Arete: Virtues and Values

Virtues and Values

Sparta was synonymous with true virtue

     In the first installment of Areté, we discussed this concept’s origin in the ancient civilization of Greece, and its meaning: metaphysical excellence.  Now that you know what the concept describes, it is time to focus on how areté might be attained. For centuries humans have been divided by philosophers into the basic components of mind and body.  The body existing in this imperfect world of every day life, and the mind, or spirit, which yearned for another “higher” reality.  We see that impact today, even in health and fitness, by the segregation of the body itself into separate training days and the development of body parts by isolation exercise.  In reality, though, everything works together.

The Greeks, for the most part, did not believe that the mind and the body could ever be separated; they could only be distinguished as two characteristics of the same one entity: Man.  As you will learn in another essay, the separation of mind and body has had a plethora of devastating effects in the lives of our species for centuries, up to the present day.  For now, simply note that Ancient Greece was the first culture ever to deny such a split, and then note the magnificent achievements they made in every known field in their era: Math, Science, Literature, Art, Athletics – most of these in the span of some 50 years.  In any culture, of course, there are men that disagree.  But for the average Greek on the street, the mind and body were one.  The mind is that which reasons, and the body is that which acts, based on that reason.  The Greeks expected excellence from their lives and, seeking this, they revered certain virtues; these virtues were practiced to achieve specific values in their lives.

Spartan Warrior
Spartan Warrior

Before we proceed further, you must understand what virtues and values are.  A value is what a living entity seeks to gain (and/or keep).  Food and water are values to living things.  They are one of many things living entities seek.  Above basic subsistence, higher values are sought by different organisms –  the specific value depending on the nature of the organism.  For humans these values can be a career, friendship, love, sex, wealth, beauty; even material values such as a home, good clothes, a new car, etc.  Virtues are the character traits one rationally chooses to pursue and make part of one’s life, in order to attain those chosen values.  The word “chosen” is crucially important.  For human beings, and for no other living entity, values are chosen.  For all other living things the values a certain living entity pursues are automatically set by its nature – there is no “choosing”.  A plant will automatically seek and take up water and nutrients, and turn its leaves toward the sun.  An amoeba will seek food and automatically move toward it based on the chemical sensations it gets from its environment.  A wren will automatically seek to build a nest and seek the best mate it can find based on automatic behavioral patterns.  These are all values that these living entities seek automatically.  Not so for man.  Man has to choose, which means a requirement to think.  With thinking there is the chance of error.  You can choose irrational values.  And note that if the values you seek are irrational (i.e. do not promote life) then your actions used to obtain these values become not virtues, but vices.

Love is an emotional response to the values you see in another.

When we say that values are chosen, what we are really saying is that this choice is volitional.  This is an important concept to hold.  It means that we have free will, that our fate is not determined solely by our environment, our nurturing, or our genes.  It means that the development of  character and intelligence, like the body, is open to an individual’s choice.  And that if he or she wishes to become better, effort must be expended.  Your life is determined by the choices you make.  And your choices are determined by your ability to think.  Overall, the phrase that captures your relationship to values is: choose wisely.

This is an essay on ethics.  It is concerned with virtues and values.  By definition, morality is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions – and ethics is the science of defining such a code.  It is unfortunate that, throughout history, with rare exception, all moral codes have been concerned with life in another “higher” dimension or reality.  Few codes have been constructed to guide your choices and actions on this earth.  The evidence that this reality, this earth, exists is overwhelming.  It is directly perceptual.  You can feel it, taste it, smell it, hear it, and see it.  Yet we’ve defined our moral code based on a supernatural reality that we have no evidence for.  The reason most people view morality so cynically is that it was never designed for furthering your life on this earth.  This leads to the mistaken view that the moral and the practical are opposites – one manifestation of the mind-body dichotomy that the Greeks rejected.

