Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fragment of Arete: Star-Dust Caught

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Felt it the other day for the first time in a long while: a fragment, a shard from the broken whole of who I once was, a particle of ἀρετή, arete. Something so broken, so reduced, that there is no more breaking it into something less. But it is enough. Enough to make my Faustian stand. And here, Mephistopheles laughs.

From the immovable point of arete: everything. Archimedes bathes in my blood: give me a lever and I can move the world. I am sure it seems ridiculous. An elephant dancing on the head of a pin. But I have something to build up now. A single square stone at the core of the Cathedral.

Arete doesn't have an easy definition. Even the Greeks, as Aristotle famously stated, had trouble with it. Essentially, it is self-excellence. It is often translated as virtue. The trouble here is that, in our culuture, virtue is most often conferred upon one by others. One is virtuous more because of how he is seen by others, than how he sees himself. The language of virtue got tangled and wound tight around Christian qualities of humility and selflessness. To the Greeks, virtue, arete, was generated from within the person - or even thing. A bone could possess arete the same as a man.

The famous example is the Wrath of Achilles. Because Agamemnon stole Achilles concubine, Achilles refused to fight. His refusal led to the death of many of his friends, most especially his beloved Patroclus. Regardless of how right or wrong the Greeks believed Achilles' refusal to be, they still saw him as possessing arete. He was acting according to his beliefs. He was exercising self-excellence.

I remember sitting around a fire in the Chama River Canyon in New Mexico reading Walden. When I reached the chapter on Higher Laws, it seemed as if every word was a stone of truth being sunk into the depths of my being. I was a bell being rung over and over. Thoreau writes:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

There it is: to follow your genius. This spark of a flame within, this fragile mote of arete, genius, restores me like nothing else. How long has it been? Too long. Far too long.