Arete (excellence)

From Academic Kids

Arete (Greek: Template:Polytonic) in its basic sense means "goodness" or "excellence" of any kind, especially "manly" qualities. In its earliest appearance in Greek this notion of excellence was bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function. The moral excellence or arete of a man was then ηθικη, αρετη or virtue.

"The root of the word is the same as 'aristos', the word which shows superlative ability and superiority, and 'aristos' was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility." 1 (see Aristocracy) The Ancient Greeks applied the term to anything: for example, the excellence of a horse, the excellence of a bull to be bred, and the excellence of a man. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes, since everything has its own particular excellence; the arete of a man is different from the arete of a horse.

By the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E., arete as applied to men had developed to include quieter virtues, such as dikaiosyne (justice) and sophrosyne (self-restraint). Plato attempted to produce a moral philosophy that incorporated this new usage (and in doing so developed ideas that played a central part in later Christian thought), but it was in the work of Aristotle that the doctrine of arete found its fullest flowering.



In Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, arete is mainly used of heroes and nobles, with especial reference to strength and courage (Penelope's arete, on the other hand, relates to co-operation (for which she's praised by Agamemnon).


Arete was occasionally personified as a goddess, the sister of Homonoia (a personification of concord).


Arete is a significant part of the paideia of ancient Greeks: the training of the boy to manhood. This training in arete included: physical training, for which the Greeks developed the gymnasion, mental training, which included oratory, rhetoric, and basic sciences, and spiritual training, which included music and what is called virtue.

Examples of usage

  • "Virtue (arete) then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it." Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, II vi 15, translated H. Rackham (1934: Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press)
  • "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." New Testament, Philippians 4.8.


  1. Paideia; the Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger, Oxford University Press, NY, 1945. Vol. I, pg 5.
  2. Paideia, Vol. I, pg. 15.

Sources and reading

  • Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott (1883: Oxford, Oxford University Press)
  • Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Werner Jaeger, trans. Gilbert Highet (1945: New York, Oxford University Press)
  • "Arete/Agathon/Kakon", G.B. Kerferd (in Paul Edwards [ed.-in-chief] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967: New York, Macmillan & The Free Press)

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