If you study ethics through history you will find  two polar opposite definitions of its purpose.  Both originated with the Greeks.  One was dominant in Greek culture, the other went on to take over the rest of the civilized world and has continued on, essentially unchanged to this day.  The ethics that dominated the Greek mind was the ethics put forth by Aristotle – the father of reason, logic, science, and a this-worldly approach to ethics.  Indeed, his primary work in this field, the Nichomachean Ethics, was developed simply by observing the character traits of  “the noble and wise citizens of Athens.”   The other ethical code was put forth by Plato.  It was Plato’s mysticism and other-worldly concern that became the dominant factor in shaping Western Religion and most of mankind’s ethical code today.  There were brief echos of Aristotle’s approach later in history, culminating in the Renaissance and the 18th century Enlightment, but they were not sustained.  Though wrong, Plato’s ethics was more systematic – and thus more difficult to unseat.  It took 2300 years for another philosopher to appear on the scene and reformulate Aristotle’s more earthly approach.  This person wrote that “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live”.  We will get to that person in a later essay.  But for now, let’s look at the essential Greek approach to enjoying life and living successfully on this earth.

Greek Virtues

There are many rational virtues you can practice, but in Ancient Greece four reigned supreme.  You can think of these as their basis for rational, happy living.  Just as the Greeks laid the foundation for the conceptual development of science, math, history, literature, and romantic art, they also laid the foundations for the rational development of character.  Science has progressed throughout the centuries; but as advanced as we have become, the fundamentals have not changed.  Writes Edith Hamilton of the Greeks, “Very different conditions of life confronted them from those we face, but it is ever to be borne in mind that though the outside of human life changes much, the inside changes little, and the lesson-book we cannot graduate from is human experience.” [i]  This is also true in the formation of character.  The virtues that the Greeks strove to integrate into their character were: Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Wisdom.  These are called the Cardinal, or even Pagan, virtues by ethicists today.  The values they expected to gain through the practice of these virtues were: Health, Wealth, Beauty, and “Being young among friends” – four very “this-earthly” values.


Courage for the Greeks was honor in action – an unwaivering dedication to one’s highest values.  It entailed consistently holding to values in the face of grave danger.  In their era, and for centuries after, courage was most easily displayed on the battlefield, though it could be displayed in the sociopolitical realm as well.  It was an honor to die fighting in battle because it meant that you did not cower, you did not renounce the values you were fighting for – because it was not worth living without them.  Many times these values were your family, your home and land, your friends, your nation, your freedom.  At the time, to lose in battle yet remain alive meant almost certain enslavement.  Slavery was a condition free men, such as those found in the burgeoning Greek city-state, would sooner die fighting than begin living in.  An oath by the Spartans and Athenians before the famous battle at Plateae during the Persian War states, “I will fight to the death, and I will not count my life more precious than freedom.”  If death was imminent, this meant one last opportunity to display dedication to grand-scale, heroic values; and the Greeks embraced it as such.  As a consort informs the invading Persian King, Xerxes: “When the Spartans fight singly, they are as brave as any man, but when they fight together they are supreme above all.  For though they are free men, they are not free in all respects; law is the master whom they fear, a great deal more than your subjects fear you.  They do what the law commands and its command is always the same, not to flee in battle whatever the number of the enemy, but to stand and win, or die.”[ii]

The most famous example of courage in  political leadership is Pericles of Athens, who presided over Athen’s democracy during the Peloponesian wars with Sparta.  His funeral speech for the Athenian soldiers of 431 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War is instructive:  “Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory…….These take as your model, and judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war.”[iii]

King Leonidas of Thermopylae fame
King Leonidas of Thermopylae fame

The arete’ of a warrior, exemplified by the Spartan Leonidas in his stand at Thermopylae, and the arete’ of a statesman, such as that possessed by Pericles, are very similar.  Both involve courage.  The courage to act with integrity and honor, and the courage to speak with integrity and honor, in spite of great danger – even the loss of life itself.


Temperance meant an even-handed manner in dealing with the problems and successes in life on one hand, and the avoidance of over-indulging in pleasures on the other.  “Nothing to Excess” is the famous credo over the temple at Delphi.  It meant that you did not let your emotions or your appetites get the best of you.  The Greeks did delight in the pleasures of life – but they sought to do so rationally.  As Aristotle points out, “People who fall short with regard to pleasures and delight in them less than they should are hardly found; for such insensibility is not human.”  Contrast this with the Medieval Christian ethics which avoided all pleasure, at all cost.  The life of St. Francis is instructive: sleeping with a rock for a pillow, drinking laundry water and covering his food with ashes to avoid any pleasurable taste, and plunging himself in the snow any time he had a sexual desire.

