Arete is the effort and state of making something as good as it is possible for it to be. It is a process of continuous improvement ̶ not with the impossible goal of attaining perfection ̶ but rather with the realistic measure of leaving everything better than you found it.
Arete is a philosophical concept rooted in ancient Greece. Often spoken about as a personal attribute, it is commonly translated as virtue, and specifically, moral virtue. But as the writings of Plato and Aristotle make clear, it can be applied more broadly and in that sense is perhaps better thought of as Excellence. Arete relates to the highest quality state something is capable of attaining. The pursuit of Arete means that you are focused on the quality of everything you do and experience. Most life philosophies tend to focus either on maximizing happiness or in finding purpose through devoting oneself to service. For those who value Arete, working toward excellence provides a purpose. That work may require service or even sacrifice, but to be engaged in the process of improvement generates its own happiness, while the anticipation of achieving greater levels of excellence is a source of excitement, power, and magic.
The Enlightenment, whose pillars are Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, has been the most effective tool by which people have been able to pursue Arete in the human condition. Steven Pinker calls our collective process improvement, “flourishing” and describes how we can each use the tools of the Enlightenment to advance it.
As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness of the natural and cultural world. As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn. You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy – the ability to like, love, respect, help, and show kindness – and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.
And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.
The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. But it is not. More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense. We take the gifts of the Enlightenment for granted and ignore its achievements at our peril. The ideals of the Enlightenment are stirring, inspiring, noble – a reason to live!
And the benefits of Enlightenment belong not to any tribe, but to all of humanity – to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.
The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. . . . We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
But how can we know what is “better”? Plato alluded to the notion that this knowledge was inherent in each of us when he postulated, “what is good and what is not good, need we ask…[anyone]… to teach us this?” The question implies that at some level there is a common set of human values. Whether they are the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, whose echo is heard among the convictions of the Enlightenment cataloged by Pinker, the process of improvement requires some basic human agreement on the direction in which Arete lies. When we engage in the exercise of defining our identity and describing what unites us, the answer is to be found in our agreement on what constitutes excellence and our collective commitment to pursue it. From its origins in Ancient Greece to its modern expression in the founding of the United States of America, Western civilization represents the embrace of Arete and the emergence of the Enlightenment to pursue it. What are we, if not that?
The concept of Arete can also be applied to organizations of humans engaged in any endeavor. We can think of an excellent organization as a bubble that encapsulates that ideal environment that allows us to flourish and that we all aspire to inhabit. Sustaining that bubble, or culture of excellence, is an everyday task that requires every one of us within it to continually apply effort against the many various pressures that naturally work to undermine excellence. If any one of us shirks our responsibility at any time, then the bubble shrinks just a bit and the organization is no longer at its maximum potential. Indefinitely sustaining high standards may sound challenging, even daunting perhaps, but that is exactly what excellence entails. Although the task may be unrelenting, the human resources can be frequently refreshed and in so doing, inject new energy to the effort. The key ingredients each member must supply are: (1) Belief in the mission of the organization; (2) Ownership of the collective outcome; (3) Concern for one’s colleague (a form of love the ancient Greeks called “philios”); (4) Faith in constructive criticism; (5) Dedication to continuous improvement; and (6) Discipline. To foster these individual qualities, the organization must: (1) Communicate a compelling purpose and strategic vision; (2) Empower its members; (3) Prioritize their well-being and development; (4) Encourage critical thought and constructive dissent; (5) Be willing to learn and change; (6) Uphold fair standards and expectations. When Arete is the motivation and common objective, the people create the environment where it can be expressed, and the environment sustains the culture in which people flourish. It is a fragile, temporal condition that exists only so long as everyone believes in it and is committed to it. In a word, it is Camelot.
The continuous improvement of the human condition and the organizations we form to accomplish goals, can be endlessly advanced with sustained Enlightened thinking. Rise to the challenge of Excellence. Help create Camelot. Arete!