Commonly written: arete
Sometimes written: arête (which is actually defined as a ‘sharp mountain ridge’. This is not correct, but the imagery of a ‘peak’ correlates strangely with our definition).
The most similar words to areté that we have in our modern english language would be virtue, excellence, greatness or goodness (in thought, in action, or both).
In its most basic sense, areté might be used to describe any person, thing, action, or thought, of which has achieved, or maintains a presence of, whole excellence.
Why is it so hard to define?
To depict areté in a simple way does injustice to its potency and meaning as a singular word. It has a somewhat elastic meaning depending on its context, but it’s tremendously inspiring. The greatest of things are not to be undersold. That is probably why we have no equivalent word in our modern English language.
Rhetoric does its best to describe an experience, and pictures/videos might do even better, but words cannot typically replicate our perception, in its totally, of an amazing event. “I’m speechless”, “Words cannot describe”, these are responses to moments that fall into a unique category of near divinity. We can’t pinpoint what left us in awe, but we felt it.
Side note: Each experience is one’s own experience only. An example: Some cry tears of joy at the waving of a flag or in the presence of a religious statue, while others feel anger or injustice at the same sight.
We might take complex terms and use simple shared experiences to help us better understand them. That’s what storytelling and metaphors are used for.
To understand areté, we must have assimilated a great thing at least once before, in story or in reality, from which we can derive a shared meaning.
What’s the closest you’ve come to observing or feeling that awe? That moment of areté? Close your eyes and think back to the last time you were truly awestruck or breathless in observance of a person, thing, or event. Now, try to place yourself there again…
Origin of Areté
Where did we derive this thought? Of potentiality? Of fulfillment of purpose?
We have an innate obsession with reaching our fullest capacity.
“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
– Steve Prefontaine
The vigor and passion of “chasing our dreams” or “doing something incredible” all stem from the thought that we each have a bound potential waiting to be unchained, and when we do, that is what it means to live.
We resent the lazy, the leeches, those who squander opportunity.
Where does this obsession and pride in personal mastery come from?
Early in Christianity doctrine, God uses biblical figures to portray what the ideal person or what an ideal life might look like. Of course, later, in the new testament, Jesus Christ is the figure of exactly that—the ideal. This might be why, in America, that the pursuit of an ideal is so broadly understood, but areté is not biblical.
The thought originates in ancient Greece, and is tied inextricably to Greek philosophy.
An Act of Areté
We see it in the Iliad, associated with the perfect compilation of physical skill put to action. Characters like Achilles and Hector exemplified this perfect bodily representation of a war hero figure, who’s stature was associated with skill, bravery, tenacity, and valor.
Defining the entirety of what this word, areté, meant to the ancient Greeks, might be too difficult. So, we tell stories that others might resonate with. Only then can we begin to imagine the meaning of the word from the same platform. Although no story ever places the receiver of a message in the same exact mind-frame as the sender, it’s a better place to start than without the story.
Think about the defining, climactic action of your favorite characters and heroes, fiction or not.
It’s Dr. King on the podium, deviating from an already powerfully written speech, and changing the course of the world with his words.
It’s Carl Brashear (Cuban Gooding Jr) taking those damned 12 steps in the diver suit in the movie “Men of Honor”, with Chief Sunday (Robert DeNiro) passionately pushing him through it (video below – must watch).
It’s DaVinci painting the Mona Lisa.
It’s Leonidas of the brave “300”, fighting for Sparta’s freedom until his dying breath.
It’s Michael Jordan, dazzling us with a dribble move, then hitting a game winning jump shot in a championship game.
It’s Einstein working through an equation.
If we were to see one of these things, it’d most likely be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and likely, ever again.
At the moment we encounter a truly amazing feat, or a flawlessly executed endeavor, not only does the action rise above our perceptions of possibility, but it takes along with it every observer, transcending the grey, the mundane, the real, and approaching the ‘the ideal’, embodying pure perfection and inspiring limitless potential.
When we see this potential in action, we can better formulate our own unique, personal version of perfection. That might be your pursuit, that might be your areté.
Areté of a thing
Objects as well can have, or stand to represent, areté.
The perfectly designed home might be described as having areté, or it could also be used to describe the architect of such a home.
A pot or vase, crafted with an upmost artistic touch could have areté.
Areté of the Mind
Like the marines slogan “Be all that you can be.”, a life lived in areté would, in theory, include the actualization of our full potential. Of which we know, in itself, is an undefined pursuit.
What does true potential look like? How do we know if we’re on track?
“In The Odyssey, arete is used to describe Odysseus, who combines the warrior-hero’s courage with wit, cunning and resourcefulness. Arete is also used to describe Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, who demonstrates that even misfortune and sorrow can be suffered with excellence.
And lastly, the Greeks provide us with still another manifestation of arete : Socrates, a very new and different kind of Greek hero. Socrates was a real person, a Fifth Century BCE Athenian who has come to symbolize for us the life dedicated to the pursuit of moral and intellectual excellence.” ¹
The mind bears a stricter burden than the body or an object when it comes to excellence. Because we know that as humans, we are capable of malevolence, we know that a physical act of perfection could carry with it some evil intention or misguided abhorrence. Therefore, areté also implies the presence of honorable thought and moral choice. Humans distinctly have the ability to reason, and should therefore, use that reason for good.
The minds perceptions of excellence and perfection are often daunting. It almost never feels like the low hanging fruit. In fact, it frequently feels out of reach. That’s ok, though.
True excellence acts for us like the carrot dangling in the eyes of the horse, pushing us forward in a desirable direction, but never definably completing a linear course of action. What trajectory are we on? Our aim, and our intentional thought about our aim, offer an array of lessons in excellence. In Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, the pursuit of a thing’s ideal shape or state would be its areté. Its the elusive achievement, but not for achievement’s sake, that we all strive for. Its always out of reach, but also coordinating our placement on the path that will show us exactly what we seek. Areté of the mind is a constant process in the practice of: excellence, wisdom, honor, virtue, knowledge, happiness, joy, wit, modesty, courage, mastery, love, honesty, synergy, valor, passion.
It is the goal we all seek.
Individual human potential.
The eminent figure.
To not only be great, but also morally sound.
To accomplish without conquering.
The true hero. To be not only the technical expert and great communicator, but also, the respected benevolent leader.
Each of us has our own distinct idea of what our life might be like if we committed to areté. The direction is unclear, the path unkept, but the purpose behind our decision to pursue it, is the only thing that matters.
Trying to live out our full-potential is far easier said than done, but there’s not better time to begin that journey than here and now.