Missing words: areté

In the frantic search for new words, ideas and paradigms that has rather blighted the last decade, like a collective dog digging a hole we have mounded earth upon expressions and ideas from the past that may still serve us extremely well. It is time some of these were uncovered.

The first is areté.

That Athenians were locked in philosophical and ethical debate in the 5th Century BC, is staggering, given that the tribes of Britain were at this time just coming to terms with what iron could do while mounding earth on hilltops. Their reputation and legacy might have been brighter were it not for Plato – whose word came to carry a great deal of weight – pouring scorn on their ideas and methods as a means of distancing his mentor and teacher, Socrates, from their kind. Over time the term Sophist has – entirely unfairly, in the opinion of this blog – come to be seen as derogatory, denoting one who uses deceptive and misleading arguments.

There is no getting around it, however – the Sophists changed the world. Their approach and beliefs are everywhere to see today in commerce, law, politics, and our everyday relationships. They are the founders of the coaching, training and counselling fraternities.

The Sophists were mobile teachers, educating those who were prepared to pay using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to teach areté – translated literally as “virtue” but meaning excellence in the form of effectiveness, the development and use of all available personal resources to achieve results, the fulfilment of the highest human potential – being the best you can be.

In teaching areté, the Sophists quite probably marked a major social turning point in four respects.

Until this point, “virtue” had been associated with machismo, physical prowess and attributes – it now became more clearly regarded as an intellectual capability. Knowledge became the highest standard of human potential.

Secondly, they challenged the assumption that excellence was a birthright – it could now be attained by training. The concept of social mobility was awakened.

Thirdly, they challenged the established view of the universe as controlled by forces outside human influence – it was now seen as within the human domain, based on something tangible and objective. It is Protagoras (490-420 BC) who is attributed with the expression “man is the measure of all things”, dynamite in its time.

Finally, they taught the value of being able to position and pursue either side of an argument, believing that truth cannot be limited to one side alone. In this they gave us our intellectual hunger, our healthy scepticism, our desire and courage to pursue truth by challenging not just others, but ourselves too.

Each of these contributions is captured in their idea of areté, the fulfilment of our potential. We aspire to it today as much as those who paid to be taught it two and a half thousand years ago. It captures the essence of what it means to be human.

While we struggle with words to express this idea, we might consider that we buried a perfectly good one centuries ago. Its time it was used once again. And we might also recognise and thank the Sophists, too.


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