by Jesse Fennig
Clash Daily Contributor
One of the hazards of attempting to create a sense of arete in a culture is that a single virtue is often confused with the general concept of being virtuous. This results in a corrupted, twisted form of that virtue which supplants true arete. True arete is not the simple result of chasing a virtue to the exclusion of other things. It is the result of careful, measured cultivation of a balance of many virtues, each moderating the others.
This is the greatest challenge in seeking arete — arete is grown as a conjunction of many virtues together. That is the very reason that I use a different word for it than “virtue”. If any one of the many civic virtues is raised to the point where it becomes the defining attribute of a virtuous person, then it drags them all down with it.
Any virtue may travel down this path, and many have. In the modern era, tolerance and sincerity are the virtues which have supplanted arete. In prior eras, industry, equity, generosity, fraternity and even duty have been given such priority as to become vicious.
In the case of equity, we see virtually every historical instance of Socialism, where an attempt to ensure that all people in a nation are equal ensures that none truly enjoy the fruits of their labor.
In the case of fraternity, we see the near-xenophobia of the European colonial era, where it was considered quite acceptable to view the world in terms of “white” and “target”.
And of course, in tolerance, we see the modern age, where anything less than enthusiastic public endorsement is demonized as intolerance and bigotry.
Fraternity and tolerance form an interesting pair — together they form the core of Western societal interaction. This is not to say that they’re the virtues that form the full spectrum of Western civilization’s aretaic heart, but they operate together to permit society to exist.
Fraternity works more strongly the more closely people are similar — I find more common ground with people at a gun show than I do at a knitting circle, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Fraternity is balanced by tolerance – I do not presume to dictate any sort of behavior to any of the people at a knitting circle, and I operate under the assumption that they will not presume to dictate to me.
At every level of society, in different sizes of circle, you have these sorts of groups, and at every level, the assumptions are different. We even have a word for this set of assumptions — we call it courtesy. We assume that people are going to behave in a certain way under certain conditions, and each group might have their own internal rules that differ from the greater society.
The reason I’ve started my discussion of the specifics of arete with these two is because it’s generally the place where people can come to an agreement. To quote Wil Wheaton, at the base of arete is a simple principle – “Don’t be a d*ck.” It doesn’t matter if people disagree forcefully with you, or if THEY’RE being a d*ck. Don’t be a d*ck.
Jesse Fennig is a thirty-something who spent his childhood in Africa, his youth in Ohio, and has not yet spent his adulthood, so is unwilling to commit to a statement about it. He spends altogether too much time thinking about the “whys” of modern society, and a lot of energy writing about them. His collected writings (such as they are) may be found at questionsforstrangers.wordpress.com. When not expressing sweeping opinions on the failings of society, he restores antique woodworking tools. He’s better at fixing them than using them.