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Arete (Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means excellence of any kind. 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. Arete in ancient Greek culture was courage and strength in the face of adversity and it was to what all people aspired.

"The most articulated value in Greek culture is Areté. Translated as "virtue," the word actually means something closer to "being the best you can be," or "reaching your highest human 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, 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, wit, and deceptiveness, to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, Areté involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans. The concept implies a human-centered universe in which human actions are of paramount importance; the world is a place of conflict and difficulty, and human value and meaning is measured against individual effectiveness in the world. Areté is explicitly linked with human knowledge, where the expressions "virtue is knowledge" and "Areté is knowledge" are used interchangeably. The highest human potential is knowledge and all other human abilities are derived from this central capacity. If Areté 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." [1]


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.[2] 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."[3]

By the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, 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,[4] 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 Aristotle 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". Educating towards arete in this sense means that the boy would be educated towards things that are useful in life.Although Aristotle 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. 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.[5]


It was commonly believed that the mind, body, and soul each had to be developed and prepared for a man to live a life of arete. This led to the thought that athletics had to be present in order to obtain arete. They did not need to consume one's life, merely exercise the body into the right condition for arete, just like the mind and soul would be exercised by other means.[5]


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" .[6]


Arete was occasionally personified as a goddess, the sister of Harmonia (a personification of concord), daughter of the goddess of justice Praxidike.

Arete and Harmonia were known jointly as the Praxidikai (Exacters of Justice). As with many minor Greek deities, there's little or no real mythical background to Arete, who is used at most as a personification of virtue. The only story involving Arete was originally told in the 5th century BCE by the sophist Prodicus, and concerns the early life of the hero Heracles.

At a crossroads, Arete appeared to Heracles as a young maiden, and offered him glory and a life of struggle against evil; her counterpart, Kakia (κακία, "badness"), offered him wealth and pleasure. Heracles chose to follow the path of Arete.

This story was later used by Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Basil of Caesarea, but Justin and Basil change Arete from a modest and attractive maiden into a squalidly dressed and unattractive figure.


Arete is a significant part of the paideia of ancient Greeks: the training of the boy to manhood. This training in arete included: physical training, for which the Greeks developed the gymnasion, mental training, which included oratory, rhetoric, and basic sciences, and spiritual training, which included music and what is called virtue.

Examples of usage

  • "Virtue (arete) then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it."[7]
  • "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (The Admonition of Paul in Philippians) [8]
  • Robert Pirsig uses "arete" as a synonym for "quality" in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This includes an extensive discussion of Plato's "Phaedrus" and the historical contrast between dialectic and rhetoric. "And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good -- Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" - Pirsig's line plays off a line in the Platonic dialogue "The Phaedrus" which reads: "And what is well and what is badly-need we ask Lysias, or any other poet or orator, who ever wrote or will write either a political or any other work, in metre or out of metre, poet or prose writer, to teach us this?"[9]
  • "O father Zeus, give honor to this hymn for a victor at Olympia, and to his now famous arete in boxing" From a Pindarian ode inscribed on an Olympic victor's statue of Diagoras of Rhodes that is set up in Olympia.[5]


  1. Richard Hooker
  2. Greek Philosophy: The Allegory of the Cave, The Divided Line
  3. Paideia; the Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger, Oxford University Press, NY, 1945. Vol. I, pg 5.
  4. And in so doing, developed ideas that played a central part in later Christian thought
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Miller 2004
  6. Homer. The Odyssey . trans. by Robert Fagles. Introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. Penguin Classics Deluxe Ed, London. 1996
  7. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, II vi 15, translated H. Rackham (1934: Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press)
  8. New Testament, Philippians 4.8
  9. Translated by Benjamin Jowett


  • Paideia, Vol. I, pg. 15.
  • Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott (1893: Oxford, Oxford University Press)
  • Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger, trans. Gilbert Highet (1945: New York, Oxford University Press)
  • "Arete/Agathon/Kakon", G.B. Kerferd (in Paul Edwards [ed.-in-chief] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967: New York, Macmillan & The Free Press)
  • "Ancient Greek Athletics", By Stephen G. Miller. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Arete. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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