Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Phaecian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing aretê.
Aretê implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency – or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, and efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.
Phaedrus remembered a line from Thoreau: “You never gain something but that you lose something.” And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained the power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth – but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: and understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.
“What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism,” Kitto comments, “is not a sense of duty as we understand it…duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek aretê, ‘excellence’ — we shall have much to say about aretê. It runs through Greek life.”
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance