Arete is an ancient Greek word that means “virtue” and “excellence.” Arete is the goal of classical Christian education. This goal is reflected in JH Classical Academy’s mission statement:
The mission of Jackson Hole Classical Academy is to cultivate within its students the wisdom and virtue necessary to discover their God-given potential and contribute to a flourishing and free society.
JHCA’s mission is to produce graduates characterized by arete.
The history, usage, and connotation of arete is important for two reasons. First, its definitions of “virtue” and “excellence” are likely to be misunderstood outside of their classical and Christian context. Second (and what will be the topic of following posts), the use and understanding of this word exemplifies how classical and Christian thought have worked side by side for millennia.
Not only did the connotations of arete change in Greek over time, but its translations in English have, as well. What do we think of when we hear excellence? Perhaps bland and hyperbolic advertisements spring to mind. A quick Google search yields hundreds of schools marketing their “excellence in academics” to signal an elite and competitive program. These connotations are vague, somewhat positive platitudes, but lack any real meaning or vision. Rather, in most modern contexts, excellence denotes the superiority of one thing to another.
Excellence, when pursued as competitive success, has little to do with virtue. Excellence of this kind in any field requires devotion and specialization to the detriment of all other areas of life. Musicians, runners, bankers, and teachers can destroy their physical or mental health or relationships by aiming to be “the best.” This is not the kind of excellence a classical Christian education promotes!
Virtue—a word that has been slipping into senescence for two hundred years—likewise dredges up unpleasant associations. It has been imbued with connotations of Victorian prudishness, restrictive rules, and ostentatious morality. Virtue sapped of its original virility becomes rule-following, hence its primary definition in Merriam-Webster as “conformity to a standard of right.” If virtue is achieved only through will power and effort, then a person fails to be virtuous the moment he falls short of a standard.
On the contrary, virtue ought to be not only the result of human action, but the actualization of human potential. The individual seeking virtue asks not just “what should I do?” but “who can I be?”
And so while "excellence" and "virtue" are fine definitions of arete, they need to be contextualized and rehabilitated in order to understand what arete is. A full treatment will follow in subsequent essays, but let’s begin by looking at how St. Paul uses the word in Philippians 4:8, JH Classical Academy’s guiding verse:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any arete, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (ESV)
St. Paul is speaking not of excellence as competitive success. Nor is he speaking of virtue as adherence to a strict moral code. Arete here seems to be the quality of something noticeably different from the norm—a surpassing goodness that is difficult to define and easy to identify.
For example, Usain Bolt is excellent at running the 100m. He is excellent not because he wins races. His running would be excellent even if he were not competing; it has the immediately recognizable qualities of speed and grace that reach the limit of human ability.
If arete is defined as “excellence, the fulfillment of potential” and “virtue, the possession of goodness,” then the word begins to make sense as the goal of a classical Christian education.
Stay tuned for Arete Part 2!