aretê: striving for a noble goal, for high ideals; noble goal, high ideals

The noun aretê is fundamentally connected with the superlative adjective aristos (see entry; see also agathos).

A key word for the aristocratic ideal is aretê, usually translated as "virtue." Such a translation does not, as we will see, do full justice to all the implications of this word.

As Jaeger has argued (Paideia I 3-14), the ideal of "noble morality," as conveyed by the word aretê, can best be understood by considering Aristotle's description, as in Nicomachean Ethics IV 7-9, of the megalopsukhos or "high-minded" man. For Aristotle, such a man has to be aristocratic or noble, that is, kalos k'agathos, literally "beautiful and noble" (cf. Nicomachean Ethics IV 7, 1124a4).

It is essential to reiterate that Aristotle intends this criterion to be primarily moral, not social, and the same can be said for the criteria of Aristotle's teacher, Plato, whose own view is encapsulated in a fundamental principle attributed to the words of Socrates himself: most simply put, aretê cannot be taught (Protagoras 320b).

Aristotle's emphasis on the moral foundations of aretê is made manifest by the models that he cites for nobility. In Posterior Analytics II 13 (97b15), he describes Achilles and Ajax, premier heroes in the epic poetry of Homer, as the ideal examples of this high-mindedness, this megalopsukhia. Aristotle highlighted the same two heroes in a song that he himself composed: the philosopher's exquisite artistic composition is addressed to aretê personified as a goddess and instantiated in the aretê of the honor and of the song, Aristotle's friend Hermeias of Atarneus, "who died to keep faith with his philosophical and moral ideals" (Jaeger I 13). By featuring Achilles and Ajax as premier models in his "hymn to aretê" (lines 13-14), Aristotle "expressly connects his own philosophical conception of aretê with that found in Homer, and with its Homeric ideals Achilles and Ajax" (Jaeger I 13-14).

In this regard, the etymology of aretê becomes pertinent: the most plausible explanation is that it is derived from the verb ar-numai "strive to achieve," conventionally combined with direct objects denoting noble goals. We may note that Aristotle's generic adjective denoting the concept of "noble", spoudaios, is derived from the verb speudô in the sense of "strive." It is as if aretê as an "achievement" is the very act of "striving" for that achievement.