Friday, June 19, 2009

Greek Words 1

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Aretê (ἀρετή) – virtue, excellence, success

Alexander Nehamas offers a succinct account bridging into his suggestion of “success”: “It is of course a commonplace that “virtue” is not an accurate translation of the Greek term. “Virtue” is simply too narrow a concept, while the more recent “excellence” is, I believe, too weak, colorless, and vague. Aretê applies to many more human qualities than “virtue”; it can also refer perfectly well to features of nonhuman and even inanimate beings.

“In regard to human beings, we would do well to construe aretê as “success” or as the quality or qualities that account for it. If nothing else, such an interpretation would explain why the Greeks were so concerned whether aretê can or cannot be taught and would show that their debates are immediately relevant to our situation today.

“But since aretê applies to inanimate objects as well as to human beings, it is better to try to understand the term in a more general manner. We could do no better, I suggest, than to think of it as that quality or set of qualities that makes something an outstanding member of the group to which it belongs. Aretê is the feature that accounts for something’s being justifiably notable. Both suggestions, which come to the same thing, involve three elements: the inner structure and quality of things, their reputation, and the audience that is to appreciate them. And this is as it should be. From the earliest times, the idea of aretê was intrinsically social, sometimes equivalent to fame (κλέος [klêos—MK]).” (Nehamas, The Art of Living, 77-78)

Werner Jaeger’s first chapter in his three volume spinning of Greek culture out of the idea of paideia (education) is entitled, “Nobility and Aretê.” In regards to the intrinsically social element Nehamas pointed at, Jaeger suggests that watching the term aretê evolve in ancient Greece can give us an idea of how intellectual culture evolved and the colors and inflections in it. “There is no complete equivalent for the word aretê in modern English: its oldest meaning is a combination of proud and courtly morality with warlike valour. But the idea of aretê is the quintessence of early Greek aristocratic education.” (Jaeger, Paideia, vol. 1, 5)

The idea is that aretê began as a concept that only the nobility, the warrior class, used, partly no doubt to the fact that they were the only ones with the time to develop such usages and they were the only ones who really mattered (from their noble view). “…ordinary men have no aretê; and whenever slavery lays hold of the son of a noble race, Zeus takes away half of his aretê—he is no longer the same man as he was. Aretê is the real attribute of the nobleman. The Greeks always believed that surpassing strength and prowess were the natural basis of leadership: it was impossible to dissociate leadership and aretê. The root of the word is the same as that of ἄριστοϛ [aristis—MK], the word which shows superlative ability and superiority; and ἄριστοϛ was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility.” (ibid.)

But aretê is on the move. While “only now and then, in later books, does Homer use aretê for moral and spiritual qualities,” Jaeger says that “it is clear that the new meaning given to the word by everyday speech was then forcing its way into the language of poetry.” (6) With the demise of the Mycenaean empire and the rise of Greek city-states, the spread of small, polis democracies, the ordinary man became a citizen with uses of his own for words like aretê. “…[A]retê as warlike prowess could not satisfy the poets of a new age: their new ideal of human perfection was that character which united nobility of action with nobility of mind.” (8) “The class limitations of the old ideals were removed when they were sublimated and universalized by philosophy: while their permanent truth and their indestructible ideality were confirmed and strengthened by that process.” (11)

Pierre Hadot adds in this fashion: “The flourishing of democratic life demanded that its citizens, especially those who wanted to achieve positions of power, have a perfect mastery of language. Up until this point, young people had been trained for the acquisition of excellence (aretê) by means of sunousia, or nonspecialized contact with the adult world. The Sophists, by constrast, invented education in an artificial environment—a system that was to remain one of the characteristics of our civilization. … Thus, aretê (excellence), conceived as competence intended to enable young people to play a role in the city, could now be the object of an apprenticeship, so long as the student had the right natural aptitudes and practiced hard enough.” (Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy?, 13-14)

