Arête: on the nature of human excellence

(Statue of arête at the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, photo by the Author.)

Let’s talk about arête, the Greek word often translated as “virtue.” It was used by Socrates (and, of course, Plato), Aristotle, and pretty much all the Hellenistic schools, including Stoicism. The Stoics recognized four cardinal virtues (and a number of subordinate ones): practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

Plato’s philosophical dictionary defines the cardinal virtues, in part, in this fashion (I have transcribed only the bits that are more in line with the Stoic version, the full definitions are longer and more varied):

Phronêsis (prudence, or practical wisdom): The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

Dikaiosynê (justice, morality): The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; social equality.

Sôphrosynê (temperance, moderation): Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

Andreia (fortitude, courage): The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; force of fortitude in respect of virtue.

The problem is that translating arête as virtue is both misleading and too narrow. Just like translating eudaimonia as happiness, or even flourishing, is. My preferred rendering of that term is “the life worth living.” Modern positive psychologists have actually given up on translating eudaimonia altogether, retaining the Greek term instead. 

“Virtue,” to the modern ear, has strong Christian overtones, which means that it sounds moralistic and directs the attention not to the sort of virtues mentioned above, but to Christian-like ones. Indeed, Thomas Aquinas took on board the four Stoic virtues, to which he added hope, faith, and charity (listed originally by Paul of Tarsus in the second letter to the Corinthians) to arrive at the seven canonical Christian virtues. Equally problematically, the term arête has a much wider meaning than the four cardinal virtues, even for the Stoics. And this is a point that, once elucidated, really brings Stoicism into sharp focus, revealing why it is such an enduring philosophy of life.

According to Freebase, “Arête, 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. Sometimes 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 to 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, arête is frequently associated with bravery, but more often, with effectiveness. The man or woman of arête is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties: strength, bravery, wit, and deceptiveness [famously, in the case of Odysseus], to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, arête 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.”

Given the above, you can begin to make much more sense of why the Stoics thought that a “virtuous” person, i.e., a person who is striving to be the best she could be, would excel not just at the moral virtues, but also at reasoning (logic, understood broadly as sound reasoning, therefore also becomes a virtue), as well as understanding the world (natural philosophy, or science, as we would call it today, is yet another virtue).

Which is why the Stoic curriculum involved the study of ethics (how to live one’s life), logic (the study of reasoning), and “physics” (the study of how the world works), as Diogenes Laertius reminds us:

“[The Stoics] say that philosophical doctrine has three parts: the physical, the ethical, and the logical. … These parts Apollodorus calls “topics”; Chrysippus and Eudromus call them “species”; others call them “genera.” They compare philosophy to an animal, likening logic to the bones and sinews, ethics to the fleshier parts, and physics to the soul. Or again, they liken it to an egg: the outer parts are logic, the next parts are ethics, and the inmost parts are physics; or to a fertile field, of which logic is the surrounding fence, ethics the fruit, and physics the land or the trees. … No part is separate from another, as some of the Stoics say; instead, the parts are blended together. And they used to teach them in combination.” (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers VII.39).

Striving toward excellence (arête) in the moral realm, in the realm of reasoning, and in that of natural philosophy, then, is what we should all do, precisely because the three are deeply interconnected: one cannot live a eudaimonic life if one doesn’t reason well, or is mistaken about how the world works. To limit “virtue” to the moral domain, as the Christians did, is reductive and brings about a fundamental misunderstanding of what human excellence is. Just imagine the benefits in modern times of taking seriously the notion that the very point of education is to give the tools to students to truly be the best they can be: ethical, well reasoning people, who have a good grasp of how the world works.

Perhaps we should follow the example set by positive psychologists, drop “virtue” entirely and just talk about arête. Regardless, we at least ought to be keenly aware of what that fundamental concept actually means, not just of Stoicism, but of all Greco-Roman philosophy.

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