For the ancient Greeks, arete or excellence meant primarily excellence in battle. It was a culture of war and booty. It was a military culture, too, because of the constant threat of takeover by Persia. It stayed free because of a military tactic called the phalanx. As seen below, soldiers stood soldier to soldier, shields up and spears at the ready. It was a formidable defense against any enemy and kept the Athenian peoples safe. But such a defense requires great courage from the men who stood in the line, especially the first line with thousands of soldiers lined up behind them. As one in the first line fell, one from the second line stepped up to fill in the hole. There could be no cowardice, no running away. The safety of all depended upon the courage of all. It is from this beginning that the Greeks formulated the idea of the excellence of character, or arete.
Arete is one of the most important concepts to travel through time from Homer to today. It was the foundational belief that made the Athenian culture in Greece what is considered to be the greatest culture in all of human history. And yet, as our reading indicates, arete is simply a belief in ourselves–in our own excellent predispositions which if encouraged and educated, can create successful individuals.
If that sounds to you like the world we live in now, where people develop their talents in order to become successful and prosperous, that would be a mistaken view of the Greek ideal. In addition to excellence, the Greek Homeric ideal stressed many important concepts, like working for the common good, justice, balance, honor, moderation, and hubris. Using only the first chapter in our text,