W. K. C. Guthrie says this of the Sophists: “…one of the most hotly debated questions of the day, which because it was taken up by Socrates continued to be discussed by Plato and even Aristotle, sprang directly from the Sophists’ appearance in the new role of paid educators. They claimed to teach aretê, but was this something that could be instilled by teaching? Aretê when used without qualification denoted those qualities of human excellence which made a man a natural leader in his community, and hitherto it had been believed to depend on certain natural or even divine gifts which were the mark of good birth and breeding. They were definitely a matter of phusis [nature—MK], cultivated, as a boy grew up, by the experience of living with and following the example of his father and elder relations. Thus they were handed on naturally and scarcely consciously, a prerogative of the class that was born to rule, and the thought that they could implanted by an outsider, offering schematic instruction in return for payment, was anathema to fathers of the old school. Hence the urgency to a young man like Meno—high-born and wealthy yet a pupil and admirer of Gorgias—of the question which he springs on Socrates at the beginning of the dialogue that bears his name: ‘Can you tell me, Socrates, whether aretê can be taught? Or is it a matter of practice, or natural aptitude, or what?’ [Meno, 70a—MK]” (Guthrie, The Sophists, 25)

Bernard Williams says this of the context with which aretê came out of: “…a picture of a certain kind of social morality, which does offer some impersonal criteria of who is to be admired and respected, but finds them particularly in certain kinds of competitive success and inherited position—an aristocratic or feudal morality. It was from the context of such a social morality that the fifth and fourth centuries inherited the concept of aretê, ‘personal excellence’ (the standard translation of this term as ‘virtue’ is only sometimes appropriate, and can be drastically misleading). This term carried with it certain associations which Plato, and probably Socrates, made strong efforts to detach from it: in particular, the notion of being well thought of and spoken of, cutting a good figure. Here a vital term is kalos, ‘fine’, ‘noble’, ‘splendid’, a word more strongly aesthetic than agathos, ‘good’, and an important term of commendation, but bearing with it implications of how one is regarded; as its opposite, aischros, ‘base’ or ‘shameful’, carries implications of being despised or shunned.” (Williams, The Sense of the Past, 37-38)

Bruno Snell says, “The words for virtue and good, aretê and agathos, are at first by no means clearly distinguished from the area of profit. In the early period they are not as palpably moral in content as might be supposed…. When Homer says that a man is good, agathos, he does not mean thereby that he is morally unobjectionable, much less good-hearted, but rather that he is useful, proficient, and capable of vigorous action. We also speak of a good warrior or a good instrument. Similarly aretê, virtue, does not denote a moral property but nobility, achievement, success and reputation. And yet these words have an unmistakable tendency toward the moral because, unlike ‘happiness’ or ‘profit’, they designate qualities for which a man may win the respect of his whole community. Aretê is ‘ability’ and ‘achievement’, characteristics which are expected of a ‘good’, an ‘able’ man, an aner agathos [“good man” —MK]. From Homer to Plato and beyond these words spell out the worth of a man and his work. Any change in their meaning, therefore, would indicate a reassessment of values.” (Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, 158-159)

In a similar fashion, E. R. Dodds sets the Protagorean and Socratic view of human nature against each other, saying: “Both use the traditional utilitarian language: ‘good’ means ‘good for the individual,’ and is not distinguished from the ‘profitable’ or the ‘useful.’ And both have the traditional intellectualist approach: they agree, against the common opinion of their time, that if a man really knew what was good for him he would act on his knowledge. Each, however, qualifies his intellectualism with a different sort of reservation. For Protagoras, aretê can be taught, but not by an intellectual discipline: one ‘picks it up,’ as a child picks up his native language [Protagoras, 327e—MK]; it is transmitted not by formal teaching, but by what the anthropologists call ‘social control.’ For Socrates, on the other hand, aretê is or should be episteme, a branch of scientific knowledge…. For to Socrates aretê was something which proceeded from within outward; it was not a set of behaviour-patterns to be acquired through habituation, but a consistent attitude of mind springing from a steady insight into the nature and meaning of human life. In its self-consistency it resembled a science; but I think we should be wrong to interpret the insight as purely logical—it involved the whole man.” (Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, 184)

