I just finished re-reading Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the third time. It gets better every time I read it. Haven’t read it? You should fix that.
Anyway, one of the ideas central to the book is the Ancient Greek concept of arete or excellence. Pirsig’s point (as I see it anyway) is that you as soon as you pluck a flower it starts to die, as soon as you mount a butterfly under glass you’ve destroyed it’s ethereal beauty, and as soon as you define excellence you’ve killed it’s dynamic, transformational potential. Excellence (Pirsig uses the word quality) has to be ever-receding. With excellence you never arrive. Arete is a carrot hanging on a pole in front of a mule. It should never get caught and eaten.
As Lao Tzu said in Tao Te Ching,
“The tao which can be described is not the tao.”
The other day I stumbled on to an unusual coincidence concerning arete.
My mother had some challenges in her life that made it hard for her to be positive. She always struggled focus on the future and on moving forward. But she had a Bible passage that she clung to as an inspiration to be positive, and she passed on the wisdom of that passage to me when she gave me my bible about 40 years ago.
A couple of weeks ago something pretty awful happened, something really shocking and scary that put me on my heels. So I reached out to that passage for some much-needed comfort. The passage is Philippians 4:4-9, and it goes like this:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And finally my brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.”
There are two things I want to point out in that passage. The first is that Paul says “the peace of God, which passes all understanding,” which sounds a lot like the tao, or like ever-receding goodness. The second is that, in the original Greek, the word Paul used for “excellence” is arete.
There was a Greek goddess named Arete who personified the idea. According to Wikipedia,
“The only story involving Arete was originally told in the 5th century BC by the sophist Prodicus, and concerns the early life of the hero Heracles. At a crossroads, Arete appeared to Heracles as a young maiden, and offered him glory and a life of struggle against evil; her counterpart Kakia (κακία, “badness”), offered him wealth and pleasure. Heracles chose to follow the path of Arete.”
The concept of arete is an example of universal wisdom, and it’s embedded in all the world’s great philosophies and religions. The quest for arete is personified in the tale of every hero, and I think also in the idea of Logos.
And now for the workout of the week.
Cabal Fang Workout of the Week #66
Part One — High Intensity Circuit Training. Set up four stations — a hitting station, a lifting station, a swinging station and a squatting station. Set a timer for rounds of 2:00 minutes, no breaks, and complete 8 rounds — that’s 16:00 minutes. For the hitting station, hit a stump with an ax, punch a heavy bag with your fists, or beat on a tire with a sledge. For the lifting station, flip a tire, squat press a barbell, lift a sandbag, etc. You get the idea. Improvise! You must go as hard as you can — hit, lift, swing and squat with the maximum intensity you can muster. Take as few 12-count breaks as you must in order to finish standing up. Video below.
Part Two — Meditation on arete. What the hell is excellence anyway? Well, if you don’t have any idea what it is, you probably aren’t going to have any luck in your pursuit of it! So set a timer for 8 minutes. Assume your usual meditative posture and meditate on arete. When you’re done, get out your training log or journal and write at least 100 words on what arete means to you.