Arete is the Hellenic virtue of greatness or "excellence". It means (to steal a tagline from the Army recruitment commercials of my youth) being "all you can be". But it is more than that. Arete is taking the tools life hands you and achieving great things by making the best use possible of them. Arete is important. It is perhaps the most important goal of the Hellenic polytheist because through arete immortality can be achieved.
Many religions have a list of rules they follow or at least a handful of guidelines and Hellenic polytheists are no different. We have the Delphic Maxims, of course, and then there are a bunch of guidelines for behavior in Hesiod's Works and Days. We also find important values through careful reading of Homer's Iliad, the Odyssey and various other works of the Classical period. These include respect for the Gods, of course, and the Code of Hospitality but these are simply guidelines for behavior, not life goals. Many of these works are the stories of out heroes journey to greatness, excellence, arete - the ultimate goal. Hercules had it, Odysseus had it, Penelope had it. And the thing about these folks is not that they were particularly good people; Odysseus and Penelope were both pretty dishonest and Hercules killed his own children. But they were great. They used the tools Nature had given them to achieve their goals. Odysseus wanted to go home. Penelope didn't want her kingdom ruled by anyone other than her husband or her son and Hercules fulfilled all the requirements set before him to earn his place on Mount Olympus as a God. They don't all get to be Gods, of course, but they are immortal. We remember them. And perhaps even more important, the Gods took notice of them and helped them. The Gods help those who help themselves. The Gods reward greatness.
Arete was an important part of educating young people in ancient Greece. Young people, particularly boys, were carefully trained in skills believed to be important in helping them achieve arete. These included oratory, rhetoric, science, music, virtue (justice, temperance, courage, prudence and piety) and physical training. Through oratory you can convince people to help you achieve your goals, through rhetoric you can convince them that you are in the right, science can help you find new and unique solutions to problems, physical strength can help remove obstacles and physical health provides stamina, virtue provides a framework within which to work and music, well music is good for the soul.
Now the thing about arete is that it is very non-specific. You can achieve arete in any area or in many areas or just in general and there does not seem to be a sense of right or wrong attached to it. Arachne achieved excellence in weaving (and then was punished for hubris, but that's another discussion altogether), Orpheus in music, Helen and Psyche were great beauties. Autolycus was a famous thief. Each took what nature gave them, honed it to perfection and used it to become great. Immortal even. Arete is a virtue, but it's not a morality. Strive for greatness, be the best you can at who you are. It's a good idea to this within the cardinal virtues, but there's quite a lot you can manage while still observing justice, temperance, courage, prudence and piety. The most important thing, of course, is to avoid hubris.
Another thing about arete is that we're supposed to respect it. In modern times we like to wallow in envy and this is sort of pointless. Yes, it's true that a great many people receive fame, money and honors without achieving excellence (Kardasian, Hilton, etc.) but these people will be forgotten in a generation. True arete comes from hard work. Work that is so great that it cannot be ignored or forgotten. Work that, despite our personal opinions of the person behind it, can be agreed upon across socioeconomic fields as great; maybe not good. Maybe not nice or friendly. But great - influential, impossible to ignore or forget. You know of whom I speak.
Arete seems to be something like the Protestant Work Ethic, but it also seems like something of a natural law. The idea that if you work very hard to become the best at whatever you do, the Gods will notice you and help you out. But not only that; people will notice. They will notice and hire you and tell your friends about you so they hire you and you'll get lots of business and lots of money. But the trick here is to be the best at what you are, not try to be something you're not because it's very difficult to excel at a craft you have no passion for.
So where does arete fit into the life of the modern Pagan? It's not that complicated a concept but it might be somewhat of a complicated process. After all, the Pagan community seems most comfortable in the shadows. With all of our Pagan Pride Days and Pagan Awareness pamphlets, we still prefer to be discrete. This doesn't have to be a problem though. First off, I don't know about you but I live in America. I can be Pagan and I don't care who isn't. This is something I've done well. I am a Pagan that gets along quite well with non-Pagans (although not always so well with Pagans) so this hasn't hampered me at all. Besides, just because you're a Pagan striving for arete doesn't mean your excellence has to be in the area of religion. You can be the best at whatever you do and nobody has to know who you pray to.
Now here's a thing about me: I'm lazy. I have always been happy with "good enough". I've known about arete for some years and I haven't done much about it. Greatness can come, perhaps, when the kids move out, etc. And anyway, how much do I personally want it? Really I'd like to be remembered by my family as the Grandma that taught us all about this and that, told great stories and made awesome cookies, but do I need to be remembered by the populous at large as anything else? No thank you. Can I achieve greatness as a housewife? Does that count? But then, mothering is the most important job in the world, why not?
There are other areas of my life I can and should work on. The physical is one. Arete often focused on physical perfection and that was very important in the ancient Greek world, indeed in any honor society. I can work on achieving physical excellence by eating right and exercising and maybe taking part in those charity marathons that are going on all the time. This will be an excellent example to my children as well because as a mother, their arete is also my goal.
I can also work on achieving greatness in the area of my employment as a dog trainer. To be honest, I am a dog trainer because it comes easily to me. I do not like to work at all and while the occasional difficult problem crops up requiring me to ask around for advice and do some research, dog training for the most part comes as naturally to me as reading or driving a car. (The hard part is explaining to the people what I'm doing). When I think of being the best dog trainer I can be… I think about doing work. The areas I can improve are paperwork areas for the most part and following up. That means phone calls, I hate talking on the phone. And paperwork. That is why I am no longer a secretary. But I did say arete is work. Yea. I don't want to work out or diet either.
So for this New Year I am thinking about arete and how I can bring it into my life. How I can model it for my children and how I can live my life according to my values. I know it will bring me blessings and I know that it will serve my ultimate goal of giving my children the best life possible. So it's time to step up. I will continue to blog about this journey in the months to come.
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