evil; well-born, noble vs. low-born; and politically and socially powerful vs. powerless. Since the traditional positive attributes no longer regularly all went together, it was important to decide which are most important, indeed which are the essential ingredients of human aretē.

pp. 379-382

In short, Protagoras taught his students how to succeed in public and private life. What he claimed to teach is, in a word, aretē. That this was his boast follows from the intimate connection between agathos and aretē as well as from the fact that a person with aretē is one who enjoys success, as measured by current standards. Anyone with the abilities Protagoras claimed to teach had the keys to a successful life in fifth-century Athens.

In fact, the key to success was rhetoric, the art of public speaking, which has a precedent in the heroic conception of aretē, which included excellence in counsel. But the Sophists’ emphasis on rhetoric must not be understood as hearkening back to Homeric values. Clear reasons why success in life depended on the ability to speak well in public can be found in fifth-century politics and society. […]

That is not to say that every kind of success depended on rhetoric. It could not make you successful in a craft like carpentry and would not on its own make you a successful military commander. Nor is it plausible that every student of Protagoras could have become another Pericles. Protagoras acknowledged that natural aptitude was required over and above diligence. […] Protagoras recognized that he could not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but he claimed to be able to develop a (sufficiently young) person’s abilities to the greatest extent possible.28

Pericles was an effective counselor in part because he could speak well but also by dint of his personality, experience, and intelligence. To a large extent these last three factors cannot be taught, but rhetoric can be offered as a tekhnē, a technical art or skill which has rules of its own and which can be instilled through training and practice. In these ways rhetoric is like medicine, carpentry, and other technical arts, but it is different in its seemingly universal applicability. Debates can arise on any conceivable subject, including technical ones, and rhetorical skill can be turned to the topic at hand whatever it may be. The story goes that Gorgias used his rhetorical skill to convince medical patients to undergo surgery when physicians failed to persuade them.29 Socrates turned the tables on the Sophists, arguing that if rhetoric has no specific subject matter, then so far from being a universal art, it should not be considered an art at all.30 And even if we grant that rhetoric is an art that can be taught, it remains controversial whether aretē can be taught and in what aretē consists. […]

The main charges against the Sophists are of two different sorts. First the charge of prostituting themselves. Plato emphasizes the money-making aspect of the Sophist’s work, which he uses as one of his chief criteria for determining that Socrates was not a Sophist. This charge contains two elements: the Sophists teach aretē for money, and they teach it to anyone who pays. Both elements have aristocratic origins. Traditionally aretē was learned from one’s family and friends and came as the result of a long process of socialization beginning in infancy. Such training and background can hardly be bought. Further, according to the aristocratic mentality most people are not of the right type, the appropriate social background, to aspire to aretē.

Lila
by Robert Pirsig
pp. 436-442

Digging back into ancient Greek history, to the time when this mythos-to-logos transition was taking place, Phædrus noted that the ancient rhetoricians of Greece, the Sophists, had taught what they called aretê , which was a synonym for Quality. Victorians had translated aretê as “virtue” but Victorian “virtue” connoted sexual abstinence, prissiness and a holier-than-thou snobbery. This was a long way from what the ancient Greeks meant. The early Greek literature, particularly the poetry of Homer, showed that aretê had been a central and vital term.

With Homer Phædrus was certain he’d gone back as far as anyone could go, but one day he came across some information that startled him. It said that by following linguistic analysis you could go even further back into the mythos than Homer. Ancient Greek was not an original language. It was descended from a much earlier one, now called the Proto-Indo-European language. This language has left no fragments but has been derived by scholars from similarities between such languages as Sanskrit, Greek and English which have indicated that these languages were fallouts from a common prehistoric tongue. After thousands of years of separation from Greek and English the Hindi word for “mother” is still “Ma.” Yoga both looks like and is translated as “yoke.” The reason an Indian rajah’ s title sounds like “regent” is because both terms are fallouts from Proto-Indo-European. Today a Proto-Indo-European dictionary contains more than a thousand entries with derivations extending into more than one hundred languages.