The Greeks idealized the power of reason.  To let such a primitive form of thought as emotions gain control of a situation would have been a display of depraved weakness.  Defining the “Self-Indulgent” man, Aristotle states that he “craves for all pleasant things or those that are most pleasant, and is led by his appetite to choose these at the cost of everything else.”[iv]  Today a temperate man would have a few drinks among friends, a self-indulgent man would be a bingeing drunkard.  A temperate man would seek out certain virtues and values in a lover, the self-indulgent man would seek out anything that walks on two legs.  For other pleasures, ones with no positive gain for him, the temperate man would shun altogether, whereas the self-indulgent man would accept without reservation.  Marijuana and other recreational drugs would be an example of this.  You can see today that Temperance is certainly not a virtue of pleasure seeking, drugged out hippies and rock stars, nor of neurotic, emotion driven Hollywood celebrities.


Justice meant not only obeying the laws of society but is  described also as “giving every man his due”.  It meant rewarding men for their virtues and punishing them for their vices.  It is exactly the opposite of mercy.  With the opposite morality at work today, we get quite the opposite effect.  Take the great achiever or producer as an example.  With every increase in his or her production or wealth comes an ever increasing burden for them to carry, taking care of those who choose not to produce.  You can see here that, today, the nonachiever is rewarded for nonachievement and the achiever punished for achieving.   Anyone care to predict the outcome of this code?  It is obvious – if you are courageous enough to look at it and name it.  The Greeks did not believe that the good should be sacrificed to the bad, that the productive should finance the nonproductive, that the healthy should be enslaved to the sick.  They believed that everyone should strive for goodness, productiveness, health – and that the absence of these values indicated the absence of your effort.  That is Justice.


Given the Greek view of reason, it readily follows that wisdom was a supreme value.  It is not only what we term today as “analytical intelligence” but more along the lines of Dr. Sternberg’s “Successful Intelligence” – a synthesis of 3 components: analytical, creative, and practical.  When taken together, balanced, and used appropriately, I would call this “common sense”, but to a higher degree than imaginable today.  Aristotle defined man as “the rational animal”, making reason the essence in this particular definition of man.  The Greeks also idolized a quick mind, but not if it was inapplicable to the realm of reality.  They despised pure theory – thought cut off and detached from the world.  Any speculation, thought, or theory had to be tied back to this earth – because what on earth would it be good for if it were not?  The saying, “Well that’s fine in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice”  results from such unfounded speculation.   The dichotomy of theory versus practice is actually a result of not tying thought back to the realities of this world.  It is another manifestation of the mind-body dichotomy that the Greeks rejected.

The VIRTUE of Pride

I must add that, in addition to these virtues that were dominant in Greek society, Aristotle advocated another very strongly.  In his Nichomachean Ethics, he calls it the “crown of the virtues”.  If you had this, it indicated the presence of all the others.  This virtue was Pride.  “Pride seems even from its name to be concerned with great things…the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them.”[v].  Pride is certainly distinguished here from arrogance or conceit.   In your contrasting of these virtues with what has been passed as virtue for centuries, please note that Pride is one of the “deadly sins” of the Catholic church and that it’s opposite (this is a recurring theme) is considered the real virtue.  Its opposite is humility.  It is not a coincidence that St. Augustine was heavily influenced by the Platonic philosophy that preceeded him.

Greek Values

The Greeks held these virtues in order to attain four main values.  A virtuous man may or may not have attained these values at any point in his life, but by holding to the virtues he hoped he would eventually achieve them.  As the great Greek Statesman Pericles put it, “As for poverty, no one should be ashamed to admit it, the only shame lies in not taking practical measures to escape it.”


