The Virtue of Excellence Has Many Shades
Among the ancient Greeks excellence was considered the major virtue. It was the grounding for all other qualities that we think of as virtues, like justice, courage, prudence, and temperance – or faith, hope, and love. Homer, author of the Odyssey and the Iliad, used the word to describe military valor or any social performance of a high level.
It’s always difficult to translate Greek where – as in all languages – words have many shades of meaning, and “excellence” is no exception. Let’s begin with “righteousness.” Leaving aside any negative connotations the word may have picked up like barnacles, righteousness may be defined as “doing the right thing,” as in the Spike Lee movie of the same name. You want to do good because you are good, or at least seek to be good. As Einstein memorably said, “Try not to become a man of success. Try to become a man of value.” He had the right idea, or the idea of rightness. Righteousness and excellence are joined at the hip, so to speak. The one involves the other. But let’s explore other shades of meaning.
The virtue of excellence connects with another value in ancient Greek society, one that shows up in the New Testament (as does “excellence”). That value is represented by asceticism. Don’t take this too far or reject the word until you get it. Originally the word did not call up visions of monks starving themselves half to death to fulfill a spiritual ideal, or performing odd feats like living on top of pillars as a witness against their society. Originally asceticism simply meant “training,” physical and mental training for an athletic contest – like the Olympics. It’s probably no accident that the ancient Greeks, for whom excellence was the primary virtue, invented games for which they would train hard, and at which they could test their mettle to demonstrate excellence.
St Paul speaks about training for Christian faith using words shaped for athletic training at I Corinthians 9:24-26. We train in order to win the prize, which in this context is the ability to hold to the Gospel and communicate its meaning to other people (like the Corinthians, a tough crowd to play to).
So excellence and ascetics and righteousness emerge as spiritual values and virtues. I am sure they were that for the ancient Greeks as well as for early Christians. They would remain so for us today.
One more shade of meaning for excellence is wisdom or good thinking. Frankly, there seems to be an anti-intellectual streak in American Christianity that flies in the face of the search for this kind of excellence. It’s almost as if there were some cockamamie value in doing things ineptly and without grace and style. One can hardly blame people who walk by us when we do not seem to strive for excellence.
A photograph of the three Russian woman gymnasts lighting prayer candles at the Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition and All Saints, Ennismore Gardens, London, came via Facebook. That photograph triggered this column: these young women trained intensely for years to become excellent gymnasts, but they also attended the Divine Liturgy in the midst of the Olympics. Their spiritual practice nurtures their physical excellence, and vice versa. They are themselves whether as excellent gymnasts or as Orthodox Christians. For you see, one of the shades of meaning for “excellence” is faithfulness, which these young women exhibited – not for the camera but for themselves.
The pursuit of excellence is a spiritual quest. The pathways converge: athletics, intellectual endeavors, and spiritual disciplines – they all lead to excellence. We are invited to the quest. Don’t spurn the invitation.
published 17 August 2012