Tuesday, December 03, 2013

in which I try to recover from an hour-long motivation session

As you may or may not now, dear readers, I am employed by a certain large corporation chiefly known for its hardware, but actually offering a wide range of IT and other related services for other enterprises, large and small. Recently, the HR department of our corporation launched a new initiative, something about culture or engagement or some such nonsense I usually don't pay attention to because I'm, you know, busy doing actual work and creating value for our shareholders*. This time, however, there was a bit that made me sit up and listen and that bit is the name of the initiative: Arete. According to the initiative website:
Arete is pronounced [ahr-i-tey].
and
Arete is a Greek word and it means “being the best you can be” or “reaching your highest human potential.”.
And there it was, a subtle but unmistakeably new note in the usual deluge of corporate bullshit which my finely-atuned nose could not miss. My Greek may leave a lot to be desired, but a) this sounds way too lofty and b) I don't trust corporate types when it comes to anything, especially language (danger + opportunity, anyone?). So right after the meeting, I opened my copy of Liddell-Scott, fired up Perseus and soon came up with what I think is the actual word: ἀρετή = "goodness, excellence, virtue". The Perseus Project's first citation leads to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2 and the translator's remark that "ἀρετή is here as often in this and the following Books employed in the limited sense of ‘moral excellence’ or ‘goodness of character,’ i.e. virtue in the ordinary sense of the term."
Of course, I don't think our management reads Aristotle on a regular basis, so I would expect that the direct source of the term can be found in one of those idiotic management guides. And indeed a cursory search on Google Books found one example, another one and I'm sure there are more. None of them, however, provide the definition given above. That can be found, verbatim, in the Wikipedia entry for the word. I will leave the assessment of that definition to those more competent in Greek, I just wish they would have stuck with - as the first book put it - functional excellence. That way, they would at least say what they mean without having to pretend they care about me.

*Pardon me while I throw up.

59 comments:

John Cowan said...

'Excellence' it is: the ἀρετή of a painter is how well he paints; of an athlete, his strength; of Aristophanes, his "excellent fooling" (Edith Hamilton). The Sophists, we are told, taught ἀρετή.

The traditional English translation is virtue, which is very misleading, though it wouldn't be in Italian (virtù) or Latin (virtus). I was sitting next to an Italian at lunch once, and the subject of ἀρετή came up. He said, "In English, virtue is only about morality, no?" I sighed heavily and said, "Yes, unfortunately."

Robert Pirsig translated ἀρετή as Quality; he also translated 道 dào in the same way. The corporate bullshitteers probably picked this up from him.

David Marjanović said...

I slapped a [citation needed] tag on the sentence and left a somewhat angry comment on the talk page.

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