Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On arête: the act of living up to one's full potential

When I turn on my T.V., the first thing I see is a beautiful man or woman, talking to an equally beautiful man or woman. I open a magazine and all I see is Photoshop. It's not easy to live the ideal, these days. Still, we should count ourselves lucky; even without mass media and Photoshop, living up to the ideal may have been a lot worse for the ancient Hellens. Instead of mortal men and women, they took their cue from the Gods.

Beauty was a great good back in ancient Hellas. Physical prowess, good health and beauty were virtues which were highly sought after and greatly admired in others. In fact, those who possessed these traits, were considered blessed by the Gods. In a society of strict gender roles, many traits were valued for both men and women; physical beauty, for one. Clear thought, another. The ability to speak eloquently and convincingly, a third. Odysseus says to Euryalus:

"How true it is that the Gods seldom grace men equally with their gifts, of mind, form or speech. One man is meagre in appearance, but the gods crown his words with beauty, and men delight in him as he speaks sweetly in modest eloquence, conspicuous in a crowd, and looked on like a god as he crosses the city. Another seems an immortal, but his words lack grace."

All these traits are called arête (ἀρετή): the act of living up to one's full potential. It is linked to knowledge and wisdom, mental attributes which, in turn, influenced physical ones. Possessing the mental capacity to solve any situation, either through beauty, guile, inspired speech or battle prowess.

The term arete was applied to anything and anyone superior. It could be applied to an exceptionally well crafted vase, the person who made it or even the seller, who sold it for more than it was worth. A Delphic Maxim was formed around the the virtuous arête:

"Praise those having arête (Επαινει αρετην)"

For Hellenics, it should be important to take care of our bodies and minds and to develop our skills. We should be eloquent, mindful and find something in our lives which we can excel at. This may be sales, crafting, public speaking, art, housekeeping, farming, anything. If you are good in it and it gives you joy, you should focus on it; it should give purpose to your life.

We all deal with the stereotypes, the distorted views of our bodies, our minds and our gifts. There is another Delphic Maxim that deals with arête and beauty:

"Speak well of the beautiful/good (Καλον ευ λεγε)"

We hate the Photoshop, the models, the fitness trainers who advertise the equipment that doesn't work as magically as they advertised. We envy the singers who make it, the business men and women who earn millions. We do this, while we should be applauding their arête. They have the skills, the raw talent and the willpower to do what they are good at. Most of them have sacrificed greatly to get where they are today. Instead of coveting theirs, we should be cultivating our own.

Of course, this is not easy. So very few of the maxims are. But it is a worthy struggle, and a good way to live, especially in the eyes of the Gods.

2 comments:

eric said...

While physical beauty was admired, Plato and Socrates make the point that the pinnacle of beauty is a much more abstract concept about the beauty of souls, not bodies. And that the beauty of bodies is as nothing next to the beauty of a virtuous soul.
I think the tale of Eros finding Psyche to be the most beautiful thing, even more than Aphrodite points to this.

eric said...

That is not to say I disagree with you - jealousy can hardly lead to a beautiful soul