Thursday, November 6, 2014


Areté a concept worth being familiar with. It is essentially what the Stoics mean by "virtue" and it is probably closer to what Ben Franklin was aiming for than the way many define virtue today.

From Wikipedia:
Arete, in its basic sense, means "excellence of any kind". The term may also mean "moral virtue". 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, 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 this light, Ben Franklin is supremely admirable. Born in Boston in 1706, he was apprenticed at the age of twelve to his older brother James, who owned a printing shop. After many disputes with (and beatings by) his brother, he yearned for freedom, but James would not release him from the legal contract of his apprenticeship. So at the age of seventeen, Ben broke the law and skipped town. He got on a boat to New York and, failing to find work there, kept on going to Philadelphia. There he found work as an apprentice printer and, through skill and diligence, eventually opened his own print shop and published his own newspaper. He went on to spectacular success in business (Poor Richard’s Almanack – a compendium of sayings and maxims – was a hit in its day); in science (he proved that lightning is electricity, then tamed it by inventing the lightning rod); in politics (he held too many offices to name); and in diplomacy (he persuaded France to join the American colonies’ war against Britain, though France had little to gain from the enterprise). He lived to the age of eighty four, and enjoyed the whole ride. He took pride in his scientific discoveries and civic creations; he basked in the love and esteem of France as well as of America; and even as an old man he relished the attentions of women and the art of flirtation.

What was his secret? Virtue. Not the sort of uptight, pleasure-hating Puritanism that some people now associate with that word, but a broader kind of virtue that goes back to ancient Greece. The Greek word arete meant excellence or goodness, especially of a functional sort. The arete of a knife is to cut well; the arete of an eye is to see well; the arete of a person is... Well, that’s one of the oldest questions of philosophy: what is the true nature, function, or goal of a person, relative to which we can say that he or she is living well or badly? Thus in saying that happiness (eudaimonia) is “activity of soul in conformity with virtue,” Aristotle wasn’t saying that happiness is giving to the poor and suppressing your sexuality. He was saying that a good life is one where you develop your strengths, realize your potential, and become what it is in your nature to become.
"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 areté, 'excellence' — we shall have much to say about areté. It runs through Greek life."

...Kitto had more to say about this areté of the ancient Greeks. "When we meet areté 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; areté on the other hand, is used indifferently in all the categories, and simply means excellence."

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 areté.

Areté 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.