arete: the lost art.

There are exponentially more things I’m awful at than things I’m good at. Consequently, I’m not even required to make any attempt to be otherwise. This seems to be true in perhaps most, if not all of humanity. It is in quite contrast to what the Greeks of antiquity conceptualized in the form of arete. The concept as popularized by Robert M Pirsig in his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, stood for excellence. Excellence in the art of living. The Greeks professed that, in order to lead a full and vibrant life, every man should strive towards the highest ideals in all spheres of life; family, politics, war, philosophy. Socrates was a family man who had been a warrior in his youth. Plato dabbled in politics throughout his life.

However, in modern times, achieving arete is a formidable task. Both theoretical and practical philosophy leans towards extremely specialized ways of working and living. In the complex systems and organizations of our age, specialization of professional roles, though necessary require huge mental and physical effort. This makes attending to other areas difficult, if not impossible. Even expectations are tailored accordingly. A politician is never taken to be a serious student of philosophy. But no one would deny that, it would be a useful addition. The same applies to every other profession.

Work-life balance, a misleading but popular term solves only a part of this problem. It tries to create a compromise only between the professional and personal life. But it does nothing about the challenges within them. It is seen as a task to be undertaken by the corporations and the institutions, not of society. This is the most important distinction between Ancient Greece and the 21st Century. Arete was the prerogative of the whole not of parts. It was understood to be the foundation of responsible citizenship.

Though an all-round development of an individual is seen a family issue, governments all around the world should take it up as a policy issue. It should become the guiding principle on which all education should be based upon.