What is Arete?
We explain arete, a philosophical term with deep meaning first used by Greeks.
The meaning of arete changes depending on what it describes, as everything has its own particular arete or “excellence”. The arete of a man is different from the arete of a horse, and they are both different than the arete of an apple, or the arete of a nation-state.
With the above in mind:
Arete roughly means “moral virtue”. It refers to an innate “excellence” or “essence” in all things, and the striving toward that potential or purpose. Arete is a “quality“, an “art”, an “aristocracy of virtues”, a “goodness”, “the highest potential”… a fundamental zest inherent in all things, unique in all things, and common in all things.
Examples of Arete
- If we are being “our best selves”, we are perfectly adhering to our predestined essence, and thus we are being “excellent”, this is the arete of the self.
- Likewise, if an apple seed grows the perfect apple tree, it is adhering to its essence and being excellent, and this is the arete of the apple seed.
- If a knife cuts perfectly, as the perfect knife should do, it is being “excellent”. To cut perfectly is the arete of the knife (the art of a knife is to cut perfectly, the quality of a knife in its highest state is the ability to cut perfectly).
- If a city-state offers its citizens “the greatest happiness“, then this is an excellent city-state, it is the arete of the state.
- If the soul is in perfect balance, then this is the arete of the soul.
In all cases, both the potential and fulfillment of excellence is arete.
TIP: The term can be stylized as Arête, Areté, or Arete. In Greek it is αρετη stylized ἀρετή.
Arete, a Term for Which Their is No English Equivalent
As you may be picking up on already, arete 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). This is just made more complex by the fact that it is an attempt to give name to “a highest thing” which is not directly tangible, and is instead a thing of metaphysics (and not just “a thing”, but arguably “a first virtue” that leads to a first “moral principle”).
TIP: If I had to pick a term I might go with “art”. “The art of politics”, “the art of a knife”, these statements make sense in English. Other contenders are “quality” and “excellence”. Or, in terms of moral theory, “the aristocracy of virtues” works well.
Arete, The Aristocracy of Virtues
Despite the elusive definitions, we can say arete is often well translated to: “the aristocracy of virtues” (“the highest moral virtue which itself encompasses and implies all other virtues in their perfect state”), and it is in this sense that it can be understood by looking at Plato and Aristotle’s theories on “essence” and, including, importantly for this conversation, Aristotle’s theories on balancing vices and virtues (as explained below).
Arete and Balance
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 arete does not describe this imbalanced state (although it could certainly describe striving back toward it).
So for a very general example (from Aristotle’ mean theory from his Nicomachean Ethics):
|Vice of Deficiency||Virtuous Mean||Vice of Excess|
|Too little “x”||arete||Too much “x”|
Thus, arete isn’t just having as much of a good thing as possible, or avoiding a bad thing. “The highest virtue” is a “moderation” and “balance” of all the virtues of a given “thing”. Excellence is in this sense analogous with Plato’s concept of justice and Aristotle’s mean theory.
When a thing is in its perfect “balanced” state, its “best state”, perfectly mirroring its ideal form/essence, that thing is “quality”, it is a work of art, it has art, it is the arete of that thing.
There are many ways to say this, and perhaps in the end it is just that this term is described best by a myriad of words which touches on the deep questions of moral philosophy like “what is justice?”, “what is quality?”, and “what makes something excellent?” (if not, why did Plato and Aristotle write so many books on the subject from Politics, to Nicomachean Ethics, to the Republic)?
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: If the highest good is justice, and if justice is what brings the greatest happiness to the most people, and if the perfect state and perfect soul embody justice, and if justice requires moderation, then this virtuous mean of justice is the arete of the state and soul. Or, ways to describe Plato’s Republic in one sentence. Aristotle’s theory from his Nicomachean Ethics isn’t that different. Arete is to all things what the philosopher king is to the state, a representation of a balance of the ideal forms manifesting in the highest form. The aristocracy of virtues, for a given thing. Excellence.
TIP: Speaking of the Republic, a good analogy for arete is a the cave metaphor. The shadows on the cave are half-baked versions of the “true forms” of things, a perfect representation of a form would be a “better and more excellent” version.
TIP: In some contexts, Arete is explicitly linked with human knowledge, where the expressions “virtue is knowledge” and “Arete is knowledge” are used interchangeably.
TIP: The existentialists believed that things don’t have an innate essence, Plato and Aristotle did, and that makes them essentialists (Plato even more the more Realist Aristotle). Innate essence in any and all things, in its most exalted form, is arete. See our page on essentialism vs. existentialism.
How to Understand Arete as Moral Virtue
Arete, 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 arete).
Arete 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 arete 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 arete 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 arete.
The video below describes goodness and the virtue as understood by Aristotle (in regards to the self and state). The word arete 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 arete.
PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Aristotle [HD]. Homer, Plato, and even some lesser known philosophers discussed arete (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 arete 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 “arete” 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 Arete
Since there is no English equivalent to arete, we have to rely on examples and semantics. Below are some different ways to understand arete.
Arete as “Being One’s Best Self.”
In simple English terms, we can say arete 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 arete according to some of the later Greek philosophers, but let’s not focus on that aspect here.
Arete as “The Potential for, and Pursuit of, Excellence.”
Another way to describe arete, 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. This can be confirmed by texts including Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Since the perfect ideal good is not always achievable, just as “knowing” is a journey not a destination, the pursuit of excellence is arete in this sense.
TIP: Virtue is a different concept than evil or sin. The opposite of virtue is described instead as vice. Learn more about virtue and vice.
Arete 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 arete describes the pursuit and acquisition of these virtues.
It is not a virtue equal to these virtues, it supersedes and implies all other virtues. To the Greeks “justice”/”balance”/”moderation” is a virtue beyond all other virtues. Moderating all the virtues is then, arete.
Arete 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 arete (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 arete.
FACT: Arete 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, arete is a superior virtue, the aristocracy of virtues.
The Meaning of Arete to Homer, Plato, and Aristotle
Homer, Plato, Aristotle and more all wrote about Arête / Areté / Arete. 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 arete 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 arete in Homeric times (800 BC).
Plato wrote about arete 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 arete an underlying virtue that superseded courage, temperance, justice, and other virtues related to “goodness” and ethics or ethos.
To Plato arete didn’t just describe the outward heroes journey, but an inward one. Plato considered arete separate from goodness, and the other virtues. He also applied the concept of arete to non-human objects discussing how even an apple or chimney could possess excellence.
The less remembered Isocrates (circa 350 BC) describes arete 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 arete and further applies the concept to statesmanship and other roles of social influence.
Plato’s arete is well described in his Republic where the conversation about the nature of justice and the ideal balance of the state and soul, along with nearly every metaphor in the book, all center around finding a perfect balance, an arete of state and soul. His “forms metaphor” works very well as does his Cave analogy (as does his Chariot analogy, tripartite soul analogy, etc). See an overview of the concepts of Plato’s Republic.
Aristotle expanded on the previous philosophers’ ideas of arete in Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC) and some of his other works like Politics. 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 arete, therefore for Aristotle to teach Alexander the Great concepts like arete, 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
We touched on it above, but to offer more detail, 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 “arete” 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 arete, 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 arete and other related virtues).
In short, all good qualities and virtues (inward and outward) have an underlying property of excellence, or arete. 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 arete, 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 arete exists in all things, but achieving arete 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? Well, if the ends are happiness then the answer is likely yes. Comedy is an art. 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