A Life of Aretē: Excellence



Suppose you were living at the time of Isocrates in Greece (436-338 BCE), and you were about to start your education under Isocrates, one of the great educators of ancient Greece. Early on in your education you would probably hear about “Gnothi seauton” (‘Know yourself’) and Aretē (‘excellence’).

Actually, for the ancient Greeks, the goal of all philosophy, all knowledge, all inquiry was a single purpose: Know yourself. In Greek, that expression is “gnothi Seauton.” So, the teachers in Greece would constantly remind their students of what their final goal was: Gnothi Seauton — know yourself. That was the ultimate and most essential goal of education.

A Life of Aretē (Áρετὴ = Excellence’)

Why“gnothi Seauton?” What is the purpose of self-knowledge? For the Greeks, the purpose of self-knowledge is to obtain aretē, or excellence. From self-knowledge (gnothi seauton) comes a life of excellence, aretē.


Balance is the core of excellence

What exactly is aretē, or excellence? It is hard to describe it. You have to see it, to experience it, in order to know what it is. St. Paul, for example, described aretē as what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable–in a word, excellent (Philippians 4:8)—and for ‘excellent,’ he used precisely the word aretē in Greek. That is because, if you say aretē, you include all those other qualities.

For the English, aretē, or excellence, is included in the ideal of “lady,” or “gentleman,” of “knight.” What is it to be a “lady,” a “gentleman,” a “knight”—in other words, people of excellence (aretē)? It’s the little things, the small gestures, the displays of quality of life, the sentiments, the disposition of character. How do you define that? You don’t: You experience it.

In my interpretation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, this is precisely what it means: a person who has attained aretē, or excellence. As I interpret Nietzsche, some day we will see such people rising in all the corners of the world, from all countries, from all races and ethnicities, from all backgrounds and genders. In my view, we have reached this time as of December 2012.

But if you try to pinpoint what aretē is, exactly, you will find it is difficult to define it. Aretē is something that you experience rather than define. That is why, I think, when people asked Jesus about the truth, his answer was, “I am the truth.” I think what he meant was, “Hang around with me; observe me; study me. Then you’ll know the truth.”

That, I think, was how the ancient Greeks understood how education is done: through contact with people who live a life of aretē. You hang around with people of aretē, and pretty soon this excellence rubs off on you, so to speak. This is attendance as understood by Unificationists: Be with your teacher and become transformed.

excellent beauty

Excellent Beauty

That is why aretē is hard to define. It’s like the Tao for Taoism; or like savoir faire for the French, or the “American way” for Americans; or the jeitinho brasileiro for Brazilians. It is a quality of the heart.

And the heart? Well, “the heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing about” (Pascal). So, if you want to know the ways of the heart, spend some time in Brazil and learn the jeitinho brasileiro, or how Brazilians get things done through, around, between, under, over, and across obstacles.

The Ways of the Heart

In the physical body, this is called “collateral circulation”: when an artery of the body gets blocked, the heart finds a jeitinho around the blockage. The heart connects small arteries around that blockage and finds alternate routes to get the blood to the areas that need it. This is jeitinho, aretē, savoir faire, the “American way,” the “Tao,” or Jesus’ way (“I am the truth, the life, and the way”).


Brazilians have their jeitinho

So, there you have it: the purpose of education. Become a brain that is quick with information and solutions; a stomach that puts out a steely will and purpose; and a heart that finds “alternate routes” around blockages and obstacles. In other words, attain Aretē, savoir faire, jeitinho, the Tao, the American way. Live a life of strong stomach, brilliant brain, and fully developed heart—all three in balance. Behold Aretē!

Paulo-Juarez Pereira
Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA,
November 19, 2015

Photo Credits:
Isocrates. Copyright © 2004–2015 Florida Center for Instructional Technology. Used with permission for educational purposes. Source: http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/keyword/isocrates.

Exellent beauty. Author: Toni; Source: http://bit.ly/1MVwWmw. Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Brazilians. Author: Patrick; Source: http://bit.ly/1XaE14i; Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Balance. Author: Kane; Source: http://bit.ly/1kHSXeg; Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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