Just for curiosity’s sake Phædrus decided to see if aretê was in it. He looked under the “a” words and was disappointed to find it was not. Then he noted a statement that said that the Greeks were not the most faithful to the Proto-Indo-European spelling. Among other sins, the Greeks added the prefix “a” to many of the Proto-Indo-European roots. He checked this out by looking for aretê under “r.” This time a door opened.

The Proto-Indo-European root of aretê was the morpheme rt . There, beside aretê , was a treasure room of other derived “rt” words: “arithmetic,” “aristocrat,” “art,” “rhetoric,” “worth,” “rite,” “ritual,” “wright,” “right (handed)” and “right (correct).” All of these words except arithmetic seemed to have a vague thesaurus-like similarity to Quality. Phædrus studied them carefully, letting them soak in, trying to guess what sort of concept, what sort of way of seeing the world, could give rise to such a collection.

When the morpheme appeared in aristocrat and arithmetic the reference was to “firstness.” Rt meant first. When it appeared in art and wright it seemed to mean “created” and “of beauty.” “Ritual” suggested repetitive order. And the word right has two meanings: “right-handed” and “moral and esthetic correctness.” When all these meanings were strung together a fuller picture of the rt morpheme emerged. Rt referred to the “first, created, beautiful repetitive order of moral and esthetic correctness.” […]

There was just one thing wrong with this Proto-Indo-European discovery, something Phædrus had tried to sweep under the carpet at first, but which kept creeping out again. The meanings, grouped together, suggested something different from his interpretation of aretê . They suggested “importance” but it was an importance that was formal and social and procedural and manufactured, almost an antonym to the Quality he was talking about. Rt meant “quality” all right but the quality it meant was static, not Dynamic. He had wanted it to come out the other way, but it looked as though it wasn’t going to do it. Ritual. That was the last thing he wanted aretê to turn out to be. Bad news. It looked as though the Victorian translation of aretê as “virtue” might be better after all since “virtue” implies ritualistic conformity to social protocol. […]

Rta . It was a Sanskrit word, and Phædrus remembered what it meant: Rta was the “cosmic order of things.” Then he remembered he had read that the Sanskrit language was considered the most faithful to the Proto-Indo-European root, probably because the linguistic patterns had been so carefully preserved by the Hindu priests. […]

Rta , from the oldest portion of the Rg Veda , which was the oldest known writing of the Indo-Aryan language. The sun god, Sūrya , began his chariot ride across the heavens from the abode of rta. Varuna , the god for whom the city in which Phædrus was studying was named, was the chief support of rta .

Varuna was omniscient and was described as ever witnessing the truth and falsehood of men—as being “the third whenever two plot in secret.” He was essentially a god of righteousness and a guardian of all that is worthy and good. The texts had said that the distinctive feature of Varuna was his unswerving adherence to high principles. Later he was overshadowed by Indra who was a thunder god and destroyer of the enemies of the Indo-Aryans. But all the gods were conceived as “guardians of ta ,” willing the right and making sure it was carried out.

One of Phædrus’s old school texts, written by M. Hiriyanna, contained a good summary: “Rta , which etymologically stands for ‘course’ originally meant ‘cosmic order,’ the maintenance of which was the purpose of all the gods; and later it also came to mean ‘right,’ so that the gods were conceived as preserving the world not merely from physical disorder but also from moral chaos. The one idea is implicit in the other: and there is order in the universe because its control is in righteous hands.…”

The physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe. Rta is both. This was exactly what the Metaphysics of Quality was claiming. It was not a new idea. It was the oldest idea known to man.

This identification of rta and aretê was enormously valuable, Phædrus thought, because it provided a huge historical panorama in which the fundamental conflict between static and Dynamic Quality had been worked out. It answered the question of why aretê meant ritual. Rta also meant ritual. But unlike the Greeks, the Hindus in their many thousands of years of cultural evolution had paid enormous attention to the conflict between ritual and freedom. Their resolution of this conflict in the Buddhist and Vedantist philosophies is one of the profound achievements of the human mind.

