Arete, in its primary sense, says Wikipedia, means “excellence” of any kind.
I want to compare arete with commonly chosen alternatives: adequacy and mediocrity.
Let’s start with fitness.
Fitness means “being suitable for a specific task or purpose.”
The task or purpose defines the level of fitness needed for its doing.
Some tasks demand excellence, but most do not. They only what is adequate to do the job.
I will call that minimal level of fitness “bare adequacy.”
Sufficiency, in contrast to adequacy, would provide a comfortable margin of fitness.
Bare adequacy is the minimum.
Mediocrity means being “in a middle state.”
The word carries negative connotations, but I’ll use it neutrally.
To carry out a task requires bare adequacy.
To carry it out with a comfortable margin for failure requires sufficiency.
To carry it out in the best possible way would require excellence—arete.
To carry it out in ways that are better than barely adequate, yet less than excellent would be to carry it out in a mediocre way.
Mediocrity is sufficient, by definition.
Mediocrity is inevitably popular and acceptable because, on average, people are average.
The average person is average
How could it be otherwise?
Only the most capable people doing their best can achieve excellence. Some do, and this sets that standard for excellence.
Some competent people routinely do less than their best. They strive for some level of fitness, often to be above average, but not for arete.
Why is this?
The common wisdom is that efficiency has replaced arete as a virtue.
It’s possible to both seek efficiency and excellence, but an acceptable level of efficiency is deemed sufficient in general.
People reward others for doing what it takes to get by with a modest cushion for error.
If there’s no benefit to doing a better job, we’re told, don’t waste the resources.
But every decision to do that is a secret vote for mediocrity.
It’s a vote for mediocrity for yourself, your children, and the world around you.
Vote arete, I say!
Being better than average
Most people want to be above average—but not too much above average. There are social reasons for this.
If everyone did their best, then people with average talents would have to do their best just to achieve an average performance.
There was a time when getting a “gentleman’s C” was the norm.
When I was at MIT we were graded on the curve. Everyone could do the math (of course). People who raised class average made it harder for everyone less talented to get a passing grade. The best were both admired and resented.
And in truth, how could one strive for excellence in a system where that caused needless suffering? Was causing others to suffer a virtuous act?
Luckily for average people, not everyone does their best. People who can do better than average can do less than their best and still be above average. And they do.
The more capable a person, the further from arete they can move and still pat themselves on the back for being above average.
This pulls the average down.
So average people can do their best and be better than average. In some cases, considerably better.
Or average people can be efficient and settle for just above average. They’re never going to be excellent, and who cares what level of mediocrity they reach?
But anyone doing their best can still achieve personal excellence.
Unfortunately, few applaud them for that, and no one teaches them to commend themselves.
In this kind of system, there are powerful reasons for people to vote for mediocrity.
Senator Roman Hruska got his fifteen minutes of fame defending mediocrity.
In 1970, Hruska addressed the Senate, urging them to confirm Richard Nixon’s nomination of G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. Responding to criticism that Carswell had been a mediocre judge, Hruska argued:
Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.
For the Greeks, (at least the ones we mythologize) arete was a moral virtue. One might as well ask why be moral? Why be virtuous?
In some sense, I’ve always done my best. Indeed, I’ve tried. I wrote about it here: We always do our best.
I’ve also always aspired to do better—but often did not act in accord with my aspirations.
There was a time when I saw that as a failure of character. Now I see it as a lack of knowledge.
I wanted my kids to be the best—or at least the best they could be. Still do.
My question to them was always: “Did you do your best?” With a little thought (which is a motivation for writing this, might discover a better question.
Like lots of other people, I want the sports teams that I cheer to be their best.
People want their country to be the best.
So why not ourselves?
I wanted my kids to do their best (and still do). I could say that it would have been hypocritical not to teach them by example. But I think that the truth is somewhat different and needs exploration.
How I see things now
I’m not dead yet, and that means I’ve got responsibilities.
If I am not working toward personal excellence, I’m casting a vote for mediocrity and teaching everyone around me to vote with me.
That is an idea, a bit of knowledge, that I need to keep handy.
When people like me, those who can do above-average things, settle for mere fitness instead of arete, we let the average drop.
Then the average person can do less and still be above average, and the average drops further.
Do it enough times, and civilization unwinds.
I like to think that what I do makes a difference. The difference may be small, but it is a difference.
I’m not dead yet, and as long as I’m not, I’ll do my part to Vote Arete! and #keeptheaverageup.
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