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Forever Working Towards Arete

“Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life, that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being…. Excellence in the Greek sense involves neither the Christian notion of humility and love nor the Roman ideal of stoic adherence to one’s duty. Instead, excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder. …. the Greek word arete is etymologically related to the Greek verb “to pray” (araomai). It follows that Homer’s basic account of human excellence involves the necessity of being in an appropriate relationship to whatever is understood to be sacred in the culture.” — Hubert Drefus, All Things Shining

My first memory of hearing the word arete was when a history professor I was quite fond of suggested we use it as the name of a new rowing shell our crew had acquired. The Greek word for excellence seemed as worthy a name as any to aspire to, and so I proposed it. The rowing coach, never one to embrace such things, chose a different name. And it turned out that we never did quite achieve excellence, settling somewhere into better than average. I wonder if we’d chosen it we might have been inclined to be so? One can’t very well name a rowing shell Arete and finish in the middle of the pack.

What’s become clear to me over the years since that first encounter with arete is that it’s been my objective ever since. We reach, fall short, move a step closer and reach again. That’s how we move forward towards something greater than our previous self. Living with a sense of gratitude and wonder, embracing that which is sacred, and working towards excellence is a blueprint for a lifetime.

We can’t control everything in life. Surely things happen along the way that may be chocked up to luck, timing or serendipity. But certainly, what we aspire to makes all the difference in how full our lives turn out to be.

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