Pagan Ethics: Paganism as a World Religion
by Michael York
pp. 59-60

Pirsig contends that Plato incorporated the arete of the Sophists into his dichotomy between ideas and appearances — where it was subordinated to Truth. Once Plato identifies the True with the Good, arete’s position is usurped by “dialectically determined truth.” This, in turn, allows Plato to demote the Good to a lower order and minor branch of knowledge. For Pirsig, the Sophists were those Greek philosophers who exalted quality over truth; they were the true champions of arete or excellence. With a pagan quest for the ethical that develops from an idolatrous understanding of the physical, while Aristotle remains an important consideration, it is to the Sophists (particularly Protagoras, Prodicus and Pirsig’s understanding of them) and a reconstruction of their underlying humanist position that perhaps the most important answers are to be framed if not found as well.

A basic pagan position is an acceptance of the appetites — in fact, their celebration rather than their condemnation. We find the most unbridled expression of the appetites in the actions of the young. Youth may engage in binge-drinking, vandalism, theft, promiscuity and profligate experimentation. Pagan perspectives may recognize the inherent dangers in these as there are in life itself. But they also trust the overall process of learning. In paganism, morality has a much greater latitude than it does in the transcendental philosophy of a Pythagoras, Plato, or Plotinus: it may veer toward a form of relativism, but its ultimate check is always the sanctity of the other animate individuals. An it harm none, do what ye will. The pagan ethic must be found within the appetites and not in their denial.

In fact, paganism is part of a protest against Platonic assertion. The wider denial is that of nature herself. Nature denies the Platonic by refusing to conform to the Platonic ideal. It insists on moments of chaos, the epagomenae, the carnival, that overlap between the real and the ideal that is itself a metaphor for reality. The actual year is a refusal to cooperate with the mathematically ideal year of 360 days — close but only tantalizingly.

In addition, pagans have always loved asking what is arete? This is the fundamental question we encounter with the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle. It is the question that is before us still. The classics considered variously both happiness and the good as alternative answers. The Hedonists pick happiness — but a particular kind of happiness. The underlying principle recognized behind all these possibilities is arete ‘excellence, the best’ however it is embodied — whether god, goddess, goods, the good, gods, virtue, happiness, pleasure or all of these together. Arete is that to which both individual and community aspire. Each wants one’s own individual way of putting it together in excellent fashion — but at the same time wanting some commensurable overlap of the individual way with the community way.

What is the truth of the historical claims about Greek philosophy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
answer by Ammon Allred

Arete is usually translated as “virtue,” which is certainly connected up with the good “agathon” — but in Plato an impersonal Good is probably more important than aletheia or truth. See, for instance, the central images at the end of Book VI, where the Good is called the “Father of the Sun.” The same holds in the Philebus. And it wouldn’t be right to say that Plato (or Aristotle) thought virtue was part of some small branch called “ethics” (Plato doesn’t divide his philosophy up this way; Aristotle does — although then we get into fact that we don’t have the dialogues he wrote — but still what he means by ethics is far broader than what we mean).

Certainly the Sophists pushed for a humanistic account of the Good, whereas Plato’s was far more impersonal. And Plato himself had a complex relationship to the Sophists (consider the dialogue of Protagoras, where Socrates and Protagoras both end up about equally triumphant).

That said, Pirsig is almost certainly right about Platonism — that is to say, the approach to philosophy that has been taught as though it were Plato’s philosophy. Certainly, the sophists have gotten a bad rap because of the view that Socrates and Plato were taken to have about the sophists; but even there, many philosophers have tried to rehabilitate them: most famously, Nietzsche.

7 thoughts on “Arete: History and Etymology

  1. A core sense of arete is the being or becoming fully who someone is, manifesting some potential or personality or instinct or divine force, implementing something according to its design or purpose. As such, there is no standing back from arete. It is a total commitment to some state of mind or course of action.

    This would be an immersive experience that involves one entirely, even if that means destructively as in a warrior acting honorably. Even death can be achieved with excellence, one’s own or another (i.e., the Samurai who refuses to seek justice until his anger has subsided). But this singleminded pursuit of excellence can have some downsides when all else (e.g., community) is sacrificed in the process. That is the danger when a value or ideal takes precedence over all else.

