For several months, I have been researching the concept of “areté”, a Greek word loosely translated to mean “excellence of any kind”. I first came across it while reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, where it was referenced as a more personal analogue to Pirsig’s “Quality”. Something about the concept stuck with me- a counter to what felt like a crushing pressure towards greater personal specialization. At the same time, I saw areté reflected in a variety of disjointed modern concepts, from the growth of “maker” culture to the localvore movement. areté seems to encompass the broad group of people actively working to develop a deeper understanding of how they interact with their world. With this in mind, I’d like to start by evaluating areté in a historical and personal context, before clarifying a few key aspects of a passable modern definition, as well as calling attention to a few modern writers and doers that best embody this definition.
The best way to understand classical areté is to consider the definition found in Kitto’s “The Greeks”:
“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 a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing areté.”
In seeking to tie this ancient ideal to modern times, the natural bridge ideal is that of the Renaissance Man, the famous polymaths such as Da Vinci or Michelangelo. Highly intellectual, they made enormous strides in math, science, philosophy, and the arts. On the other hand, we don’t envision Da Vinci behind a plow, or Michelangelo boxing with the youth of Venice.
In more recent times, the writing of Henry David Thoreau might be the best approximation of the idea. Thoreau was a poet, a naturalist, and a radical political writer, but as works such as “Walden” show, he was a rugged survivalist who lived for many years off the product of his sweat and hard labor. In “Walden”, he explained what he hoped to gain through his retreats into solitude and self-reliance: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
In evaluating areté at a personal level, I see parallels to a life goal I call the “any room” challenge: Developing the breadth of experience necessary to walk into any room and have a meaningful, informed conversation with those inside. This can require diverse knowledge, such as a working understanding of international finance, so you can relate to friends in the industry despite never having worked alongside them. It can require diverse experiences, such as having rebuilt a motorcycle engine so you can hold your own in a conversation about the merits of your bike while stopped at a roadside diner. Above all, it requires you to have lived a full and complete life, something I find to be a worthy goal.
I’m also intrigued by the fact that areté also explicitly requires two qualities that we see today as being quite in opposition to each other. There is a physically rigorous excellence (boxing, driving a furrow, etc), but held in equal esteem is a high level of emotional sensitivity (being moved to tears by a song). Somehow, modern culture has made physical rigor a “manly” quality, while emotional sensitivity should be exclusively feminine. Eliminating this artificial divide seems like a worthwhile goal.
An individual possessing areté is not a Luddite. Schools of thought advocating a “back to nature” philosophy, or some equivalent often advocate for a near total rejection of technology. In the case of areté, I believe the opposite is the case. Part of “surpassing excellence” is being well versed in the technology of the day. Homer drove a plow in the same way a modern person might be a competent computer programmer.
Areté is gender neutral. This should be self evident but it is somewhat obscured by the historical language used. For some time, it seemed like the only real modern definition of the well rounded nature I am looking for was “manliness”, which obviously comes loaded with gender issues. Areté is a worthwhile pursuit for all people of any gender, background, or age.
Areté is not tied to any religion. I’m not entirely sure why, but most of the online discussion around areté seems to be dominated by religious individuals/groups. I assume that this is due to the fact that modern discussions of “virtue” seem to be marginalized to a religious context, despite there being no reason for this to be the case.
Perhaps the best definition of areté I have heard came via a passing comment from a friend, describing someone as “wanting to get to the core of everything in life.” It’s not enough to use the computer, you must be able to program it as well. It’s not enough to ride the motorcycle, you must be able to fix it as well. This would certainly seem to capture the mindset of someone who seeks to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”, one who is “an excellent all-rounder”.
Aside from Pirsig’s writing on the topic (published in 1974), I’m not aware of any modern authors addressing the topic of personal quality so directly. The blog Art of Manliness (run by an amazing husband/wife team) has done several great series on topics like honor, self-reliance, and specific skills tutorials. Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft”(published in 2010) confronts the devaluation of tactile and “trade” work in favor of purely intellectual “knowledge” work, and individuals like Zach Klein promote a Walden-esque “back to nature” mentality that is at peace with technology in publishing projects like Beaver Brook and Cabin Porn.
In an increasingly specialized world, where walls seem thrown up at every opportunity between the tactile and the intellectual, the natural and the technological, and the sciences and the arts, any effort to present a vision of a more complete individual is worthy of pursuit. Modern areté is a movement without a name; the sum of thousands of individuals broadening their knowledge of the world. Individuals in this movement are often seeking a goal without a guide or framework. Areté is that framework: one for the maker, the doer, and the hacker.