Arete 3

Ben Walter
The previous essay explored how the Greek word arete changed over centuries from meaning “excellence of any kind” to primarily “moral excellence.” We left off with Aristotle, who believed that virtue consisted in actions to pursuit of happiness (with true happiness being a well-ordered soul not physical pleasure.)
            Aristotle, and many other classical philosophers, thought that the virtuous person was ruled by reason—i.e., that reason leads to virtue. And how could they not? Unbridled passion and immoderate feelings create a turbulent, rather than well-ordered, soul. These philosophers also generally agreed that not even religious feeling was particularly inclined to create virtue. How could the philandering Zeus or resentful Hera be considered role models for virtuous action? And so classical philosophers viewed fervent religious devotion, beyond the necessity of public duty, as superstition at best. Only reason and intellectual contemplation lead to virtue.
The problem with equating reason and virtue is that the scheme favors the exploitive social structure of ancient Greece and Rome. Male, land-owning citizens who had the time and money to pursue philosophy were those who had the opportunity to contemplate “the Good” and therefore aspire to a virtuous life. Women, slaves, children, and everyone else, while they could form some virtuous opinions and habits, could not reach an enlightened status. Arete in its classical sense is, even at its best, aristocratic.
            Virtue, when equated purely with action according to reason, is also a brutal standard. It is extremely easy to fall short of excellence, preventing any human from truly reaching a state of perfection. The idea both that strict moralism instills virtue and that meritocracy brings forth excellent still exists. They are both philosophies that inform many popular standard methods of education, business, and religion. Like the pagan wisdom of the Greeks, they have a strong, cruel logic.
            Controversially and in stark contrast, Christianity offers an alternative standard of virtue, in which virtue is personal, the reflection of God’s character. Early Christian theologians debated over the role of human will and reason in becoming virtuous. The theologians, led by St. Augustine, agreed that while human will and reason play a part, virtue cannot be attained by human will and reason alone.
            The prolific St. Augustine integrated the classical idea of virtue and the Christian adherence to the teachings and life of Christ. Like the pagan classical philosophers, he believed that virtue leads to happiness. His definition of happiness was more specific than the classical one. Happiness is not a hypothetical equanimity of mind, but actual, future union with God in Heaven.
            Augustine deconstructed pagan philosophy by opening the distinction between the action of a virtue and its motivation. Why am I behaving justly? So others treat me well in return? In order to be materially prosperous? Augustine thought that while behaving justly for selfish motives is better than behaving unjustly, it is not sufficient to gain eternal happiness. Because no human is free from self-centeredness, there is no hope for humans attempting to live perfectly virtuously on their own accord. But heaven is attainable. The missing ingredient to classical philosophy, Augustine argued, is grace. God requires virtue from us, but also enables us to be virtuous.
            God’s grace leads us to another aspect of Christian ethics that diverges from pagan classical ethics, and that is forgiveness. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates gets as far as saying that a just man would not harm an enemy. But he does not say one should love an enemy. Jesus turned traditional ethics on its head when he said, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you...” (Matthew 5:44). He commands his followers to do this because of the forgiveness that God has shown them. He is forgiving them for their lapses in virtue but requiring them to do the same for others. Similarly, Jesus teaches his followers to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12). Forgiveness and love are what distinguish classical virtue from Christian virtue.
            Regarding the Christian ethics of forgiveness, C.S. Lewis writes at the end of Chapter 7 of Mere Christianity, “I admit that this means loving people who have nothing loveable about them. But then, has oneself anything loveable about it? You love it simply because it is yourself. God intends us to love all selves in the same way and for the same reason: he has given us the sum ready worked out in our own case to show us how it works.”
            Let’s return to 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 exhorts us to contemplate things of excellence. But this is not the excellence of competitive advantage or the excellence of strict rationality—it is the excellence that comes from loving one another. To learn how this work out in our families, our communities, our school—that requires the grace of God.

Mountain Range


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