“Areté ” (ah-reh-‘tay)
In its most basic sense, a word from the ancient Greeks meaning “excellence of any kind”.
Taking a bit of semantic and philosophical license, Areté could be defined as “moral virtue”. And given the nature of that concept – virtue – it stands to reason that excellence is derivative of virtuous thoughts, words and deeds. Of doing the right thing.
For as Plato said, “We do not act rightly because we are excellent, in fact we achieve excellence by acting rightly.”
Greek mythology made Areté divinity; the goddess of virtue, excellence, goodness and valour.
“There is a tale that Areté dwells on unclimbable rocks and close to the gods, tending a holy place. She may not be seen by the eyes of all mortals, but only by him on whom distressing sweat comes from within, the one who reaches the peak of manliness.”*
An acknowledgement that excellence is a higher standing. A path that is intended to be a struggle. A challenge. A journey to elicit excellence.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – the renowned triumvirate of Greek philosophers, teachers and orators – spent their lives in the pursuit of understanding our human condition. Discerning how best to find our rightful place. Here, in the mortal world – and – within the universe – among the divine.
Since its earliest appearance in Greek, there is the idea that Areté was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function:
The act of living up to one’s full potential.
Through out the Homeric poems, Areté is frequently associated with bravery, but more often, with effectiveness.
The man or woman of Areté 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, Areté involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans.
In the mortal sense, excellence is about making the most of all that you are and all that you have – to become all you were meant to be. In so doing, you endeavor to approach the divine – by acting rightly.
You strive because there is virtue in it.
You strive, because it is the right thing to do.
More than just a word, motto or mindset. Arete – excellence – is a mandate. A command.
Michelangelo could also have heard this command. To make the absolute most of his abilities and potential. And by virtue of his actions, become a true renaissance man.
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.” he is said to have remarked. Stating what could be a common refrain for those that choose to pursue excellence. For it is work. And only committed, ceaseless effort can render such compelling results.
“Michelangelo was not only regarded as the greatest living artist of his lifetime, but is now considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time. A number of his works in painting, sculpture, and architecture rank among the most compelling and famous in existence.
His output in every field during his long life was prodigious. When the sheer volume of his correspondence, sketches, and reminiscences that survive are taken into account, he is the best-documented artist of the 16th century.” **
It may not have dawned on him – as he was putting the finishing touches on that chapel ceiling or inscribing his name on Mary’s sash of marble – that his efforts would some day make him a man with global impact. But then again, he was pursuing excellence.
A level of excellence that to this day inspires artisans, architects and others to aspire.
John Uebersax sought to sum it up in this fashion:
“No English word or phrase captures the exact meaning of Areté . The nearest equivalents are ‘excellence’ and ‘virtue’. But there is something more to Areté which cannot be expressed in words.
There is something of the divine in it.”
From a mortal perspective; we are commanded to make the most of all that we are and all that we have.
To become all we are meant to be.
By accepting this edict, we can then endeavor to approach the divine.
By virtue of our right thoughts, words and deeds, we can climb those unclimbable rocks.
To that place where Arete dwells.
For…” in the moment of excellence, something transcends the mundane and touches the ideal.”***
*** John Uebersax