Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ἀρετή: The Greek Way to Define Life

Steven Cromack

Achilles and Patroclus, from a red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC
While Americans pride themselves on being the first great individualistic nation, the idea of self-actualization is actually distinctly Greek.  The Ancient Greeks called the idea of being “the best you can be” or “reaching your highest potential” areté.[1]   Achieving areté was the Greeks’ reason for living, and a matter of honor (timé).  This sense of life, however, also stemmed from their sense of death.  The Ancient Greeks were a death-centered culture.  Having nothing to die for meant one had nothing for which to live.  When that reason to die became clear—for one’s polis or family, for the honor of one’s leader, or for a friend, life became meaningful and precious.  Achieving areté made life worth living, valuable, and therefore offered a means for the Greeks to meet death head on.   

Nothing captures areté better than the characters in Homer’s Iliad.  Its characters champion “reaching your highest potential.”  The story revolves around Achilleus[2],  the great Achaean warrior who undergoes an internal struggle to find a reason to die.  Everybody is going to die eventually, and each character is aware of this, as is the rest of Greek society.  Because all humans have to die, however, they should earn a noble death.  Society will then remember them with honor.  Those individuals who give their life for what they value become institutions, immortals, and heroes. 

Having withdrawn from the Trojan War, Achilleus allowed his good friend Patroklos to enter battle wearing his personal armor.  During the battle, however, the Trojan prince Hektor killed Patroklos.  The death of his dear friend at the hands of the Trojans drove Achilleus into a rage.  He now had something for which to die.  Achilleus could now fight and die for Patroklos, as Protoklos fought and died for him.  In doing so, Achilleus could now live gloriously—fight with all his might against the Trojans.  He declared, “Now I shall go, to overtake that killer of a dear life, Hektor; then I will accept my own death, at whatever time Zeus wishes to bring it about, and the other immortals.”[3]   When Achilleus arrived on the battlefield, Athene circled his head, from which came a great blaze of fire.  Homer writes, “There he stood, and shouted, and from her place Pallas Athene gave cry, and drove endless terror upon the Trojans.  As loud as comes the voice that is screamed out by a trumpet by murderous attackers who beleaguer a city.”[4]   Achilleus became the best he could be on the battlefield.  He was full of life and glory, something that only came with the death of his best friend.  With that newfound sense of life, Achilleus won the war for the Achaeans.

The Greeks not only loved Homer’s characters, but also internalized timé.  Such was the case during the Greco-Persian Wars.  When Persia invaded Greece, Athens was in grave danger.  If conquered, the Athenian people would fall under the tyranny of Persia.  And so, the Athenian soldiers met their enemy at the shores of Marathon for a final stand.  They were ready to die for their families and their polis.  When the battle began, the Athenian hoplites charged the Persian troops at full speed.  According to Herodotus, “The Persians, therefore, when they saw the Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction.”[5]   The Athenians were indeed “bent upon their own destruction,” since they were ready to die.   That day, the Athenian hoplites “fought in a manner worthy of being recorded.”[6]   The Greeks found their reason for living, the preservation of their city-state.  These hoplites believed that if they were going to die, they might as well do so with a sense of timé.  At Marathon, because the Greeks were willing to die for their families, their polis, and for each other, much like Achilleus did, they were able to push the Persians out of Greece.

Ἀreté, as defined by the characters of Homer’s Iliad, and internalized by the Greek soldiers was what gave many Greeks meaning.  If the Greeks could find those things most precious to them, then they could live (and die) gloriously.


1. Richard Hooker, "Areté," Washington State University,

2. I used the Lattimore translation, which uses Achilleus, as opposed to Achilles.  For the evolution of the name, see Herbert Jordan at

3. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 18.114-116.

4. Ibid., 18.204-220.

5. Herodotus, The Persian Wars, trans. George Rawlinson (New York:, 1942), 6.112.

6. Ibid.


Dan Allosso said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Allosso said...

Interesting post, Steve. I'm fascinated by the way you say the Greeks incorporated ideas about what gives life meaning from their literature (although I suspect a historian of Japan, India, or China might be able to give you examples of similar archetypes and ideals in those ancient cultures -- the Ramayana comes to mind). It calls attention, for me, to the very vague, wide territory between fiction and history. We could ask the same question of the present: what stories do we base our behavioral norms on? The Lord of the Rings came partly, I've read, out of Tolkien's experience of the Great War. But now it's read and viewed by kids who have no experience of WWI, or WWII for that matter. And what about the kids who watch Troy? What do they learn from Brad Pitt? How does that compare to the lessons learned by kids of, say, Tolkien's generation who read the same story in the "public schools" of imperial Britain? (original post revised because the automatic spell-checker revised Tolkien to token, and I didn't notice)

Steve Cromack said...

I am not sure I am understanding your connection between Homer and Tolkien. The Greeks internalized the warrior code (time) and arete because both offered them a means to deal with the double bind, the dueling forces of the human traditions (nomos) and fate (physis). There are so few sources from Homeric Greece, but in the collection of sources we possess, modern historians can get a small glimpse into how those in the 6th Century BC lived.

