Excellence: A neglected and misunderstood virtueWritten by Subby Szterszky
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What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. . . . You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. – C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”
C.S. Lewis wrote this appendix to his Screwtape Letters as a critique of modern culture’s penchant for mediocrity. It’s doubly ironic (likely intentional on Lewis’ part) that he illustrated it with an anecdote from Ancient Greece. The Greeks considered excellence – arete, as they called it – to be the chief virtue in life. And in due course, the word found its way into the language of the New Testament.
Arete occurs five times in the Greek NT: once in Paul (Philippians 4:8) and four times in Peter (1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 1:3; twice in 2 Peter 1:5). In each case, English Bibles typically render it as “excellence” or “virtue,” an attribute of God to be valued and modelled by His people.
Within this Scriptural context, the primary sense of arete is understood to be moral excellence. God is holy. He’s perfectly pure and just and good. He’s supremely compassionate and kind. Hence those who belong to Him are to exhibit these traits in increasing measure as well. In effect, the fruit of the Spirit exemplifies various facets of moral excellence that God is growing in the lives of believers.
Arete in pagan and Christian thought
However, arete had an even broader meaning in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Beyond excellence and virtue, it also encompassed beauty, strength, courage, intelligence, effectiveness and the fulfillment of potential, among other qualities. It could be applied to people or concepts or even objects. A well-made chair, for example, could be said to possess its own arete. Such categories would not have been lost on the original Greek-speaking readers of the New Testament.
In classical pagan thought, man was considered to be the measure of all things. Consequently, human arete was seen as an end in itself. But the NT authors repurposed the word to express a far loftier spiritual truth. As God’s image-bearers, humans are to pursue excellence in all areas – moral as well as cultural, social and intellectual, to use Lewis’ list – in order to reflect the nature of their Creator. This is especially true of Christians, who’ve been redeemed by Jesus and are being transformed into His likeness.
From the beginning, back in the garden, God commissioned the first human couple to exercise wise, responsible dominion over His creation (Genesis 1:26-28). This cultural mandate extends to all individuals in every sphere of endeavour – arts, sciences, medicine, government, labour, education, parenting. When performed with excellence – whether by believers or non-believers – these activities mirror something of the creativity, goodness and beauty of the Sovereign Lord.
Even after God sent His people into captivity in Babylon, He commanded them via the prophet Jeremiah to seek the welfare of the city during their exile (Jeremiah 29:4-7). God’s people are not merely to be good citizens. They’re to be exemplary citizens, leading lights in their community, marshalling all of their best efforts for the benefit of the society in which God has placed them.
According to Jesus, the greatest command in Scripture is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28). But to love God with our whole mind goes beyond knowing the basic facts of the Christian faith. It involves concerted mental effort, pondering and meditating on the excellences of Christ in order to know Him better. It also implies a vital life of the intellect, a developed capacity for critical thought, a love of truth wherever it’s found, a desire to explore and understand the world God has made. In a word, it’s to use our minds to the full potential for which God created them.
Arete neglected, misunderstood – and embraced
As C.S. Lewis warned, there can be a danger in democratic societies of seeking comfort in the average while resenting the excellent – either that, or making the excellent into an idol. Both of these impulses are on display in our culture’s treatment of celebrities, by turns putting them on pedestals and then delighting in tearing them down.
The church, as well, often looks upon excellence with a degree of suspicion, as if it were a close cousin of pride or selfish ambition. Believers can also fall prey to measuring excellence as the surrounding culture does, in terms of social status or financial success.
But this is not the essence of arete, either in Ancient Greek thought or in the New Testament. God didn’t weave excellence into His creation to be avoided, but to be embraced. Every genuine expression of virtue or beauty or goodness should be allowed its proper work – to stir the mind, melt the heart and inspire the imagination.
Above all else, these shards of arete should draw the eyes of faith upward, with worship and wonder, to the One whose excellence they were designed to reflect.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence [arete], if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Sources and further reading
C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” The Screwtape Letters (new edition), New York: HarperOne, 2015.
Philip Vassallo, “Arete,” Philosophy Now, No. 45, March-April 2004.
Scott H. Young, “Arete: the meaning of life,” author’s blog, March 2008.
A brief introduction to the concept of arete is available on Wikipedia.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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