The Hellenic Sense: Arete and the Nature of the Superior Man

In Hellenic philosophy, the notion of Natural human equality was unusual. More often, a hierarchy of being was assumed, in which some persons were thought to be greater, per se. In general, the world (cosmos) and people were thought to have a Nature (physus),where nature meant truer, and therefore more valued, reality. When not defined through an analysis of the world, this Nature was defined in terms of socially valued skills, or excellence (arete). As differences in arete were recognized, it was often thought that different people expressed Nature, or truer reality, to different degrees. When people expressed different levels of Nature, they were seen as demonstrating their level of Nature, and so their superiority or inferiority of being. Below I will discuss this Classical sense and its development. Later, I well relate this to modern day discussion about excellence and superiority.

I. Nobility and the Martial Arete
In Homer’s Iliad, arete is equated with martial expertise, and is exclusive to a Noble class. Hector, the greatest warrior of troy, tells of this military excellence, saying:

War – I know it well, and the butchery of men…
That’s what the real drill, defensive fighting means to me.
I know it all … I know how to stand and fight to the finish,
twist and lunge in the war-god’s deadly dance. [Iliad, 7.275-81.]

This “god-like race of hero-men,” as Hesiod speaks of them, in his Works and Days, demonstrates their excellence on the field of combat. Central to this vision of excellence, is the notion of rank, for only the aristocracy has the capacity to perform excellently. This system of rank is presented starkly throughout the Iliad; men are ranked as being better then other men, not just in respect to skill, but in so far as they are men. We see this when Odysseus rebukes Thersites, a common soldier, saying: “fellow, sit still and listen to the words of others who are your betters … By no means shall we Achaeans all be kings here, nor is it good to have many rule.” And when we are told: “And that Menelaus would have been the end of you, at Hector’s hand, since he was the better man by far.”.

The military excellence of the Iliad does not categorically set those exhibiting it apart from those who do not, nor does it merely mark then as distinguished but rather it establishes one as being more-complete-being. This distinction comes about from the implicit graded-view of being, which entails that there is fundamentally one type of Nature which individual (slaves, commoners, heroes, gods, ect.) share in unequally — hence it is possible to rank people as good, better, or best per se’. Excellence in the Iliad, as a result, is tied into being closer to that which is real (or more real than the rest of nature.) Though unclear whether the performance of excellence made the Iliadic heroes god-like, or whether because they were a higher grade of men they performed the Excellence, it is clear that their exists a fundamental relation between the performance of excellence and in being more actualized being.

II. Meritocratic Elitism and the Arete of the Mind
In fragments of Heraclitus, we are given a different vision of excellence, one based on intelligence and potentially open to all. Heraclitus’ conception differs markedly from the previous in terms of form, viewing it not in terms of physical expertise, but rather mental superiority. Not the ability to storm cities and fight men, but “Right thinking is the greatest excellence .” Along with right thinking, wisdom, or understanding “the thought which steers all things through all things,” is ranked as an excellence; this seems to be what is implied when Heraclitus says: “It is not characteristic of men to be intelligent, but it is characteristic of god.” Nonetheless, Heraclitus’s vision of excellence is still directly tied to actualizing a higher state of being; just the conception of what was divine was changed. Accordingly, the divine, that which is permanent in the world, is not conceived of as a Homeric god, but as Reason. Hence, Heraclitus says that “the wise is one alone; it is unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus”; it is willing because Zeus is the ruler of the divinites, unwilling because Zeus is conceived in the form of a man — the wise is divine but not in the form most people conceive it as. Rather, it is divine in the form of an underlying principle or Logos. He tells of this, saying that:

The cosmos, the same for all,
none of the god nor of humans has made,
but it was always and is and shall be:
an everlasting fire being kindled in measure
and being extinguished in measure. (31)

As with Homer, though, for Heraclitus, excellence is tied into that which is conceived as being divine or, in other words, with truer reality. Hence, corresponding to the conception of logos as the must fundamental reality, Heraclitus’ excellence is one of the intellect. Through excellence of this kind, one actualizes true reality — and so it is told that: “According to Heraclitus we become intelligent by drawing in the divine logos when we breathe.” Along with seeing arete in terms of intelligence, instead of martial expertise, Heraclitus also conceives it as being relatively inclusive; he has a Liberal elitist conception, not a noble conception. We see this when Heraclitus says: “It belongs to all people to know themselves and to think rightly.” Rather meritocratic. Yet though excellence and superiority is open to all, it is achieved by the few. As Heraclitus also states: “the best renounce all for one thing, the eternal flame of Mortal, but the many stuff themselves like cattle.” Though everyone could potentially achieve excellence of the mind, and superiority of being, in reality, not everyone does.

III. Meritocratic Elitism and the Arete of the Soul
As with Heraclitus, for Socrates, excellence is presented in the form of intellectual pursuit, however it also incorporates moral excellence; this excellence is also seen as potentially open to all, yet rarely actualized. In the Apology, Socrates speaks of these excellences, argued that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and stating that his “whole concern is not to do anything unjust or impious.” Of course, for him, these are intrinsically bound together; indeed, we are told that “the good life, the beautiful life, and the just life are one and the same (Crito, 48b).” Socrates view of excellence is intrinsically tied to his vision of what is true and authentic. The human aim, for him, is to prepare the soul for death, for “a soul in this state makes it way to the invisible, which is like itself (Phaedo, 79d).” This preparation is undertaken by the practice of philosophy, which involves both contemplation and doing the good, in other words, his vision of excellence. Through this preparation (and therefore excellence), one may join the Gods, who exist in the “realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging (Phaedo, 79d).” It is the realm of which Diotima present in the Symposium, the realm of “Beautiful itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh” (211d), of the Form which is, for Socrates, by nature superior to the being of the visible realm. Socrates’ philosophical excellence, then, is a means by which it is possible to attain a higher state, to raise oneself (one’s soul) to a higher plain of existence.

