Peter Smith

Publications, Lectures and Other Stuff

Areté (Virtue, Excellence)

One of the things I liked about my school [Henbury in Bristol] was its motto — Areté, an ancient Greek word for virtue or excellence. Our headmaster, a Mr Luget. was a devoted classicist and used to read an account of Areté to the assembled pupils at least once a year. Recently, through the kind assistance of the school librarian, Ms. Andrea Grist, I received a copy of what I think was the passage he read. It still seems worth reading. It comes from Education for a World Adrift (1943) by Sir Richard Livingstone.



There is no equivalent for the word Areté in English …It is ‘virtue’ not in the modern but in the old sense of the word: ‘excellence’ with no moral sense necessarily attaching to it. Everything, the Greeks said, has a use, a function, a virtue of which it is capable. Take things as different as a knife, an eye, a doctor. Each of them has a use and is capable of a virtue. A knife’s use is to cut, an eye’s is to see, a doctor’s to keep or make us well; and their virtue is achieved when they fulfil their use and function.  If they do this, we call them good, if they fail, they are bad – as knives, eyes, doctors. Hence the task and problem of each of them is to fulfil its functions and so achieve its virtue.

But what is true of knives and eyes, is true, the Greeks thought, of men also. They too must have a function, a use, a virtue of which they are capable and which it is their business to achieve; and in so far as they achieve it, we shall call them good.  It is easier to see the functions and virtue of an eye or a knife than of a man: and in fact he has many functions, and therefore many virtues to strive after.  A human being is a member of a family –as son or daughter,husband or wife,father or mother;  he is a citizen, a member of a state; he has a profession or occupation; in each of these roles he has a different function, and in each function is capable of a virtue, an excellence, which consists in doing the particular job well, in being a good son or daughter, a good citizen, good in his occupation – whether it is that of Prime Minister or of shop assistant. He, no less than the knife or the eye, is judged by the way in which, in each particular capacity, he does the job in question well. But that is not enough. Man is more than a citizen, a parent or child, a person with an occupation, he is also a human being and in that capacity, too, is capable of a virtue.  As a human being he has a body, an intellect and a character, and his business is to make the most of each of these, and see that all three are developed to the excellence of which they are capable, used rightly and used to the full. He must aim at Areté, at virtue, in all.

This was the clue which the Greeks followed through the labyrinth of life.  Its business, they thought, is to seek the highest and the most, of whatever a man is or does.  They admired every kind of virtue, of excellence, sought after them and tried to create a society in which they could be achieved: and this ideal, this purpose partly explains why in so many fields of life they achieved an excellence which, long after they have perished remains a model and an inspiration.

From Education for a World Adrift by Sir Richard Livingstone.

BTW, Cambridge have recently republished Livingstone’s book. See:


One comment on “Areté (Virtue, Excellence)

  1. Tim Fewell
    December 15, 2016

    I came across this piece whilst searching for the definition of areté having just seen that St Bede’s School, in Lawrence Weston now uses it and I wondered what had happened to Henbury School. I too remember Mr Luget’s annual assembly on the meaning of Areté and have really enjoyed reading the Livingstone extract above, it takes me back to my Henbury School days. More than that I have also used it throughout my life in trying to live up to the maxim described. I consider myself an Aretians – both as an ex rugby player but mainly as an ex member of the school.
    Thank you for sharing Livingstone’s passage.

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This entry was posted on September 7, 2013 by in History of Ideas and tagged , , , .
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