What is Areté?
How would you describe the ideal human?
What traits would this person possess?
Think of your favorite heroes. What are their most noble qualities? What makes them heroic?
Is the ideal the Olympic athlete, with a powerful body and remarkable athletic ability – and the years of calculated training endured to attain it?
Or would it be the scientist, with a seemingly limitless intelligence and capacity to understand the very inner workings of nature itself?
Consider a truly great leader, possessing an unimpeachable character and a lifelong commitment to dealing with others honestly – with integrity and courage.
Revere the valor and honor of a noble warrior who is willing to give his life in battle for the values he has sworn to protect – values he would never consider living without.
Or would you think of your best friends, whose incredible humor, kindness, and benevolent sense of life you would gladly risk your life to defend?
Each of these descriptions offers the highest ideal with respect to some quality of man. But would each, considered alone, be enough to qualify as the ideal? Of course not.
The ideal would be an integration of these qualities. It would be someone with a high level of physical fitness and athletic ability, intelligence, character, and personality. Yet so many of us focus on only one or two of these values. Life requires them all.
A great life requires greatness in all aspects of it. By not focusing on all of these qualities we end up not living as fully and robustly as we could.
Believe it or not, there was once an entire civilization that embraced this integrated ideal. Embracing it with more passion than we give even one of these values today. Historians describe this culture as the “seat” of Western Civilization. It is the culture from which the West first learned its most fundamental values. It was the first truly rational, pro-reason culture, the first free society, and the civilization in which philosophy and true fitness actually began.
“Five hundred years before Christ in a little town on the far western border of the settled and civilized world, a strange new power was at work. Something had awakened in the minds and spirits of the men there which was to so influence the world that the slow passage of long time, of century upon century and the shattering changes they brought, would be powerless to wear away that deep impress.” That city “had entered upon her brief and magnificent flowering of genius which so molded the world of mind and of spirit that our mind and spirit to-day are different.” (1)
Another work begins: “…in a part of the world that had for centuries been civilized, and quite highly civilized, there gradually emerged a people, not very numerous, not very powerful, not very well organized, who had a totally new conception of what human life was for and showed for the first time what the human mind was for.” (2)
The spirit of the West, the modern spirit, is first and foremost their discovery; and their place is not in the midst of the more primitive cultures that surrounded them, but here, in the modern world.
What culture was this that so affected the world? And what could it teach us about our lives today? About our proper function and place in the world? How can their very “this wordly” values, that integrate so well with a healthy, vibrant, robust life, inform us of how beautifully and courageously we can live our lives?
That culture is Ancient Greece. The brief 50 year period of her flowering just before the time of Aristotle and during the time that Plato and Socrates roamed the planet.
It is an interesting comment on the power of philosophy that certain pro reason philosophies led to cultures such as ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and our modern age….while others led to the dark ages and the majority of mankind’s existence – a world lit only by fire. This is about health, fitness, and a different view than is currently popular with the masses. BUT YOU are not part of the common…
The Greeks’ view of man is unique in history. Indeed, to them, man was the standard of all that was good – as opposed to the religious, environmental, and socialist viewpoints. As Sophocles so eloquently and reverently put it, “Many are the world’s wonders, but none so wonderful as man.”
Their overall view was of man the achiever, the successful, the intelligent, the powerful, the beautiful. They believed that not only should man strive for the perfect, but that the perfect was attainable. This is a view shared by only a handful out of billions on this earth today. Naturally, the Greeks had a word that described the essence of this ideal: Areté
Areté simply put means “metaphysical excellence”.
Metaphysics is the most fundamental branch of philosophy and deals with the deepest of all questions: the nature of existence. So “metaphysical excellence” would mean excellence in the deepest, most fundamental sense. This is precisely what Areté means.
In common terminology it would be described as a “mastery of reality”. The Greeks’ highest value was life itself, and areté referred to the successful living of it – in the most exalted sense. They knew that areté, to be properly sought, was a work in progress, something to be developed. Their belief was, mostly correct, that man was born tabula rasa (meaning “blank slate”). Everything he sought to attain had to be reached through productive work. This meant: exercise for the body, life long learning for the mind (mental exercise and development, if you will), unrelenting work in the development of one’s own character, and enjoying the company of others who share your same values.