    To be balanced, maybe the virtue of excellence requires the virtue of integrity as wholeness. John Beebe has much of interest to say about integrity. We moderns lack integrity. But maybe even the ancient Greek warriors also lacked integrity, as they lived in the fallout of collapsed bicameral civilizations. The wholeness of communal life was in tatters. And what replaced it was a warrior society that violently enforced order, not always to positive ends.

  2. Brillant, Benjamin! We should fight for what is right. Righteousness. With the fierceness of an Homeric hero, not be castrated sheep, harmless and incapable of being a threat. What an inversion of values! Virtue and virile stem from the Latin word “vir”, meaning “man”. Manly virtues. Cheers!

    • It is a different value than we now uphold. We’re too self-conscious and self-controlled with such rigid ego boundaries. Even modern American conservatives who love to praise the past don’t seem to appreciate something like arete. It’s too alien to our culture.

      Full commitment to anything, especially righteousness in the old sense, has gone out of fashion. But maybe we would do well to regain some appreciation of arete. We live at a time when we should all take seriously fighting for what matters.

    • My interest in such things does include how values become, as you say, inverted. But that has happened many times before. The Homeric Greeks were living in the shadow of collapsed Bicameral/Bronze Age civilizations. Those Homeric values themselves were an inversion of what came before. It was the dawning of the Axial Age. And proto-individualism was emerging.

      I find fascinating such periods of change. It’s good to keep in mind, though, that the Homeric Age, as with our own, was not a stable period. They were in between two ages, not entirely having left behind what came before and yet not fully having developed into what was to come.

      The fierceness of the Homeric heroes was precisely for this reason. They were living in a time of breakdown and uncertainty. Arete, to some degree, was a reaction to that situation. It very much was a warrior’s mindset in an era of constant warfare. Not an easy time to be alive.

    • Maybe what is attractive about arete is that it signifies what was lost in the Axial Age and then forgotten in modernity. Arete still held onto some essence of what existed in what Julian Jaynes proposed as having been the earlier bicameral societies. Even as Homeric people had irrevocably changed, the ideal of an immersive capacity might’ve been a collective memory of the prior age when people existed without need of individuated egoic consciousness. Immersion, if this were true, was once the normal state. And to this day we have the inkling that something is missing, something lost long ago.

      This creates nostalgia. Corey Robin argues that nostalgia is a central component of the reactionary mind. But he sees the reactionary mind as being limited to particular groups. I wonder, though, about the reactionary being what defines modernity in its entirety. We all so easily fall prey to nostalgia, this sense of loss that strikes us at the core of our being. This connects back to Jaynes’ speculations. This experience of loss didn’t always exist. As ancient texts show, it arose at the precise moment the Bronze Age civilizations were becoming too complex to be managed, on the eve of their doom. And in the centuries that followed, the lament was overwhelming in that world of disarray. The gods had gone silent. More than anything else, the presence of the gods as a mentality expressed that immersive way of being in the world. Then it quickly began to slip away.

      At best, we now look back and think of such things as arete in terms of values. To the ancients, it wasn’t a value, at least not in the sense we mean. Then again, even those Homeric individuals could only talk about arete to the degree that it was already weakening and had become a rare achievement. Not just anyone achieved such immersion, a state of mind that once seemed to have been the norm for entire civilizations. It was already becoming idealized, as idealism is always the other side of nostalgia.

      I was thinking about this because of a book I’m reading at the moment: American Nervousness, 1903 by Tom Lutz. It covers the same territory as Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation. We live in an age of anxiety. As I argue above, the origin can be traced back to the Axial Age. But we are now experiencing its culmination, most specifically standing out in that pivotal point about a century or so ago. We are playing out that transformation, following it to its bitter conclusion. This makes us nervous indeed. We know something is off about our society. Still, the same exact fears, often word for word, one hears right now can also be found from many generations ago.

      We look to the past because we don’t know what to expect of the future. Our minds are still stuck in our obsession with the ancient Greeks, the point of collective trauma that never healed. What went missing remains missing. That is why a word like arete holds so much power over our imaginations. It’s a signifier, even if we’re unsure of what is signified. It’s not only righteousness or immersion but an entire way of being in the world, once having been integral to an entire worldview and social order.

    • I’ve been thinking about much of this kind of thing lately. I mentioned Julian Jaynes. I’ve read his work off and on over the years, but I finally decided to read his entire book from beginning to end. I’m about halfway through this fairly large and dense text.

