As a term indicating well-developed skills pertaining to performing various tasks for personal gain and group benefit, human excellence may be found in all cultures. As a perfected ability in carrying out assigned work for survival, whether in hunting, war, or other activities, such as ritual dancing, excellence has been valued and recognized as well as rewarded, especially when exhibited in defending a group, tribal property, or, as often is the case, expanding territorial limits to obtain better living conditions. In general, the concept of excellence sets the boundaries for all efforts of continuous improvement.
The term has also been used to refer to bodily skills in competitive situations, such as games and exhibitions, taking on the meaning of “best” as in the case of individuals who have earned the reputation of being “the best” by having supremely trained skills worthy of imitation by and transmission to other members of the tribal group. Excellence thus takes its place among desirable social traits, urging the continuation of an established value. In Homer’s Iliad, a father advises his son who is leaving for battle, “Always excel and remain better than others.”
The list of bodily skills eventually was expanded in certain cultures to include personality traits covering activities related to powers of the “soul.” In the history of the development of the concept of excellence, the Ancient Greeks made the first successful attempt to define the meaning of excellence within an enlarged scope of human activities to refer to all pursuits, beyond the needed training steps for the acquisition of military skills. They introduced theoretical considerations that facilitated the understanding of the conditions indispensable for securing the educational process, which leads from having an initial ability to perfecting it. Criteria for evaluating such attainable perfection became an object of inquiry, debate, and critical discussion.
Recommending and praising excellence was central to the life of Greece as well as a dominant feature in the arts, from poetry to architecture. As a concept, it permeated all walks of life and was adopted for all models of performance. To put it somewhat differently, excellence applied to both artist and artistic work. The Greek word arete-, usually translated as “virtue,” and the related cognates of aristeia and agathon, including their derivatives, were used in a great variety of contexts referring to private and public activities, from ship making and legislating to public speaking and athletics. Eventually, with the maturing of philosophy, excellence became an indispensable trait of all ways of rational thought. Thus, a person was expected to exhibit his or her best in action as well as in thought, expecting in turn to be evaluated on the basis of explicit criteria known in advance and established as tradition. Such, then, was the rise and consolidation of a practical and reflective framework that led to the formulation of a philosophical treatment of excellence. It came to refer to a highly valued type of conduct that is usually translated in contemporary parlance as “moral virtue.”
It should be noted that the concept itself, at least as it occurs in Greek culture, had a considerably wider meaning, exceeding that of commendable “moral” properties. In classical philosophy, excellence was treated in depth and used to cover ethical and political skills (i.e., “practical”) as well as skills appropriate to acquiring knowledge (i.e., “theoretical”). The Greeks also spoke of ethical persons possessing excellence of character in the same way they referred to “right” or well-governed poleis, what we now call “city-states.” In this refined sense of excellence, whereby “good” is taken to mean perfected and working traits, it came to apply to anything that possessed the characteristic features of a well-finished product or work as the outcome of techne- (poetics). In this widened context, a city having the right laws constituted the proper environment to breed excellent citizens. Inquiry, on the other hand, into the conditions and the criteria of excellence as arete and their justification became a fundamental concern not only of poets but more so of philosophers, as we witness when reading the works of Plato and Aristotle. What had started earlier, as found in the surviving fragments of the pre-Socratics, became the subject of extensive treatment of excellence, thus contributing largely to the understanding as well as the promotion of this comprehensive use of aret- as a political, ethical, artistic, scientific, or religious value expected to accompany all institutionalized forms of conducts. It was recognized as an ideal that defined the meaning of praiseworthy “cultural conduct.”
Seen as commendable ideals, the types of excellence the Greeks sought to clarify and establish as central to their culture became models of reference that were passed on to other cultures. In fact, they found a place in the institutions and patterns of values in the cultures of a variety of people that came in contact with the Greeks. This is true of the Romans as well as others who responded to the need to articulate their own conceptions of excellence and place them within a theoretical framework. It was in this connection that the idea of excellence was accepted and reformulated in the ways demanded of religious conduct as, for instance, in the case of Christian ethics. Its spokesmen in the course of time came up with a set of virtues appropriate to and supportive of its religious way of life. Although they made the Greek conception of virtues peripheral to theirs, the Christian theologians adopted the Greek reflective approach to excellence mainly to deepen, defend, and explain their own salvation moral stance.
The diverse antagonisms between different sets of virtues in the history of cultural outlooks, whether of the Western or other type, are characteristic of cultural disagreements and their continuous confrontations, often leading to serious conflicts and destructive wars. Be that as it may, the copresence of conflicting sets of virtues within the same culture, such as the Western type contains, renders inevitable all sorts of clashes between differing groups even within a given institution (for example, religion or art, even scientific organizations and philosophical schools). Many reform movements in political life that have sought to reconcile conflicting values actually concern incompatible conceptions of excellence, nurtured and sustained within the same culture. While they last, such differences affect in varying degrees and with anomalous results the institutions and their modes of interaction.
Revisions of conceptions of excellence have been a much-heralded concern of leaders in politics, religious life, as well as education. The purpose in so doing has often been more than seeking to supply justification for the priority and supremacy of a favored position regarding excellence. What seems to affect the foreground of conflicting values and their continuous presence in various cultures is mainly the unacknowledged force of different conceptions of human nature operating in the background. Usually such different views, fundamental as they are to the selection and promotion of a pattern of excellence, are rarely sorted out and systematically subjected to the tests of scientific investigation. Even science itself, with all its merits of being open to public inspection and its reliability as a shared method of inquiry, is not readily acceptable as the reasonable arbiter to weigh the impact of conflicting elements and effect their removal from the body of cultural beliefs. This is especially applicable to the case of differing conceptions of human nature. Finding common grounds for accepting rationally formulated criteria regarding the soundness of operating views of human nature has proved to be a most disagreeable enterprise.
To conclude, the concept of excellence, as it developed from an element of conviction regarding the valued skills that ensure survival, to perfected abilities and praiseworthy behavior in public and private conduct, manifests itself as a basic cultural component in every cultural institution. It is interesting to note that the Greek philosophers were the first to offer a solution to the vexing problem of establishing coherence in a set of excellences fundamental to their culture. The coherent pattern is known as the “doctrine of the unity of virtues.” The quest for excellence has never ceased to function as the source of an attitude that supports cherished aspirations, just as it continues to instigate violent disagreements in environments where different cultural perspectives enter in a confluent course, often generating unresolved conflicts and destructive actions. As a concept, it remains indispensable to guiding human conduct, but as an objective pursued in different and conflicting outlooks within the same culture, it often generates discordant forces, giving rise to serious political and educational discrepancies that make cultural cohesion almost impossible.
- Anton, J. (1969). Human excellence. In P. Kurtz (Ed.), Moral problems in contemporary society (pp. 116-34). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- (1962). Nicomachean ethics (M. Ostwald, Trans.). Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
- Gouinlock, J. S. (2004). Eros and the good. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Maclntyre, A. (1981). After virtue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame.
- Murphy, G. (1958). Human potentialities. New York: Basic Books.
- (1971). The collected dialogues of Plato. (E. Hamilton & H. Cairns, Eds.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.