αρετη

Transliteration: arete or areté
Definition: Virtue, excellence, moral excellence
Pronunciation: ah-reh-'tay (hear)

Explanation

No English word or phrase captures the exact meaning of arete. The nearest equivalents are 'excellence' and 'virtue'. But there is something more to arete which cannot be expressed in words. There is something of the Divine in it. Perhaps the only true way to understand arete is to consider two or more examples of excellence and to contemplate what it is they share.

What does it mean when we say of an action, an artistic work, or some flawless athletic maneuver, that it is excellent? To behold what is excellent, in whatever form, brings us the same joy. We perform an action with excellence and say, "perfect!". In the moment of excellence, something transcends the mundane and touches the Ideal.

For Plato, arete is mainly associated with moral excellence. It is superordinate to specific moral virtues of Courage, Temperance, Justice, etc.; something they all share, a special, unnamed quality, their essence. It is clearly related to Goodness, but not the same thing.

For Aristotle, something is excellent when it manifests its unique purpose or telos. The unique, defining quality of human beings, for Aristotle, what makes them distinct from other creatures, is the capacity for rational thought. Human excellence, then, involves the correct use of reason, principally in connection with moral choice.

Reading

Home   >   Psychology and Religion   >   Index

©2012 John Uebersax PhD