The ideas in Homer, however, are also present in the writings of the poets (Theognis of Megara and Pindar, among many others) the Greek historians (Herodotus and Thucydides) and the playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and Aristophanes). They are also contained in the works of Plato and Aristotle, who both offer the Greeks a new way to view the world by refocusing time and arete.

Many modern Classical Greek historians assert that the double-bind, arete, time, nomos, and physis are more than just the themes, motifs, or symbols of Greek fiction. Instead, they would insist that this was conscious psyche of the Greeks. The double bind was always on the minds of the Ancient Greeks. They were constantly wondering about what the meddling Gods were going to do next. The Greeks constantly offered their possessions (and themselves) as offerings to please the fickle Gods. They worried about human nature and the rising power of Pericles and the Athenian Empire.

I can't think of anything in modern times, historical, literary, or philosophical that is as ever present on the collective psyche of Americans.

Or, then again, modern historians could have completely missed the boat.

Dan Allosso said...

You may be right about the much higher level of universality of Homeric ideals in the minds of the Greeks (or at least, the ones who left records) than in the present day. I was more curious, I guess, about what has happened to Homer since that time. The Iliad and Odyssey are also interesting as a mirror in which people from different periods tried to view themselves. That was the context I was thinking of, and also wondering what other stories we use this way today, and what they tell us?

But it's an interesting question, too, whether we can have a single focus, the way the Greeks apparently did -- or whether it's even desirable. Reminds me of the concerns behind some of the Federalist Papers: that the model of Athenian society wasn't really viable in a continental nation with a large, diverse population. Maybe the inadequacy of single themes to act as social glue (except in extreme conditions like Civil or World War) is what makes the Presidential races seem so absurd.

Steve Cromack said...

Homer was idolized by one of Aristotle's students - Alexander the Great, who fashioned himself after Achilleus. Homer, in the Greek tradition survived through Hellenistic Greek, and the Roman conquest. In fact, Homer had such an impact that Virgil composed his own Homeric epic so Rome would have their own Illiad (the Aenid). From here, things get murky. It is imagined that when the Church leaders sought to unify the Canon, they burned pagan texts, including Homer, and the Library of Alexandria. With the loss of the texts, it is conceivable that so went the oral tradition. The only remaining copies were preserved at Constantinople, which was unknown until it fell to the Turks. Fleeing scholars fled to Italy, bringing Homer with them. This was also the time of Humanism and the Renaissance. Homer reappeared. I am unsure as how people used Homer since then.

Homer was handed down century to century until it was put to paper. Maybe the closest America comes is the idea of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Perhaps this idea of American Dream is the American tradition. I feel as though the United States is too young a nation to see the big picture yet. I don't know... Your thoughts on the American political tradition as a glue similar to Homer?

hcr said...

OK, OK, I'm trying to be relevant here, but all this ancient stuff leaves me absolutely in the dust (as, I might point out, they are. Sorry.). But can I try to juggle the last point a bit to note that the most recent Atlantic has an article that suggests that American society has recently gone overboard on its quest for money, and points out that we have shortchanged ourselves on happiness. The connection here is that our national mantra is supposed to be "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," not capital, and that recent generations have missed the boat.

So the American political tradition as national glue... maybe. Not sure, though, since of late it seems to have been denigrated to tribalism. I'd like to see it come back as a defining principle, though.

(Ok, I'm trying. But why doesn't everyone just study America? It's so much easier! And we don't have any of those funny languages....)

Dan Allosso said...

I guess my questions had to do with a couple of things. First, which Greeks? It seems to me that a combination of the written records that have come down to us and the way history used to be done when these records were incorporated into the Anglophone canon together suggest that we're only getting the ideas of a small, elite group of Greeks when we read Pericles or Plato. Perhaps Homer is an exception to this rule, due to the traditions of oral poetry?

Second, what effects did these archetypes and ideals have on society outside the halls of power? It's one thing to say that Alexander knew Homer -- after all, he was educated by Aristotle. But what's the process that leads from educated elites to broad social themes that organize states and give "cultures" their character?

And then, what about today? I don't know when in the early modern period Homer was "rediscovered" by the west -- that seems a little "Name of the Rose" to me. But surely by the age of the printing press and early British colonialism, Homer was back and the Brits had incorporated him into their canon of stories that define cultural character.

But then again -- and possibly as a way to work through HCR's idea about tribalism -- nearly every ancient culture that contributes to American culture has foundational texts like Homer. It's not my specialty as a historian, but as a reader I recall similar themes in Beowulf or the Ramayana. And it seems a no-brainer to suppose that beneath Bushido and Masai cultures are similar ideals. And that's only scratching the surface, with the warrior traditions!

Maybe the point is, that America needs a cultural anchor that delves deep into the substructures of these various traditions. We're certainly not going to get by on the Dead White Euro Male canon alone, and I think we need to understand why these types of stories been so powerful and from where that power comes.

Personally, I'd look to the writers of speculative fiction. For better or worse, they seem to be the people in our society most regularly engaged in trying to work with these tools. I'm not saying they've relearned that music, but at least they've picked up the instrument and tried to get some notes out of it.