Letter 011: Arete
I must confess to being so far behind the times that I couldn’t tell you if today’s topic is long-lost or largely misunderstood—or perhaps a little bit of both? In fact, the last time I heard it discussed with any vigor was in the treacherous swamp of drudgery some heroes refer to as “philosophy 101”, which I always thought was quite a strange choice. I’m speaking of what the greeks referred to as arete, what we commonly call virtue.
The reason I think so many heroes misunderstand virtue is because it’s taught to them as a deeply ethereal, mystical idea. The “Virtuous Person” in our head probably gets up at 4:15 every morning, meditates for an hour or two before eating a breakfast of locally sourced, sustainable oatmeal. This virtuous person in our head doesn’t work a normal job, no, they probably spend 60-80 hours a week helping some great cause you somehow have never heard of, like a dog shelter that helps 3 legged dogs find homes.
But the ancient Greeks thought of virtue quite differently. Their “arete” didn’t reflect some vague, mystical sense of a life lived solely for some cause or disposition. In its most literal sense, their idea of virtue reflected something much more practical: there was something virtuous in being able to run fast, sing loud, or paint well. There was a virtue in being able to wrestle, to cook, to row. The Greek ideal of virtue was rooted in the idea of fulfilling potential, to live up to what you could fully be. And just like you can develop skill in any number of areas of life, like running, wrestling, or painting, you could also develop skill in decision making, in being wise: arete.
This idea permeates throughout the great Greek writers, from Aeschylus to Thucydides. But I love it most clearly in The Odyssey by Homer, the story of the great and tumultuous return home. Odysseus is in many ways an embodiment of the Greek ideal of arete—a great warrior, a great leader, but also the wisest of the Greeks in craftiness, in the art of making wise decisions. And the story of the Odyssey is for the most part his.
But for the story focusing so deeply on Odysseus, it is his own flaws that drive the conflict of the story. His laziness, his arrogance, his inability to lead his soldiers, all of which must be ironed out of him before he can return home. That’s why for me, he’s not the best vision of virtue the story has to offer. The person in the Odyssey who most represents arete, to me, is the person waiting for him at home—Penelope.
Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, waiting at home for his return from the battle of Troy, waiting 20 long years. And not waiting in peace, either—for the halls of her home were filled with suitors, men trying to take over her kingdom by marrying her. No matter how often she would try to throw them from her halls, it seemed for every one she kicked out, seven more would take her place. What could she do?
To me, Penelope is the true embodiment of virtue because her actions reside at the intersection of noble action and fulfilled potential, of wise choices and talent. And while it is Odysseus who was known as “the man of many tricks”, it was Penelope who played the ultimate trick of all: she told all the suitors she would remarry, but only once she had completed a tapestry honoring the death of her husband. And every day, all day long, she would weave tirelessly, the Greek embodiment of the virtue of doing something well. And then every night, she would unweave almost all the work of the previous day, the Greek embodiment of making choices well. Both virtuous action and fulfillment of potential. Arete.
I’ll end with the words Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about Penelope in Book of Hours:
May the road rise up to meet you!