What a truly rare and precious quality this is in a person. Today areté is not only a lost word – it is a lost concept. It is encouraging, however, that as a civilization we appear to be vacillating on the edge of discovering this concept once more. Ideas are what drive history – and philosophy is the root of ideas.
It is no wonder that philosophy, science, and fitness have been experiencing renewed interest over the past century – as all three have their roots in the most rational, the most integrated of all civilizations – ancient Greece. “Except the blind forces of nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origin.” – a famous quote from Sir Henry Maine.
Greece was the prime mover of all the virtues, values, and ideas that shaped Western Civilization – including our fascination with sports, recreation, and fitness. It is not a coincidence that the culture that produced the philosophical greats of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle also produced the greatest of all sporting events: the Olympic Games.
True Fitness since the Greeks had been lost for over 2,500 years. It has now returned, but not fully with the integration and philosophical base needed to give it widespread appeal in our culture as a powerful and healthy way to live one’s life.
One can see this both in the fact that an ever increasing percentage of our population are becoming obese, and the majority of our health care woes stem from problems with lifestyle. For example: Colon cancer and low fiber diets, massive simple carbohydrate consumption and Diabetes, cigarette use and lung cancer and emphysema, high blood pressure and heart disease and stroke, lack of exercise (specifically resistance training) and osteoporosis – the list is very long. The majority of these diseases have some sort of “sedentary lifestyle” correlation as well.
How can this be if our culture has a renewed interest in fitness you may ask? Well it is not from a lack of effort by many. But it is from a lack of correct information. There is so much contradictory, even harmful, at best useless, information in this “information age” that it is no wonder people get so far off track. What we need to discover is those few, very basic, fundamental principles that keep us advancing steadily in developing our performance across the range of human capabilities. My colleagues and I have been developing a system of principles over the past few decades that, although not fully codified, serves that very purpose.
Our training lifestyle integrates endurance, strength, power movements with mobility, nutrition, and aesthetics – and if you approach it the way we advocate, it will integrate all the other aspects of your life as well.
Our minds, spirits, and bodies are inextricably linked, after all (see Arete: Mind and Body – coming soon).
Most people still view Fitness as a purely physical endeavor. This is not made better by hormonally augmented men and women of super-human size who spend all day lifting, eating, tanning, and shaving every inch of their body whenever they can pull themselves away from the nearest mirror that they lean on for self-esteem support. These people do exist. And yes, it is excessive vanity and just weird, among other things. You can pick up almost any fitness/muscle magazine and see them on the cover, or as an endorser of the latest supplement that doesn’t work – and that they never took.
These are what I call “physique builders” – people who are tragically focused only on the physical.
There is nothing wrong with the vanity that comes with loving and respecting your body. But when you preoccupy your life with only one aspect of your being, you are not living the life that is uniquely human.
“We are composite creatures, made up of soul and body, mind and spirit. When men’s attention is fixed upon one to the disregard of the others, human beings result who are only partially developed, their eyes blinded to half of what life offers and the great world holds.”(1) – Edith Hamilton
These people are not bodybuilders. The human body is made of many integrated systems, including the central nervous system, i.e. the mind. This is a system the “physique builders” do not recognize as worthy of their attention – and it shows. The truly Fit seek excellence and peak performance from the whole body, and every facet of life.
Once people understand, particularly those that consider themselves body/physique builders today, that building the body is no different from, and no greater or lesser task than, building the mind or building one’s character, then we will have come a long way toward living in a rational, benevolent, and healthy society. It is this philosophical base that I wish to promote.
Human virtues, what you accept as “the good”, are a means to obtaining particular values. We’ll take a look at what virtues the Greeks held and what values they sought to attain. You will be amazed how closely they may be aligned to your values if you are one that values a strong and healthy body – and mind.
I’ll cover the myth of the mind-body dichotomy in 2016 and how destructive its effects are on our lives. As I have stated, the Greeks correctly viewed the mind and body as one. I hope you will enjoy learning about this culture. It is very refreshing to discover that, at one time, there was an entire civilization based upon the ideas that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.
-Lanny F. Littlejohn, M.D.
- The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton. W. W. Norton and Company, 1958, pgs. 13-21.
- The Greeks, H. D. F. Kitto. Penguin Books, 1957, pg. 7