Much as with Heraclitus, Socratic excellence is not achieved by the mass of people but by the few, for we are told:

No one may join the company of the Gods who has not practiced
philosophy … [those who] keep away from all bodily passions …
[though] not at all for fear of wasting their substance and of poverty,
which the majority and the money lovers fear.
(Phaedo, 82b).

Yet also like Heraclitus, for Socrates, perhaps expressing the democratic orientation of the sophistic movement which he himself partook in, it appear that everyone has the capacity to achieve excellence if only they would seek it.

IV. Elect Elitism and the Arete of the Soul
As with Socrates, Platonic and Aristotelian superiority is both moral and intellectual, yet for both Plato and Aristotle not all are equally capable of obtaining this state.

With Plato, there exists a distinct hierarchy of being. In the Republic (509-510) we are told of the graduation in which “shadows, then reflections in water” are ranked lowest and Forms are ranked highest and in between all objects of the physical realm. Similarly, Plato’s epistemology has a corresponding graduation, with the capacity for understanding ranked at the top and sensation at the bottom. Through understanding, true reality can be apprehended. Through this apprehension “One goes always upward for the sake of Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs (Symposium, 211c. As with Socrates and Heraclitus, thorough the process of understand one achieves a higher state of being.

However, unlike Socrates and Heraclitus, the capacity for understanding is limited. Excellence can only be achieved by the few. Plato echoes Odysseus of the Iliad, saying:

A whole city established according to nature
would be wise because of the small class and part in it,
namely, the governing or ruling one.
And to this class … belongs a share of the knowledge
that alone among other kinds of knowledge is to be called wisdom.
(Republic, 428e-429a).

It is only the few, the philosophers class, who have wisdom and who therefore can rule; more so, since wisdom is a capacity limited to the few, it is only the philosophers (like the heroes of the Iliad) who can obtain a higher state of being.

As with Plato, for Aristotle, human excellence is not of the body but of the mind; Aristotle tells us this, saying “by human virtue we mean virtue of the soul, not the body (1100a. 14-15).” Unlike Plato, though, Aristotle does not look to forms to discover that which is fundamental in being, but rather at a being’s function. Through observation, one can discover that nature of a being by determining its function.

For Aristotle the function of mankind is the doing of those activities expressing or requiring reason. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he states this, saying that “the virtue (arete) of a human being will likewise be that state that makes a human being good and makes him perform his function well” and “the human function is the soul’s activity that expresses reason or requires reason (1098a. 10-11).” Correspondingly, Aristotle names two virtues, one expressing reason and one requiring it, that is, “virtue of thought and virtue of character (1103a. 14).” These two virtues of thought, are that of intelligence and that of wisdom. Both of these types of cognizing are excellences, and marks of superiority, because they can apprehend truer reality, which, according to Aristotle is the Eternal.

For Aristotle, by means of the intellect , one can fulfill one’s function; in doing so, one attains ones natural state, and thereby becomes truer being; as we are told: “whatever is natural is naturally in the finest state possible (1099b. 22-23).” One who lives by the virtues of the intellect, can obtain this state, to the extent they are capable of doing so. For Aristotle (as for the other writers discussed), this state of being is not just subjectively deemed more valuable, but is ontologically higher. Through arete, one approaches the realm of the divine, and that of true being. Through excellence, through the expression of reason, one becomes like unto the gods; as Aristotle proclaims:

such a life would be superior to the human level.
For someone will live it not insofar as he is a human being,
but insofar as has some divine element in him (1177b. 28-30).

In doing so, he echoes the Homeric vision, with his hero’s achieving excellence, of Diomedes, for one, of whom it is said:

I could never swear he’s not a god, but if he is the man I think he is,
Tydeus’ gallant son, he rages so with a god beside him (170).

Overall, the Greek’s rejected the notion of human Natural equality. Homer embraced a Noble martial elitism, Heraclitus embraced a meritocratic intellectual elitism, Socrates a meritocratic spiritual elitism, and Aristotle and Plato embraced an elect intellectual elitism.

While many today, would see this lack of egalitarianism, as inhumane, there was a paradoxical Humanism to it; While Men might not be equal in Nature, whether by merit, capacity, or birth, the Gods were likewise not super-natural. As Pindar’s, Men and Gods, conveys, they were often seen as one of a kind:

Single is the race, Single
Of men and Gods;
From a Single Mother we both draw our breath.
But a difference of power in everything
Keeps us apart;
For the One is as Nothing, but the Brazen sky
Says a Fixed habituation forever.
Yet we can in greatness of mind
Or of body be like the Immortals
Tho we know not to what god
By day or in the nights
Fate has written that we shall Run”

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2 Responses to The Hellenic Sense: Arete and the Nature of the Superior Man

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