      In reading some of it this morning, I was reminded of certain aspects of the change back then. The section I’m in discusses the Iliad and Odyssey. The two were written at different periods by different people, as ‘Homer’ signified a tradition of storytellers. The Iliad is the earlier text and it shows the least evidence of subjectivity, although the initial signs of the new mentality are appearing by way of what Jaynes refers to as physical hypostases. Before words like noos and psyche referred to psychological states, they referred to physical states with specific physical locations. An abstract internal space that we now call consciousness was yet to be invented. That is why arete or something akin to it was the norm prior to the change. There was no ‘inside’ where an individual could detach himself from the world. The default state was to be immersed. Slowly, this immersion became less common and so became associated with a rare and noble ideal of a warrior cult.

      This process of idealization indicates it was becoming weaker. The hyper-masculine ideal was simultaneously becoming secondary, increasingly associated with a receding golden age. The new prototype of humanity was Odysseus whose trickster wiliness was the complete opposite of arete. To deceive others required being able to separate oneself in order to see other perspectives and possibilities with divergent outcomes. Arete expressed total commitment and what we would call sincerity that disallowed any possibility of deceit and guile. That made arete less useful for the new age with the growing multicultural empires and vast trade networks. The close-knit and independent small city-states of the past were disappearing. To be able to navigate and survive within the ever more complex world necessitated an entirely different way of not just thinking but being.

      We see the changes going from the Bronze Age texts to that of the Axial Age. The Homeric tradition straddled the transitional phase in between. That is why those Homeric epics still resonate with us. It was the last moment when there was some living memory of what was being lost. And in that moment before all traces of it were gone, this oral tradition was recorded for posterity. It’s undeniable proof that the way the world is now isn’t the way the world has always been. And so it offers us the insight that there is far more to our humanity than we typically recognize.

    • There is something else from Jaynes’ book that reminded me of another aspect of the change. During the transitional period of archaic Greece, a warrior cult had formed with its manly virtues. But it never before or after existed in that exact same way and to that same degree. The Bronze Age civilizations, specifically the early city-states, were relatively isolated and didn’t require a martial culture, lacking even standing armies. Even chariots only appeared near the end of the Bronze Age, maybe helping to precipitate its ending.

      I mentioned that the trickster figure, such as the wily Odysseus, replaced the warrior as the ideal. But another value also came onto the scene, that of ‘love’. Jaynes writes that, “In these seven poets of the seventh century, then, we find a remarkable development, that, as the subject matter changed from martial exhortations to personal expressions of love, the manner in which the mental hypostases are used and their contexts become much more what we think of as subjective consciousness.”

      The godmen were intermediaries. This is what put them into a trickster role, but it is also what made them representatives of Axial Age values. There was no equivalent of love as it came to mean later on. A godman like Jesus had his trickster qualities while he also expressed love. His trickster behavior was turned toward subverting worldly power. Yet this bringing down of love to the human realm began most clearly with Isis worship, the model of Mary worship among early Christians.

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/03/29/response-to-bedards-hellenistic-influence-and-the-resurrection/

      “Prior to the New Kingdom, love (mri) was bestowed upon a subordinate by a superior which also included by a god bestowing love to a follower, but this was strictly hierarchical except in certain situations such as a leader being beloved by his people. With the New Kingdom, love became a more common ideal where the follower could offer love to a god. There was an equality in that the person could, through love, join with their god. It was at this time that the epithet meri became extremely popular and was applied widely, in particular with Isis.

      “This is where Murdock points out that there is good evidence for an etymological connection not only between meri and Christian Mary but also meri and Jewish Miriam. She references a couple of sources that hypothesize that Miriam may have been an Egyptian name (the Catholic Encyclopedia and an editor’s note in Faiths of Man by Major-General James G.R. Forlong). She also references Rev. Dr. William Robertson Smith as connecting Miriam with Meri, and references Rev. Henry Tomkins as connecting Mary and Meri. Furthermore, she references both Dr. James Karl Hoffmeier and Alan H. Gardiner as connecting both Mary and Miriam with Meri.”

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