There is a notion I recall from my absurd study of Philosophy at City College in the 1970s. Most of what I read and heard as a young truth seeker in those classes has fled from memory like so much impenetrably dense, badly translated, unhelpful bullshit, fascinating though a small fraction of it was to a youth searching for meaning in a world like our’s. But this notion stays in my head and I think of it today, many years after encountering it. That concept is arete which I recall noting as “the specific excellence of a thing”. I’d have to consult google to see which of the famous Greeks of antiquity it was who set forth this concept, though it was one of the Big Three. The smart money says “Play Dough”.
Speaking of City College in the 1970s, he said, discursively, philosophy classes were held in a dark, oddly narrow, drafty hall on South Campus that would have made an excellent set for most Kafka stories. The long ago demolished hall, an ancient, cramped, soot covered, two or three story tower-like structure, was reached by a second story passageway from another, larger, building, also very venerable and long gone. It’s almost like trying to remember a long ago dream, piecing together these lost halls, one was called Wagner Hall, I’m pretty sure. Was the other Mott Hall? Shephard? Was Wagner the philosophy tower? There’s nobody to call to puzzle out and clarify any of it too easily. I had no real friends at City College, I commuted there, attended classes, met with professors, interacted with classmates in class, said hi on the rare occasions I went to the cafeteria, but I recall making no friends during the years I was there, on and off, dropping in and out. I was surprised to learn, when I returned at the end for one last nine credit semester, that I had spent most of those semesters on the Dean’s List.
This was a different Dean’s List than the one kept in the bowels of the high school I went to. I appeared on that list by dint of approximately two hundred days turning up late for class. I’d found that not being in homeroom to check in first thing in the morning (I’ve always hated the early hours of the day, except for sleeping) made it much easier to slip out of classes without causing a fuss, since, technically, I was already absent, until retroactively marked present at the end of the day after I’d shown up in a few classes. If a friend was doing something interesting, or a brilliant guitar player from, say, Evander Childs High School, was cutting school that day and had turned up at my school, I’d skip some drag of a class to take part in something more nourishing to my soul.
Which brings us back to what google confirms is Plato’s concept of arete. My memory of it may have changed the meaning slightly, but possibly not. Wikipedia is impersonally coy on this matter, though the third sentence suggests an original meaning close to what I’m talking about. Each of us is born with certain specific virtues that mark us as unique individuals. When our “potential” is spoken of, it is the potential to do what we are born best suited to do. Arete is manifest when we are actually doing what fulfills best our specific virtues.
A dog has a different arete than a cat– the perfect expression of one is no less perfect than the perfect expression of the other though a perfect dog is as different from a perfect cat as a perfect entrepreneur is different from a perfect painter, a perfect songwriter. A dog and a cat can be good friends, play, sleep and eat together, but they are different animals. A perfect painter had better also be, or know, an excellent entrepreneur, because that’s business in the arete of capitalism, if you want to paint and eat, because your specific excellence is painting (and you also need to eat) if you get the point. Do you get the point?
I may not be making much sense with this, there is much to do today and little enough time, or will, to tackle it, but tackle it I shall. Or think hard about tackling it anyway, there is a lot to tackle. I am thinking, above all the other thoughts at the moment, how close I may have come to my own arete, fulfilling my own specific excellence. It is something that has occupied my mind many times over the years, occupies it now. Doing a thing as well as it can be done is a virtue.
Art needs hard work more than hard work needs art, quoth Kafka, raven-like as a besooted NYC pigeon on the windowsill of that almost forgotten philosophy hall in Harlem forty years back. Something more to think about, if that thing was needed.