What is Areté?
We explain Areté, a philosophical term with deep meaning first used by Greeks.
The meaning of Areté changes depending on what it describes, as everything has its own particular Areté or “excellence”. The areté of a man is different from the areté of a horse, and they are both different than the areté of an apple, or the areté of a nation-state.
With that in mind:
Areté roughly means “moral virtue”. It refers to an innate “excellence” or “essence” in all things, and the striving toward that potential or purpose.
For instance, if we are being “our best selves”, we are perfectly adhering to our predestined essence, and thus we are being “excellent”. Likewise, if an apple seed grows the perfect apple tree, it is adhering to its essence and being excellent. In both cases, the potential and fulfillment of excellence is areté.
As you may be picking up on already, areté is a broad catch-all concept used by the Greeks of which there is no English equivalent (nor is there one definition in the Greek texts).
Despite its elusive definitions, we can say areté often translates roughly to: “the aristocracy of virtues”, and in this sense can be understood by looking at Aristotle’s theories on “essence” and his theories on balancing vices and virtues (as explained below).
In short, If a person, place, thing, etc has an “excess” or a “deficiency” of excellence, then it is not in its “most excellent” state, and thus the term areté does not describe this imbalanced state (although it could certainly describe striving back toward it).
So for a very general example:
|Vice of Deficiency||Virtuous Mean||Vice of Excess|
|Too little “x”||Areté||Too much “x”|
Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy #38. See also the utilitarian virtue theory, social contract theory, Kant’s categorical imperative, and other virtue theories on Crash Course Philosophy.
TIP: The existentialists believed that things don’t have an innate essence, Aristotle did, and that makes him an essentialist. Innate essence in any and all things, in its most exalted form, is areté. See our page on essentialism vs. existentialism.
How to Understand Areté as Moral Virtue
Areté, especially as a moral term applying to humans, can be thought to describe the potential for, and the pursuit of, excellence/virtue in ourselves and, the spreading of virtue/excellence to others.
It is a somewhat idealist concept when applied to morality, but can also be used to describe the mundane and rational (like the knife is only a knife with a handle, the handle is a essence of sorts; if the knife cuts well and the handle is sturdy, the knife has Areté).
Areté as a moral term doesn’t just mean striving toward excellence, it means avoiding vices (deficiencies and excesses of virtue) and helping others to do the same (as that is a fulfillment of grand purpose). (See a list of Aristotle’s vices and virtues, we also explain this in detail below).
If the point of life is happiness, as the Greek philosophers generally thought, then areté is a catch-all word that describes being in-tune with one’s higher self, finding happiness through virtue, ethics, and morality. Doing good for others and healing pain, because it is right, not seeking lower things just because they feel good. There are many ways to describe this on a number of atheistic, ethic, and moral levels.
In many ways areté can be thought of as virtue itself, thus many simply use “moral virtue,” or just “virtue,” as a placeholder in English.
It should be understood that the terms “moral” and “virtue” do not refer specifically to what is moral or virtuous in regards to religion or the state. Neither does the term refer to ethics or one’s purpose in life. It doesn’t refer directly to good and evil either. Instead, it refers to fundamental moral virtue all authority figures (the state, church, society, schools, and other “elders”) should seek to exemplify and teach the next generation, specifically those expected to have influence.
This can be understood by looking at the concept of the polis. Polis simply means “the people“, but the philosophy surrounding it refers to the ideal city-state and the corresponding politics (the Greeks were very proud of their “pure” Democracy). Aristotle describes political science the ultimate technology to spread virtue and the concept of rhetoric as a tool to achieve this. Aristotle describes persuasion, politics, and influence as technologies with which one can achieve areté.
The video below describes goodness and the virtue as understood by Aristotle (in regards to the self and state). The word areté is never explicitly said, but if you wrap-up every idea in the video into one overarching concept of virtue, goodness, ethics, and higher meaning, you could describe that overarching concept as areté.
PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Aristotle [HD]. Homer, Plato, and even some lesser known philosophers discussed areté (along with other related concepts). Since Aristotle is one of the later teachers we will start with him. Here is Aristotle in “the art of living a good life”.
FACT: The phrase “the pursuit of happiness” is closely related to “the pursuit of excellence”. The term areté encompasses the related to telos (purpose), ethos (ethics), and the minor and major virtues.
TIP: When discussing philosophy and language on FactMyth.com we often mention “areté” as an example of morality not dependent on religion or the state, or as a word for which there is no English equivalent.
More Ways to Describe Areté
Since there is no English equivalent to areté, we have to rely on examples and semantics. Below are some different ways to understand areté.
Areté as “Being One’s Best Self.”
In simple English terms, we can say areté describes “being one’s best self and living up to one’s full potential” (or the equivalent when discussing places, things, and other concepts). All things can have areté according to some of the later Greek philosophers, but let’s not focus on that aspect here.
Areté as “The Potential for, and Pursuit of, Excellence.”
Another way to describe areté, is “the potential for, and the pursuit of, excellence, the virtues, and goodness,” The term more-or-less describes one who values and acts in the pursuit of goodness and virtue over “lesser things” like money and sensual pleasure. The term implies this is done altruistically and not begrudgingly, but the Greeks knew there were different tiers of goodness and defined them. Evil intentions and the pursuit of material possessions at the expense of others were the lowest kinds of these tiers, and the pursuit of excellence was the highest.
Virtue is a different concept than evil or sin. The opposite of virtue is described instead as vice.
Areté as “a Virtue that Supersedes Other Virtues.”
If virtues like justice, temperance, charity, and courage are considered virtuous, and if seeking higher goodness over money and pleasure is also virtuous, then areté describes the pursuit and acquisition of these virtues. It is not a virtue equal to these virtues, it supersedes and implies all other virtues.
