"Finally, 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." New Testament, Philippians 4.8.
Arete (pronounced are-uh-tay) was a concept of great importance to the ancient Greeks, and meant excellence, particularly in such areas as virtue, bravery and effectiveness. Arete is not gender specific, and can apply to almost anything, in a manner similar to that of perfection nowadays. However, the meaning changes depending on the object referred to - the arete of a race horse would denote speed, while the arete of a carthorse would denote strength. A representation of all the good qualities of a person, animal or system, arete was an important concept in Socratic and Platonic philosophy, as well as early Christian teachings, as evidenced by the quote above.
The word aristos is derived from the same root as arete, and it is from aristos that we get the English word aristocrat.
Arete the Goddess
Arete is also the name of a Greek Goddess (the sister of Homonoia) symbolising arete - although a minor goddess, Arete did play a part in the story of Heracles (who Roman mythology cast as Hercules), as told by Prodicus. In the story, Heracles was met on the road by two women, Arete, who offered a a life of glory and struggles against evil, and her counterpart Kakia, who offered a life of luxury and pleasure. Heracles chose to follow Arete. This story, or at least the symbolism evident in it, was often used by early Christian writers, who made Arete seem more ragged and rough than her counterpart, who became more beautiful and well clothed. To the Greeks, such distinctions were not important, and to them Arete appeared as a fair noblewoman, dressed in white.
Arete in Greek philosophy
Arete was a concept that dominated Greek culture for hundreds of years and featured prominently in the writings of philosophers of that time. Aristotle believed that arete was directly linked to human knowledge. Plato continually questioned the concept in his writings, and evidence of early writings show that Socrates, Plato's teacher, was also fascinated with the idea. In Meno, Plato asks whether arete can be taught, and in The Republic, Plato questions the origin of Arete. The famous Socratic paradox, "Virtue is knowledge", translates more directly to "Arete is knowledge." This leads to the basis of Socratic and Platonic philosophy - that the greatest quality of people is knowledge, and that all other qualities derive from this one concept. Aristotle held a similar belief, that if knowledge was arete (as previously stated) then the highest human quality is knowledge about knowledge. This means that the theoretical study of human knowledge, called contemplation by Aristotle, is the highest human ideal.
Chung - the Eastern equivalent
Although the word was not known in Chinese philosophy at the time, the concept of chung is remarkably similar to that of arete. However, there is a subtle difference - while arete focuses on the use of qualities to achieve certain goals and make a difference to the world (an insight that can tell us much about the world view of the ancient Greeks), Confucius in particular made it clear that success was not required, and in some cases not to be expected - the point was that the effort had been made to the best of your ability. Chung also emphasises the fulfillment of obligations to other people; in other words, making the world a better place for everyone rather than just a better place for oneself.
Arete in Mage: the Ascension
Arete in Mage: the Ascension is viewed in a distinctly Aristotelean style - in the game, arete is a metaphor for a mages awakening and awareness of how malleable and insubstantial the real world is. As a result, mages with a higher level of arete are capable of casting more powerful spells and spells of a longer duration than mages with a lower level of arete. Since one of the end goals of the game is transcendence, a high level of arete is required for this.