17 October 2005

Virtue and Excellence

Three entries from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

excel Look up excel at Dictionary.com
c.1408, from L. excellere "to rise, surpass, be eminent," from ex- "out from" + -cellere "rise high, tower," related to celsus "high, lofty, great," from PIE base *kel-/*kol- "to rise, be elevated" (see hill).
excellent Look up excellent at Dictionary.com
c.1340 (implied in excellently), from O.Fr. excellent, from L. excellentem (nom. excellens), prp. of excellere (see excel). First record of excellency "high rank" is c.1200; as a title of honor it dates from c.1325.
virtue Look up virtue at Dictionary.com
c.1225, "moral life and conduct, moral excellence," vertu, from Anglo-Fr. and O.Fr. vertu, from L. virtutem (nom. virtus) "moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth," from vir "man" (see virile). Phrase by virtue of (c.1230) preserves alternate M.E. sense of "efficacy." Wyclif Bible has virtue where K.J.V. uses power. The (c.1320) were divided into the natural (justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude) and the theological (hope, faith, charity). To seven cardinal virtuesmake a virtue of a necessity (c.1374) translates L. facere de necessitate virtutem. [Jerome]
These raise the questions:

1. Is 'virtue' (as traditionally) or 'excellence' (as thought now) the better rendering of the Greek, arete?
2. Does the attribution of excellence to someone carry with it a comparison with others, viz. that he or she rises above others?


Anonymous said...

I'm 10 years out of the classroom, so maybe things have changed again, but I had chronic problems with students misunderstanding "virtue" as a rendering of arete ( a fortiori, "happiness" as a rendering of eudaemonia ). I abandoned Jowettt, and Rackham's NE, for these reasons.
Part of the problem was that students invariably assumed a virtue had to be an other-regarding excellence. Thus their puzzlement over sophrosune as a "virtue". Some students also associated virtues with religious traits: virtues are what help you attain salvation. Rather than try to fight these connotations, I went to the more neutral "excellences" when preparing text for general audiences. For professional audiences, "virtues" is fine, but they understand we rendering the Greek "aretai" conventionally.
I would very much like to hear the opinion on this issue of someone who just prepared a new translation of the NE for contemporary general audiences.