G. B. Kerferd says this in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for “Aretê/Agathon/Kakon”: “Aretê, traditionally translated as “virtue,” is a key word in Greek ethical thought. Its central meaning was excellence of any kind, but from the beginning it was also associated with the idea of fulfillment of function: excellence, whether in animate or inanimate objects, consists in the fullest performance of the object’s function or its power to achieve the fullest performance. From the time of the Homeric poems onward, aretê, with its associated adjective agathos (“good”) and various synonyms, was the strongest word of commendation that could be used. The negative of agathos was kakos, and the neuter forms, agathon and kakon, mean what is good and what is bad. Differences between Greeks about agathon and kakon did not normally concern the meaning of the words, but only the question of what actions and what sort of behavior were manifestations of aretê and hence what kind of behavior was entitled to be described by the adjectives agathos and kakos.” (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 1, 147-148)

I. G. Kidd’s entry on Socrates says: “The Sophists were itinerant professors teaching for a fee the skill (sophia [usually translated “wisdom”—MK]) of aretê (excellence, in the sense of how to make the best of yourself and get on). Socrates was the Athenian Sophist inasmuch as his life was dedicated to the same new intellectual inquiry into education—the science of effecting aretê.” (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol.7, 481)

Trevor J. Saunders says in relation to Plato’s political thought: “Now the Greek word usually translated ‘virtue’ is in fact better rendered by ‘excellence’ – excellence for something. The kind of excellence that interests Plato is human excellence, that set of qualities thanks to which we are excellently equipped to perform human functions excellently, and so achieve human eudaimonia, ‘happiness,’ ‘success,’ ‘fulfillment.’” (The Cambridge Companion to Plato, 464)

Allan Bloom, in a footnote to his first translation of aretê to “virtue,” says, “it is the translation used by Cicero and all other thinkers in the tradition of moral and political thought. It means, broadly stated, ‘the specific excellence of a thing.’ ‘What is virtue?’ is the typical Socratic question, and no answer can be given to it in the Platonic context unless all the subtle and various uses of the word itself be followed throughout the work. Contemporary usage has narrowed the sense of the word, but we still can grasp its broader meaning. If we fail to recognize that our understanding of virtue is different from the classical view, we cannot become aware of the very great change in moral understanding that has occurred. The moral sense of virtue can only be developed in relation to its larger sense, and, thus, it is no accident that Socrates’ first use of the word is in relation to horses [335b—MK].” (Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, 444)

Gregory Vlastos, in the last chapter of his magisterial book on Socrates, turns to virtue and happiness and finally to the translation of those Greek terms, saying of aretê—that most important of Socratic terms—“The key terms in the title pose problems of translation. On ‘virtue’ for aretê I need not linger at all, for whatever may be the general usage of this word, Socrates’ own use of it to designate precisely what we understand by moral virtue must have been apparent throughout this book.” While on the one hand, this might seem disappointing for the amateur auditor reading this, and even disingenuous on his part, particularly for leaving explication of aretê to the end of his book, I might defend Vlastos by saying that for understanding generally and translation specifically, what any individual term means is built by the pattern of usage surrounding it. In other words, the course of his book is the argument for translating aretê as “virtue” (though Vlastos does, notice, limit himself to Socrates’—now understood as innovative—use of aretê).

Nevertheless, he does continue: “Any lingering doubt on this point in my readers’ mind may be resolved by referring them to the fact that whenever he brings the general concept under scrutiny – as when he debates the teachability of aretê in the Protagoras and the Meno – he assumes without argument that its sole constituents or “parts” ([mόria?—MK], [meri?—MK]) are five qualities which are, incontestably, the Greek terms of moral commendation par excellence: andreia (‘manliness,’ ‘courage’), sophrosyne (‘temperance,’ ‘moderation’), dikaiosyne (‘justice,’ ‘righteousness’), hosiotes (‘piety,’ ‘holiness’), sophia (‘wisdom’). (Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, 200)

And finally, Richard McKeon lists a Latin term for neither “excellence” nor “success,” but one for: “VIRTUS, power, virtue, a perfection or strength for performing something rightly; it has been called the disposition of the perfect to the best, in that it is a disposition enabling a potentiality to elicit an actual good. Virtue is also taken as power, thus contrasted to essence; this is the use that appears in the adverb virtually. In its ethical sense, virtue was held to be a prerequisite to intellectual as well as moral perfection....” (McKeon, Selections, 506)

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