“A man should play the flute… but not too well,” or so said the ancient Greeks, according to my 9th-grade Ancient History teacher, Mr. Taishoff. In a nutshell, the phrase meant that a human being was supposed to be well rounded, by practicing a variety of arts. Remember, we are talking about a time and a place in history when the capabilities of the human being were exalted above all else — that’s humanism, or “belief in humans” — and what better way to exemplify the awesomeness of humans than to be good at bunch of different things? I mean, what other species can say that? Now, if playing the flute is a good thing, what could be wrong with playing it really well? If a person played the flute “too well,” that would mean that he must be practicing it to the exclusion of other pursuits. That would be failing to take advantage of all the things that could be done.
You see, the overall Greek notion of “excellence,” encapsulated by the term arete, was somewhat different from ours today. From our perspective, I think most would agree that the best imaginable flute player in the world would easily be considered “excellent.” Arete is broader. It means something more like: “Being whatever an entity is, by its ideal nature, to the hilt.” What is “excellence” for a horse, say? Horses are valued for qualities like intelligence, nobility, loyalty, determination, speed and “heart.” A horse that possessed those qualities would be a great example of a horse; it would have arete. What is excellence in a knife? We could come up with a list of ideal qualities for that, too. How about in a tennis racket? Sure. Now then, what is “excellence” in a human being? A person who was exemplary in doing all the things that humans do — good or bad — would have arete as a human. The list of best qualities for a human would be long: courage, honesty and compassion would probably be there, to name just a few. But a crying fit, if it were something like “a well executed crying fit,” could also possess arete, because it would be a good example of something humans do. Anything that approached the idealized template of itself (think Platonic forms) could have arete. So, apparently, if we are to believe the saying about flutes, the ancient Greeks did not consider being really, really good at just one thing to be “excellent.” Exercising a variety of talents went more to the heart of being human, in their opinion.
I don’t know about you, but I have always pressured myself to be “excellent.” I have chased it many places, through all my years of schooling (straight A’s, please), into my professional life (top pay and prestige, or else!), and along many avenues of love (seeking the “perfect woman”). I have found this kind of excellence now and again in my life, but often I have felt disappointed, probably because I have confused excellence with being the best. Too often I have sought this chimera of being or having “the best” at the cost of something real and very good closer at hand, including my own peace of mind. So, my fellow perfectionists, take note: I am now deciding to embrace the broader Greek concept of arete instead, which has always appealed to me anyway, ever since I heard about it back in 1980.
Does saying I plan to play the proverbial flute, but not too well, mean I am settling for mediocrity? No. I like doing things well. “But isn’t there actually a single best human at certain things?” someone might ask. Sure. Someone who wins gold medal after gold medal in successive Olympic games is literally the best at their sport, I’d say, and there is indeed one richest person in the world, and so on! But thinking I had to be something like that, one out of seven billion, has not served me. What I can do is to be good at being a human. What qualities would be signs of arete in a father? How about for a husband, teacher, actor, model builder, photographer? Then also, what glorious foibles might there be in store for each? (Father loving his kids? Nailed it. Father losing his temper with the kids? No fun, but…nailed it.) These are goals to which I can proudly aspire, no gold medal required.