At the not so tender age of 57, I decided to get a tattoo — or tattoos, if you consider that there are two halves of a heart emblazoned on my forearms, inside of which are the Greek words arête (on my left forearm) and meraki (on my right).
I’ve written a good deal about arête in my various works. It is often mistranslated, even by well-known scholars, into the term virtue. But arête is comprised of a bundle of virtues, all of which must be put into action with the aim of bringing the promise of our individual and our society’s highest and noblest ideals more into alignment with actual practice (and in doing so, we discover ever newer and higher ideals to strive for).
Here’s a bit of what I wrote about arête in my bestselling Six Questions of Socrates:
The classic Greek scholar H.D.F. Kitto writes in The Greeks that we “miss all the flavor” of the Hellenic Greek word arete when it is translated only as virtue, which “at least in modern English, is almost entirely a moral word.” Arete, he says, “simply means excellence. Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom …an excellent all-rounder.” A person with arete has “a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life…” and an understanding that achieving harmony “exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
This “wholeness” and “oneness” are equivalent to the holistic “balance” and “order” and “harmony” of the Navajo philosophy of hozho.
Kitto also writes, “What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism is not a sense of duty as we understand it — duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself.” In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Robert M. Pirsig, commenting on Kitto’s book, concludes that this “motive of ‘duty toward self’ … is an almost exact translation of the Sanskrit word dharma, sometimes described as the ‘one’ of the Hindus”. Pirsig asks, “Can the dharma of the Hindus and the ‘virtue’ of the ancient Greeks be identical?”
Pirsig clearly thinks they are one and the same. But what both Kitto and Pirsig fail to grasp is that for the ancient Greeks, there was no distinction of any sort between duty towards others and duty towards self; they were one and the same. Every act, every deed in ancient Greece was committed by a member of its citizenry with a keen mindfulness of its impact on everyone else. Each recognized that one could not attain personal excellence at the expense of others, but only by paving the way for them to attain it as well. There was no private self as there is today, only a self that was part of a whole, part of an excellent citizenry and society. In that respect, arete is like the Hindu conception of Dharma, which, contrary to what Pirsig states, encompasses an individual’s duty not just to himself, but to his religion, his society, his nation.
This sense of duty towards others and oneself is equivalent to the hozho‘s underpinning philosophy of t-aa ho ajit-eego, in which the Navajo are inculcated from a young age to believe that there are no divisions between duty to themselves, to their tribe, and to the universe as a whole. They have the same respect and sense of duty for the wholeness or oneness of life” that Kitto ascribes to the ancient Greeks. In striving further to develop this individual wholeness, in becoming an “excellent all-rounder,” one is at the same time furthering one’s duty to one’s community, contributing to greater social harmony.
I’ve written little if anything (so far, that’ll change soon) about meraki — which is all about doing everything you take on with passion, soul, commitment, stick-to-it-ive-ness, creativity, giving it everything you’ve got, and putting all of yourself into it.
These concepts are not all they can be unless they are entwined, because otherwise you might live a life of meraki in a purely self-serving way, making a mockery of what it’s supposed to be all about.
But when combined with arête, these concepts are a rich tag-team, when put into practice, for a life worth living, one that ideally will leave a legacy of a sort in which life becomes more worth living for all those in your ever expanding orbit.
I must say that since what I characterize as the tragic death of my father Alexander Phillips in September 2011, I feel both a renewed and redoubled sense of mission and duty to live by and embody the dual concepts of arête and meraki — in considerable measure, though by no means exclusively so, because of the sense of duty I feel to my father, and to my Greek forebears.
Because this sense of duty the ‘arête way’ is not just confined to those living today or to those in the future, but to those who came before us, many of whom risked it all to create conditions that would make for a brighter, more lovable and livable world today.
Now that my blinders have been removed and I have come to know that there is a member of my immediate/extended family who is for all intents and purposes valueless, whose only sense of duty is of a smarmy and hollow kind — one in which avariciousness and self-aggrandizement and ultra-narcissism is all, and one will commit the most heinous acts imaginable to this end — I feel even more acutely that I must do all I can to counter this.
Not just because it is a permanent and embarrassing stain on my family genealogy, but because it’s vital to stand up and be counted and to represent in one’s works and deeds all that the noblest of the Greek way of living should stand for.
Most of all, I try to live this way to be an example for young children, to make sure they blossom at every age and stage of life from a healthy core. Because I’ve come to find, from tragic personal experience, that one can start out life with all the advantages, and yet take a deliberate turn to rottenness, always blaming others for one’s litany of setbacks and failures, misbehaving in a way that is not just destructive to those in one’s immediate orbit, but that has a spillover effect and makes less of the world itself.
And so for my dad, and my mom, my Greek grandmother (my Yaya), the first teacher of Greek language and culture in the Tampa Bay region of Florida after coming to the U.S. from Greece through Ellis Island in the early 1920s (where our last name was summarily changed from Philipou to Phillips by a bureaucrat), for myself, my family and my forebears, I consciously aim to live each and every day in a way that makes it evident that I’m imbued with the spirit of arête and meraki.