Areté- meditations on the 26° and 30° Delphic Laws

26) Praise virtue (Επαινει αρετην)

“Areté” is an another very important value in the Hellenic Tradition: in a general sense is excellence of every kind and it is often translated with “virtue”. We have comes near this value when we have found the law about paideia, because areté is a very important part of it- and it is closely linked also to the ideal of the aristocracy, because the aristoi are the noble and virtuous ones, from the most ancient times. Areté is the ability of something to do what it is supposed to do, and do it well.  It is virtue, skill, and knowledge.  The function of the soul is to live: the virtue of the soul is to live well.  Through trying to define justice, Plato often uses the concept of areté: Socrates says that everything has a function, the function of a pruning knife is to prune trees; the function of the eye is to see.  Also, everything has a “virtue”; a virtue is a quality that makes something perform its function well.  Thus, sharpness is the virtue of a knife; sight is the virtue of the eye.  Now the function of man is to live.  What, then, is his virtue?  Well we agreed that injustice is a source of disunity and chaos; so it is a defect.  Its opposite, justice, must therefore be a virtue of man.  But without its virtue, a thing cannot perform its function well.  So without justice, a man cannot live well. And if he cannot live well, he cannot be happy.  Injustice, then, cannot bring happiness.

The three classes of the Republic have the four great virtues: wisdom, courage, discipline (temperance), and justice.  Wisdom is found in the ruling class, because they judge what is right and wrong, good and bad.  Courage is found in the auxiliaries; discipline (temperance) does not fit into any one class alone, because discipline is a mastery of one’s self and is also found in the way the classes relate to each other.  Justice can only be found when the three prior virtues are there and the three prior virtues can only be found when everyone does their jobs, and does them well: in a word, when areté is present, both in the individual and in the state. The concept of areté is not hard to understand, but it is hard to put into words.

Although he never uses the word “areté” in his Republic, Plato does put it into words, just by trying to define justice, and thus we are enabled to see how greatly these two value are linked. Not only this: Areté is a female Daimon, personification of excellence, valor and goodness, and is often associated to Harmonia, to Kalokagathia (Nobility), to Eukleia (Good Repute) and to Eunomia (Good Order). She is the daughter of Praxidike (Exacter of Justice) and of Soter (Savior), along with Ktesios (of the Household, a name of Zeus) and Homonoia (Concord): she and Her sister are often called Praxidikai (Exacters of Penalties) after Their mother.

So Simonides speaks about Her:There is a tale that Areté dwells on unclimable rocks and close to the Gods tends a holy place; she may not be seen by the eyes of all mortals, but only by him on whom distressing sweat comes from within, the one who reaches the peak of manliness.” It is well known how Herakles met Areté and Kakia (Vice) when he was in doubt about what road he has to take between the two; Kakia at once addressed him, telling him that she is the easier road leading to endless pleasure, while so said Areté: “I, too, am come to you, Herakles: I know your parents and I have taken note of your character during the time of your education. Therefore I hope that, if you take the road that leads to me, you will turn out a right good doer of high and noble deeds, and I shall be yet more highly honored and more illustrious for the blessings I bestow. But I will not deceive you by a pleasant prelude: I will rather tell you truly the things that are, as the Gods have ordained them. For of all things good and fair, the Gods give nothing to man without toil and effort. If you want the favor of the Gods, you must worship the Gods: if you desire the love of friends, you must do good to your friends: if you covet honor from a city, you must aid that city: if you are fain to win the admiration of all Hellas for virtue, you must strive to do good to Hellas: if you want land to yield you fruits in abundance, you must cultivate that land: if you are resolved to get wealth from flocks, you must care for those flocks: if you essay to grow great through war and want power to liberate your friends and subdue your foes, you must learn the arts of war from those who know them and must practice their right use: and if you want your body to be strong, you must accustom your body to be the servant of your mind, and train it with toil and sweat… through me all are dear to the Gods, lovely to friends, precious to their native land. And when comes the appointed end, they lie not forgotten and dishonored, but live on, sung and remembered for all time. O Herakles, you son of goodly parents, if you wilt labor earnestly on this wise, you may have for your own the most blessed happiness.”


30) Exercise nobility of character (Ευγενειαν ασκει)

“Eugeneia” means literally “nobility of birth” and the eugenés is the noble-born, the heir of an aristocratic family, in which areté and paideia predominate. Conversely, it means also “excellence of the body, i.e. beauty” and “nobility of character”. Aristotle in the Rhetoric says: “Noble birth (eugeneia) is excellence of genos (race, stock), and being true-to-breed (gennaion) in not altering from family nature” and he states that only dynasties long noble and long rich deserve the title “nobly sired” eugeneis. This has not to be understood in a modern way, because the aristocratic families are in fact descendants from either a God or a Hero, in any case their antiquity is beyond description as it falls directly into mythological sceneries.

Solon, who actually came from a very noble family, said: “Put more trust in the nobility of character than in a oath”, as to explain how greatly this value is important in the Hellenic Tradition. Aristotle claims that a sincere character (what he calls a virtuous character) will direct the person toward his or her highest good:  such a character is  the ideal of a perfect human being.  This person is always balanced and is in full accord with the self, society and the environment. Virtue is that which brings your most desired outcome, in the sense that  the benefits of having obtained such an authentic, sincere or natural character is acting at the highest level of effectiveness. In another words if you display virtue as the basis of your character you will have gained nobility of character and will be treated as such: that is why the true aristocrats are to be honored by all, as they are the upholders of  virtue.

Everything a eugenés does will be done just right; because his/her actions reflect his/her inner qualities and his/her inner qualities reflect Virtue (everything he/she does is done properly, timely and appropriately). Good order and consequently Eunomia and Areté depended on people staying in the places allotted to them by the Gods by birth, by fate and by personal accomplishment. Seneca wisely says: “Know, therefore, Serenus, that this perfect man, full of virtues human and divine, can lose nothing … The walls which guard the wise man are safe both from flame and assault, they provide no means of entrance- are lofty, impregnable, godlike.” In fact, one of the pivotal points of Hellenic thinking is the nobility of man as a free being who can overcome all obstacles in search of virtue. The Olympic games, in their own unique way, aids the formulation of the kind of intellect that searches for answers and wisdom, and a respect for rules that made co-existence of free men possible.

The verb askeo is also in the seventeenth law, “exercise phronesis”; we have noted that this verb is at the root of the very important word askesis, (which means simply “exercise, practice”) that is one of the fundamental prerequisites for the philosophical life. Now we are told about an another very important principle: along with phronesis, we must exercise the eugeneia to reach complete virtue and the highest good. It tells also that is necessary to exercise always that part made of gold inside us, that is what causes some men to be called noble and aristocrats, while its lack determines the wretchedness of the base people.

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