Arete: The Practice of Excellence

Reflections and recollections
July 7, 2020 Updated: July 10, 2020

In the 2003 television pilot for “Joan of Arcadia,” a young man claiming to be God approaches teenager Joan Girardi (Amber Tamblyn). Once he convinces Joan that he is indeed the Almighty—he knows every detail of her history, including the private promises she made to God if he would let her older brother survive a car accident—the two walk together, and Joan blurts out, “I’m not religious, you know.”

“It’s not about religion, Joan. It’s about fulfilling your nature.”

“Oh … Oh … I definitely haven’t done that.”

“Exactly.”

I spent my middle school years at Staunton Military Academy, now long defunct. It was 1963, and our math teacher, Lieutenant B., was a recent refugee from Castro’s Cuba. One time, probably as punishment for misbehavior, my friend Charlie was sweeping the floor of the classroom while the rest of us worked at our books. Charlie must have said something to Lieutenant B., who threw a blackboard eraser at Charlie’s head and fortunately for him, missed. “You have the highest IQ in this classroom,” Lieutenant B. shouted. “And you have the lowest grades!”

Fulfilling our nature. Meeting our potential. Striving for excellence. Like Joan, Charlie wasn’t making the cut.

Excellence and the Arts

The ancient Greeks had a word for this idea: arete (ah-reh-TAY). For the Greeks, arete was freighted with meaning, encompassing excellence of any kind, moral virtue, and the realization of potential.

Great artists of the past—Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Vermeer, and others—pursued arete in their work. Regardless of their personal failures, they demanded excellence from themselves in their compositions and in their quest for beauty and truth in their art.

Epoch Times Photo
Most would say that Johannes Vermeer achieved arete with his famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. (Public Domain)

The same holds true for the writers, poets, and playwrights whose works, even after hundreds of years, we still revere. Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, and a battalion of others: Whether they had ever heard of arete is immaterial. They practiced it in their craft, and their books endure.

Works of art themselves are said to contain arete. Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,  Jean-François  Millet’s “The Angelus,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” all possess arete because of the skill and insights their creators bestowed on them.

1924_Magic Mountain
“Der Zauberberg” (“The Magic Mountain”), 1924 German edition, by Thomas Mann. (H.-P.Haack CC BY 3.0)

Everyday Excellence

Of course, we can find people practicing arete in any field of endeavor. The chefs at Baked, a coffee shop and pie company in Asheville, North Carolina, produce pies that bewitch the taste buds; a young father I know here in Front Royal founded and operates Enable, a website design company into which he pours his heart and soul; a local woodworker builds tables and bookshelves that glow with the care and craft he bestows on them.

We can invest even the smallest tasks with arete: a well-tended garden, the clothes we select to wear in public, an evening barbeque with friends.

To bring arete into our lives, to aspire to excellence in the jobs we do, or to our moral practices is less difficult than we may imagine. Here are some helpful pointers I’ve gathered from watching others who strive for excellence.

First, a Warning

Though it is good and noble to pursue excellence, we should avoid becoming slaves to perfectionism. We must try to do our very best, but if we aim at perfection in every task and in every encounter with others, we’ll soon find ourselves frustrated. We should set our sights on high achievements, but we must recognize that in this world the “perfect” is rarely attainable.

An example: Every couple of days, I clean my kitchen, wiping down the countertops and the island table, washing dishes, scrubbing out sinks, dry-mopping the floor. Man, that place shines. But by the next evening the mail, books, and stray paper towels litter the island table, the sink has dirty dishes, and bits of dust and food dot the floor. Were I a perfectionist, I would strive always to keep the kitchen sparkling, but that effort would waste time I could give to other tasks, such as writing this column.

Now for some positive tips.

Slow Down

In our fast-paced world, we all too often dash from task to task, meeting our obligations with a lick and a promise. Instead, we might adopt the motto of the Roman Emperor Augustus: “Festina lente,” or “Make haste slowly.” In other words, we’ll keep moving forward, but we’ll give our attention fully to the work at hand.

Excellence comes with time and patience. Festina lente.

Augustus bust
Roman Emperor Augustus had the motto “Festina lente,” or “Make haste slowly.” (Public Domain)

Pride and Pleasure

By taking pride in what we do, we add to our storehouse of arete. Often when I finish mowing the acre of grass here at my daughter’s house, I will pour myself a drink—coffee in the morning, a glass of chardonnay in the evening—sit on the front porch, and revel in the sight of the clipped lawn.

This happiness is a byproduct of a job well done, a reward for trying to do our best. Here’s another example: A woman here in town has a reputation among her friends for delivering meals during a crisis: sickness, the death of a family member, the birth of a baby. The delicious recipes, the attention she lavishes on special dishes and homemade bread, even the careful packaging of a casserole or a cake along with a personal note all convey a message of love and, I am sure, bring her a deep sense of satisfaction and joy.

Mindfulness

Arete can deepen our personal relationships. Years ago, at a Long Island wedding, I watched a man in his mid-20s standing curbside, opening the car doors of arriving guests, greeting them, and escorting the elderly or the infirm into the synagogue. Even after all this time, I remember being impressed by his sincerity in conversing with the wedding guests, his tenderness toward those who had physical difficulties. This young man was entirely in the moment, a model gentleman and greeter, and from the looks he received from the wedding guests, I could tell they too appreciated him.

That is arete in action.

This practice of arete also applies to the realm of morality and virtue. In “The Odyssey,” for example, Homer presents Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, as a model wife, refusing the hands of suitors and remaining faithful to her husband despite his long absence. Like Penelope, we can seek moral excellence, striving to follow a code of ethics that will not only sustain but also elevate us.

John_Roddam_Spencer_Stanhope_Penelope_
Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife puts arete into action. “Penelope,” 1864, by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. Sotheby’s November 2017. (PD-US)

The Code

In “Movies Make The Man: The Hollywood Guide to Life, Love, and Faith for Young Men,” I wrote these words:

“Men live by a code.

“They may lack the skill to articulate that code. They may even be unaware that they live by a code.

“But all men worthy of the name live by a code.

“This code is a man’s set of principles, often quite simple and plain, shaped from his breeding, background, education, and experience. A man’s code is that set of rules which he cannot break without compromising his very soul. It is his Ten Commandments, his Constitution, the precious offering on the high altar of all that he holds real and good.”

At the time, I didn’t realize I was describing arete. But there it is.

Often we fall on our faces in our pursuit of arete—I certainly have kissed the sidewalk more than a few times—but the end of the race is not the point. The race itself is what matters, the yearning to do our best, the desire to improve (however minuscule that improvement), who we are, and what gifts we can bring to the world.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.