The Greeks held life as a supreme value.  Thus they held their means of living as a supreme value: their mind and their body.  Their formula for a proper education began with philosophy and gymnastics.  Both were essential because both the mind and the body must be developed in order to live fully.  We first see gymnasia, places to exercise and take care of the body, in Ancient Greece.  H. D. F. Kitto writes, “The Greek made physical training an important part of education, not because he said to himself, ‘Look here, we mustn’t forget the body’, but because it could never occur to him to train anything but the whole man.  It was as natural for the polis to have gymnasia as to have a theatre or warships, and they were constantly used by men of all ages, not only for physical but also for mental exercise.”[vi]

Wealth and Beauty 

Wealth, honestly won and earned, was also a value.  They did not believe that money could buy happiness.  Happiness was to be obtained by right living – by holding to the virtues.  But money, as a value, gave the Greek a power to obtain those things necessary for improving an already good life.

Beauty did not mean that you had to look like a god or goddess, or like a super-model in today’s terms.  It meant that you took good care of yourself and that you maximized the assets that nature gave you.  Some were naturally more beautiful than others but nearly everyone had the capacity for beauty – should they choose to live virtuously.  This last point is important.  We have all seen someone we know that should be beautiful but isn’t, simply because of the way that person either behaves or maintains the body.  Dishonesty and insincerity also corrupted the character and prematurely aged the body from the mere stress and worry of being “found out.”

Being Young Among Friends

Being young among friends did not mean that you hung out with those older than you.  It meant that when you were with friends you allowed yourself a youthful sense of life.  Hamilton again, her words so well chosen, “If we had no other knowledge of what the Greeks were like, if nothing were left of Greek art and literature, the fact that they were in love with play and played magnificently would be proof enough of how they lived and how they looked at life.  Wretched people, toiling people, do not play.  Nothing like the Greek games is conceivable in Egypt or Mesopotamia.  The life of the Egyptian lies spread out in the mural paintings down to the minutest detail.  If fun and sport had played any real part they would be there in some form for us to see.  But the Egyptian did not play.  ‘Solon, Solon, you Greeks are all children,’ said the Egyptian priest to the great Athenian. …They had physical vigor and high spirits and time, too, for fun.  The witness of the games is conclusive.  And when Greece died and her reading of the great enigma was buried with her statues, play, too, died out of the world.  The brutal, bloody Roman games had nothing to do with the spirit of play.  They were fathered by the Orient, not by Greece.  Play died when Greece died and many and many a century passed before it was resurrected.”[vii]

Hopefully we will never again lose the passion for, and love of, life that was first discovered by the Greeks.  If you are holding contradictory premises in your life in regards to the virtues and values you have chosen (or uncritically accepted from others), then these four virtues and four values make an excellent and simple starting point from which to re-examine your own.  Hopefully, it will bring you to a more enlightened view about how to achieve your own happiness.  I hope you find it – you are worth it.


-Lanny Littlejohn, MD


[i] Edith Hamilton.  The Greek Way, W.W.Norton and Co., NY, 1964.  Pg. 14

[ii]Ernle Bradford.  The Battle for the West – Thermopylae 480 B.C., McGraw Hill, NY, 1980.  Pg.84

[iii] Thucydides.  The Landmark Thucydides, Robert B. Strassler, Editor.  Simon & Schuster, NY, 1996.  Pg. 115

[iv] Aristotle.  Nichomachean Ethics, Book III, Chapter II, pg. 1119a.(5-7, 1-4)

[v] Aristotle.  Nichomachean Ethics, Book IV, Chapter II, pg. 1123a (33-36)

[vi]H.D.F. Kitto.  The Greeks, Penguin Books, London, 1951.  Pg. 173

[vii] Edith Hamilton.  The Greek Way, W.W.Norton and Co., NY, 1964.  Pg. 23


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3 responses to “Arete: Virtues and Values

  1. Im not a fan of commenting on websites because I think that the writer never pays attention. Though, your article was great to read. Undoubtedly the best I’ve read in a long time. Good job.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. It took many years to dive into the Greeks. I’m very interested in their thoughts on the mind-body dichotomy and that is the next post in that series. Unfortunately it takes a lot of time and effort to do it justice!

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