In the recent hit movie and book “The Hunger Games,” young heroine Katniss is tossed out into a computer-enhanced, forest-like setting and left to defend herself against the elements, as well as other young people intent on killing her. In her attempts to survive, Katniss uses a bow and arrow both to defend herself, and to kill animals for food. She cleverly charms and forms alliances with those who might help her. She escapes computer-generated brushfires and man-eating beasts alike. I’d hazard a guess that the Greek poet Homer would have concluded that Katniss was woman of “areté,” which to him described a person of the highest effectiveness, using all of his or her faculties (strength, bravery, wit, and deceptiveness), to achieve real results.
The word areté refers to a concept defined somewhat differently by various sources throughout time. Many would say areté means, quite simply, excellence. According to dictionary.com, this word of Greek origin is “the aggregate of qualities, as valor and virtue, making up good character.” Aristotle used the term as a measure of how well something or someone fulfills its intended use. Yet he also admitted that the definition of areté is not something that can be easily agreed-upon. Finally, in his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” author Robert Pirsig uses areté as a synonym for “Quality.”
Personally, I equate the concept of areté to reaching your highest potential as a human being. In his book Way of the Peaceful Warrior, author Dan Millmann wrote a quote that while simple, says it all. When Socrates is talking to Dan about how lousy he is in many aspects of his life while being great at gymnastics, Socrates says “Do you know what’s the difference between me and you? You practice gymnastics, I practice everything!”
It is my opinion that far too many people in this life don’t strive for areté, but rather settle for mediocrity. They live in a world where “just okay,” is good enough. If they have a job that pays the bills, and if their basic needs are met, they are happy. But why not strive for more?
We live in a world that still values the specialists and experts and considers them more valuable. However, those people are also marked by patterns of partial-completeness. I was a specialist and my life took a new focus: Find out those gaps and holes in my culture and now I am filling them up one at a time.
Consider the idea of today’s average man: He goes to work every day for a large corporation that sees him not as a person, but as a number. He comes home and flips on the television, and watches whatever news stories Channel 4 or 7 or 12 has deemed relevant. He goes back out and eats dinner at whatever restaurant the television commercials steered him towards. Perhaps he plays softball with his drinking buddies, or maybe he takes his son to a movie. The next days he gets up and does it all again.
Now contrast this with a description from H.D.F. Kitto’s book “The Greeks,” referenced by Robert Persig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in a chapter about men pursuing excellence:
“The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom…. 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.
“Areté implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency… or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”