When I first heard this term in high-school, “arete” was described as an overall excellence as opposed to a specific wonderful quality. I thought of it often as I wanted to be an athlete not a soccer player. It was a point of pride to be picked early on for any sport, but also to be able to hold my own playing chess against players who wouldn’t be able to compete on the soccer pitch. I didn’t want to be a jock or a nerd, I wanted to be good at both. I wanted to have confidence I could learn anything. That generalized excellence was in my mind “arete.” It has always gone hand in hand with “athlete” in my mind. With the time for the summer Olympics just about upon us, it seems fitting to think back to this Greek term.
Now the term “arete” actually comes from Greek where it seems to mean good enough to fully fulfill a function. Some times, I’ve heard it is translated as “being the best you can be.” Of course it seems the term was applied to anything from bulls to chimneys. In my mind though it is best known as the root for the word aristocracy which has in it an arrogant presumption of being born as one of the best. Many of the aristocracy believed they ruled by divine right because they were the best of men. I don’t share the divine right belief, but I’ve always believed myself amongst the luckiest men in the world when it comes to the gifts with which I was blessed.
Born in U.S. – check
Born to parents who loved me and did everything they could to allow me to reach full potential (what ever that may be)- check * 4
Born to a not poor family – check
Born with some mental aptitude – check
Born with some athletic ability – check
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So I come back to the arete to which I have long aspired. I think back to my Latin teacher’s comment about me being smart enough and athletic enough to be good at any thing but probably not the best at the highest level. Shouldn’t my goal of arete then require me then to participate in life at what ever the highest or most difficult level possible? I think this is why when I was dating I always gravitated towards women who were doing some thing for the general good or who had a dream to do something worth while. It’s a dream of fulfilling my potential helping others fulfill theirs. Being able to do this raising children is like being able to apply an exponential multiplicative effect. As a side note, doesn’t this describe parenthood in general?
The irony is this entire post and even this blog reeks of another Greek concept, “hubris.” The irony of arete being a lofty goal in ancient Greece is the hubris needed to ever think it found would surely be considered one of the greatest crimes in ancient Greek society. This concept forever tempers any chest thumping or feeling I have done all I could have done. In fact, I had to laugh when the day after I wrote this, I was asked by a therapist I am lucky enough to see from time to time, “Do you know you are a pretty wonderful man?”
I then relayed the sentiments of this post which prompted a change to, “Do you know others think you are a pretty wonderful man?”
My answer after a moments pause was and is, “I feel like I have to try to live up to the best of what others think about me, and I have to admit I find that bar to be fairly high. I do take no small amount of pride in having to jump and stretch to reach it.”
So this mile marker reads “The search for Arete continues, but enough of Hubris has been found to continue the trek.”
Story of the week:
My daughter spotted a large butterfly fluttering in the grass at the preparations for the Memorial Day pig roast. It had lost the lower third of one of its wings. My daughter always has great empathy, and she was becoming rather agitated because this beautiful butterfly must be hurting. My wife asked if I could think of anything to calm her, so I went over and told her we needed to help the good fairies save the butterfly. I told her the fairies try their best to save all of the beautiful creatures of nature, but some times we need to help.
Because fairies have no desire to be captured by the people of our world, they have to perform their magic when and where nobody is around to witness. So we gathered the butterfly on a plate, and with cupped hands we placed the butterfly back in the ivy of the forest behind her grandparents home. We then quietly (because we didn’t want anyone else to know we were calling to the fairies) told the fairies there was a beautiful butterfly in need of help, and we promised not to come back there until at least the next morning so they need not wait to help.
Sure enough, when we looked the next day, the butterfly was no longer where we had placed it. So with a quick “thanks” it was back to the family and friends with spirits properly raised to enjoy a feast.
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