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Statue of Arete in Celsus' Library in Ephesus

Arete (Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means "excellence of any kind".[1] The term may also mean "moral virtue".[1] 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, Arete is frequently associated with bravery, but more often with effectiveness. The person of Arete is of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties—strength, bravery, and wit—to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, Arete involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans.

In some contexts, Arete is explicitly linked with human knowledge, where the expressions "virtue is knowledge" and "Arete is knowledge" are used interchangeably. The highest human potential is knowledge and all other human abilities are derived from this central capacity. If Arete 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.[2]


The Ancient Greeks applied the term to anything: for example, the excellence of a chimney, the excellence of a bull for breeding, 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.[3] 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."[4]

By the 5th and 4th centuries BC, 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,[5] 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 Plato 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".[6] Educating towards arete in this sense means that the boy would be educated towards things that are useful in life. However, even Plato 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."[7] 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.


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.[7]


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.[8]

In regards to the Iliad the way Homer describes Achilles is an example of Arete (187). Arete is associated with the goodness and prowess of a warrior (187). Debra Hawhee points out that the norms and practices of Athenian virtuosity “operate within the politics of reputation, whose normative poles are honor and shame” (187). This means Arete functions as an external phenomenon depending on outside reception and acknowledgement for its instantiation (188). Dying in battle or securing a victory in the Olympic Games were considered agathos (good) and, hence, deserving of timê (honor). So, not only is Achilles a brave and brilliant warrior but also, from the outset, he is destined to die in battle at Troy with the utmost glory—a guarantor of Arete.[9]


Arete was occasionally personified as a goddess, the sister of Homonoia (not to be confused with Harmonia), and the daughter of the goddess of justice, Praxidike.

Arete and Homonoia were known jointly as the Praxidikai (Exacters of Justice). As with many minor Greek deities, there is 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 BC 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.[citation needed]

This story was later used by Christian writers, such as Methodius of Olympus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Basil of Caesarea. Justin and Basil portray Arete as a squalidly dressed and unattractive figure,[citation needed] but Methodius portrays her positively in Banquet of the Ten Virgins.[citation needed]


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[edit]

  • "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."[10]
  • "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).[11]
  • 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?"[12]
  • "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.[7]
  • Arete is the name of a key protagonist in The Philosopher Kings, the second book of Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy in which a group of people gathered by the time-traveling goddess Athena work to achieve the ideal society as described in Plato's Republic. She is a precocious teenager who also appears in the sequel. Arete's name and its meaning ("excellence") is a small but important plot point in the book - as well as a general theme of the series as a whole.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Liddell, H.G. & Scott, R. A Greek–English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford, 1940), s.v. ἀρετή.
  2. ^ Richard Hooker "Areté". Archived from the original on January 4, 2011. Retrieved March 13, 2011.
  3. ^ Greek Philosophy: The Allegory of the Cave, The Divided Line Archived November 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Paideia; the Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger, Oxford University Press, NY, 1945. Vol. I, pg 5.
  5. ^ And in so doing, developed ideas that played a central part in later Christian thought
  6. ^ Miller, Stephen (2004). Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources. London, England: University of California Press. pp. 149–152. ISBN 978-0520241541.
  7. ^ a b c Miller 2004
  8. ^ Homer. The Odyssey. trans. by Robert Fagles. Introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. Penguin Classics Deluxe Ed, London. 1996
  9. ^ Hawhee, Debra. "Agonism and Arete". Retrieved 5 March 2014.
  10. ^ Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, II vi 15, translated H. Rackham (1934: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press)
  11. ^ New Testament, Philippians 4.8
  12. ^ Translated by Benjamin Jowett


  • Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Volume I: Archaic Greece: The Mind of Athens, translated by Gilbert HighetNew York,Oxford University Press, 1939,p. 15
  • G.B. Kerferd, "Arete/Agathon/Kakon", in Paul Edwards [ed.-in-chief], The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, New York, Macmillan & The Free Press 1967
  • Stephen G. Miller, "Ancient Greek Athletics", New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004* Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott (1893: Oxford, Oxford University Press)
  • "HOMONOIA : Goddess of Concord & Unanimity | Greek Mythology." N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.
  • "Homonoia (mythology)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 June 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.
  • "Praxidike." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.