The right words can help us hold an idea or concept in our mind.
And this can help us express the idea in the real world over time.
One such word is Arête.
As my mentor put it to me, he said to think of arête as the art of expressing personal excellence, like a garden in full bloom on a warm Summer’s day.
Every now and then I hear people mention Arête, but one of the best articulations I’ve seen on the topic is from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, by Robert M. Pirsig.
Arête in Greek is Simply Excellence
If the idea of personal excellence and all that you’re capable of appeals to you, you’ll like what arête is about.
“What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism,” Kitto comments, “is not a sense of duty as we understand it — duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek arête, ‘excellence’ … we shall have much to say about arête. It runs through Greek life.”
Duty Toward Self
An interesting aspect of arête is the duty toward self to realize your potential, and bring out your best.
Via Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values:
”Phaedrus is fascinated too by the description of the motive of ‘duty toward self’ which is an almost exact translation of the Sanskirt word dharma, sometimes described as the “one” of the Hindus. Can the dharma of the Hindus and the “virtue” of the ancient Greeks be identical?”
Arête is Not Virtue. It’s Excellence.
Arête simply means excellence. If you translate arête to virtue, then you miss out on all the flavor of arête.
“Then Phaedrus feels a tugging to read the passage again, and he does so and then…what’s this?!…’That which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek ‘excellence.’
Kitto had more to say about this arête of the ancient Greeks. ‘When we meet arête in Plato,’ he said, ‘we translate it ‘virtue’ and consequently miss all the flavor of it. ‘Virtue,’ at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word; arête on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence.’”
The Hero of the Odyssey: An Excellent All-Rounder
Like a Renaissance Man, or Polymath, arête is about multiple talents and areas of knowledge.
“Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arête.”
Wholeness of Life vs. Specialization
Arête is a stretch of our best expression in all areas of life. It’s an expression of all that we’re capable of in terms of living life to our fullest.
“Arête implies a respect of the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. it implies a contempt for efficiency — or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
Express your excellence the arête way.
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Image by Robert Bejil.