Areté as “a Guidepost for Leaders.”
All people, places, and things have the potential to achieve excellence, but one’s “lot in life” is a very real factor in regards to success. So then, the Greeks knew, as is still partially true today, those who are born at the right place and time simply have more access to the technology needed to achieve areté (namely social influence and resources).
In this matter of thinking, we can romanticize the teaching of Alexander the Great by Aristotle, or the teaching of Plato by Socrates, or even Aristotle by Plato understanding that showing the path of excellence to those in the highest positions of influence has a powerful butterfly effect.
Such is the idea of teachings like the Tao, the Art of War, religion, statesmanship, and the classics in general.
Today, we can somewhat naively say, that any natural born citizen can become their countries leader or any man or woman can become the next Bill Gates. Due to the modern democratization of influence that technology and progress has brought, the understanding of the virtues, and sharing the understanding of the meaning and pursuit of excellence, is more vital than ever.
With the above in mind, the following video takes a deeper look at exactly how to understand Greek philosophy through a modern lens.
Ethics (Aristotle and Virtue). Another look at Aristotle and the meaning of areté.
FACT: Areté is loosely related to the Greek word aristos, which is the root of the word aristocracy, referring to that with superiority and nobility. So then, Areté is a superior virtue.
The Meaning of Areté to Homer, Plato, and Aristotle
Homer, Plato, Aristotle and more all wrote about Arête / Arete / Areté. The descriptions and spelling change, and meanings evolve, but the underlying concept of moral virtue and excellence remains consistent. Below we look at how the term evolved in meaning from Homer to Aristotle.
TIP: See this excellent overview of Arête by philosophynow.org (which I use as a guidepost for the next section).
Homer wrote about areté in the Iliad and Odyssey in relation to heroes. It referred to “a young hero’s responsibility – their moral imperative”, the acquisition and mastery of intellectual and physical skills from elders in defense of the state (where the state represents that which is worth defending). This hints at the meaning of areté in Homeric times (800 BC).
Plato wrote about areté in his Allegory of the Cave and other texts (circa 400 BC) where the term took on deeper meanings regarding truth and wisdom within one’s self. Plato considered Areté an underlying virtue that superseded courage, temperance, justice, and other virtues related to “goodness” and ethics or ethos.
To Plato areté didn’t just describe the outward heroes journey, but an inward one. Plato considered areté separate from goodness, and the other virtues. He also applied the concept of areté to non-human objects discussing how even an apple or chimney could possess excellence.
The less remembered Isocrates (circa 350 BC) describes areté as “an education that cultivated the whole man, preparing him for political, intellectual, and moral leadership,”(Proussis p.56). In ways, Isocrates combines the importance of inward and outward manifestations of areté and further applies the concept to statesmanship and other roles of social influence.
Aristotle expanded on the previous philosophers’ ideas of areté in Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC) and other works. Aristotle considered excellence as a quality of something, or someone, that manifests its unique purpose or telos.
Aristotle, in a way, combines the concepts of inner excellence, outward acts of greatness, and the communication of excellence as the concept of purpose (telos).
Aristotle specifically points to political science as the means which through moral virtue is manifested on a collective level. He saw the importance of achieving excellence in all things, and the thing above things is the state, the virtue above all virtues is areté, therefore for Aristotle to teach Alexander the Great concepts like areté, telos, polis, and ethos was to ensure enlightenment for the people.
PHILOSOPHY – Aristotle. This video by “The School of Life” is a good overview of Aristotle’s understanding of virtue.
Aristotle’s Table of Virtues and Vices
The following table is from Nicomachean Ethics and shows Aristotle’s virtues. He thought that each virtue had a balance (mean) and each had two related vices which were expressed by a deficiency or excess of virtue. So we can say “areté” encapsulates all these virtues. The concept isn’t just to embrace these virtues in oneself, but to also understand others and help them embrace the virtues. As the Tao puts it, “what is a good man but a bad man’s teacher”.
NOTE: There is more than one way to translate the table, feel free to search for other translations.
ARISTOTLE’S NICOMACHEAN ETHICS /TABLE OF VIRTUES AND VICES (source)
|Vice of Deficiency||Virtuous Mean (Roughly Areté)||Vice of Excess|
|Want of Ambition||Right Ambition||Over-ambition|
FACT: The concept of areté, and the stories of Homer and Plato, influenced Alexander the Great (who was tutored by Aristotle, and later a student of Plato). Alexander the Great went on to found Alexandria (a city that can be said to be rooted in the concepts of areté and other related virtues).
In short, all good qualities and virtues (inward and outward) have an underlying property of excellence, or areté. The Mona Lisa is an example of excellence; Plato would have considered Socrates’ teachings to have excellence, and something simple like the act of helping an old lady cross the street can be said to have excellence.
Excellence by any name, be it areté, telos, ethos, purpose, mastery, morality, or any other greater or lesser virtue, is roughly the same. It is the “the aspect of the human condition that recognizes and acts upon potential and goodness in its truest, most exalted, and most excellent form.”
We can conclude that the potential for areté exists in all things, but achieving areté is an ongoing journey, and the pursuit is itself an achievement of the highest order.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure HD Trailer. Does humor belong in the pursuit of excellence? One could argue Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves have both lived most excellent lives.
- “Arete (moral virtue)” Wikipedia.org
- “Virtue” Wikipedia.org
- “Polis” Wikipedia.org
- “Rhetoric[” Classics.MIT.edu
- “Arête” Philosophynow.org
- “Nicomachean Ethics” Classics.MIT.edu
- “Telos (philosophy)[” Wikipedia.org
- “Aristotle” Wikipedia.org
- “αρετη” John-uebersax.com