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Agon and Aretê: A Foundation for Life

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Today is a bit of a philosophical post. As I’ve been [slowly] working on the book, I keep circling around how to explain my “why.” Being a history nerd, I recently came across the Ancient Greek concept of aretê, and I’ve latched on to it ever since. The point of today’s post is to dive into this philosophy and some of the finer points around it.

You’ll be seeing a lot about this in the future. The concept will weave into many upcoming posts, but also appear across informational pages. In all honesty, you’re probably going to get tired of hearing me talk about it.

The end goal is to drive home the idea that The Everyday Marksman is about more than guns, gear, and shooting better. It’s about a bigger picture and a better class of citizen.

Defining Aretê

Prounced ahr-i-tey, there are many ways to view this ancient phrase. Some historians translated it to mean “virtue,” but that view has slowly been fading away. Instead, aretê is best thought of as a way to describe someone’s excellence. Specifically, it’s excellence across a series of traits and characteristics valuable to the citizen warriors of Ancient Greece.

One book I’ve been reading on the topic discussed the connection to the Ancient Greek word, aristos, meaning “best,” and the root of modern words like aristocrat and aristocracy. In this sense, you could think of aretê as meaning a state of “bestness” for yourself- though not necessarily the best overall.

Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon described aretê as such: “Generally, aretê means ‘goodness, excellence, of any kind, especially of manly qualities, manhood, valor, prowess.”

For my purposes, I’d like to key in on this last definition and refer to Jack Donovan’s tactical virtues of masculinity from The Way of Men: strength, courage, mastery, and honor.

To say that you have aretê is saying that you demonstrate excellence in each of these qualities- particularly in service of a greater good than yourself. There’s an important element to definition: to demonstrate.

Aretê is not something that you believe about yourself like some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. The Greeks did not put much stock into how people felt about themselves. Instead, it’s how others perceive you based on your behaviors and actions.

I’ll emphasize behaviors and actions. Owning the tools and implements of a skilled warrior alone only shows that you have means and resources, not that you are skilled yourself.

You must demonstrate aretê to the world from moment to moment throughout life. To achieve this, the Greeks had another word: agon.


The Great Contest

Agon, pronounced ag-ohn, roughly means struggle or contest. It’s the root word of modern phrases like agony. Or, better yet, protagonist and antagonist- a hero and villain of a story struggling against one another. 

Agon is the test of one’s aretê, and it’s a lifelong endeavor.

In modern life, your personal agon takes many forms. It’s the weight you struggle under at the gym. It’s your competition to win a match, the things holding you back from a dry fire routine, succeeding at your job, or even winning against the negative voice in your head. Agon is your life struggle. The concept runs as deep as you wish to make it, and your ability to overcome these struggles is what defines your excellence.

You may not always win the agon, at least not today. In competition, other who train harder or have more natural ability may carry the day. You may fail to lift the weight for that new record. Life may have simply thrown too much at you. That’s fine, that’s how you know the contest is worthy, and you continue your struggle against it.

Demonstrating aretê does not demand that you always win. It does, however, mean that you continue to contest and seek to become the best possible version of yourself.

Good Timber

The tree that never had to fight
For sun and sky and air and light,
But stood out in the open plain
And always got its share of rain,
Never became a forest king
But lived and died a scrubby thing.

The man who never had to toil
To gain and farm his patch of soil,
Who never had to win his share
Of sun and sky and light and air,
Never became a manly man
But lived and died as he began.

Good timber does not grow with ease:
The stronger wind, the stronger trees;
The further sky, the greater length;
The more the storm, the more the strength.
By sun and cold, by rain and snow,
In trees and men good timbers grow.

Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both.
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife.
This is the common law of life.

So How do We Apply This?

For most of us, who don’t have professional requirements around shooting and fitness, our primary agon is against ourselves. The struggle is against the voice in our heads telling us to quit. It’s the temptation to take the easier path of skipping training, to take immediate gratification over long term success, and seeking comfort over difficulty.

I suppose the point I’m driving at is that if we want to pursue aretê, then we must choose the path of intentional hardship. We must do the harder thing, and do it voluntarily.

For my purposes, this drives two things that I’ll weave throughout the fabric of The Everyday Marksman. The first is something I’ve always done, which is emphasizing the skills over the hardware. Equipment is important, for sure, but it’s the easiest part of the excellence equation and is only one corner of our pyramid of performance.

Most of our time should go to mastering our technique and physical capabilities. Doing this well requires that we set performance targets for ourselves and relentlessly pursue them.

What targets do we set? While I can offer somewhat arbitrary standards to aim for. This is the purpose of the Marksman Challenges and minimum capable standards, after all. But, the real answer is that you should select targets more challenging than your current capabilities. Once you best yourself, then strive to do it again.

It’s a constantly moving set of targets, and the struggle to achieve them is the agon.

Then, from time to time, go out and test yourself against others. This is the role of organized competition. Getting your draw time down to a personal best in the comfort of your own home is one thing, but you’ll never know how it rates against others until you test it against their abilities. There is nothing like competing against someone else to provide an extra hit of motivation to reach for the next level of performance.

Aretê and Mindset

I want to come back to the last corner of the pyramid: mindset. I said that most of our time should go towards mastering our technique and physical capabilities. So how to we improve our mindset in the pyramid?

As far as I’m concerned, the mindset part of the pyramid is tied to how you view yourself and your abilities. As Lanny Bassham taught, your performance will never exceed what you believe you can do. If you do not believe you are capable of excellence, then you will not perform with excellence.

The role of the agon is teaching you what you are capable of. The more you struggle and succeed on the path to mastery, the more you understand believe what you are truly capable of achieving. Likewise, the more you demonstrate your aretê, especially against others, the more powerful your mindset becomes.

Wrapping Up

To close this one out, consider this: the thing that separates the best and most respected people in life is not necessarily their natural gifts. Instead, it was their persistence in applying those gifts towards a greater cause. It’s an iron clad mindset to pursue excellence in whatever way they could.

This is the challenge I wish to present to you. We are all given different gifts and abilities, and some people will have natural talent to excel in some areas. Wherever you are in life, and whatever cards you have been dealt by fate- continue to stay in the game and pursue your personal aretê. Seek to challenge yourself. Choose hardship and develop that ironclad will to succeed.

You never know when others will look to you as inspiration in difficult times.

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Matt

Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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2 Comments
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Paul
Paul
Guest

Greek philosophy – going back to the well Matt! I’ve never heard of Arete but I will take a look at it. In my very humble opinion the discipline to really push oneself – not just set lofty goals – but to actually engage in the effort to ‘reach beyond’ what you think you can do is quite difficult for most people to undertake on their own. My (and many others) real true experience with that was Marine boot camp where the DIs pushed you beyond what you thought you were capable of. I still look back in awe of… Read more »

Jason
Jason
Guest
Replying to  Paul

Wow! Great stuff Matt! I’ve read several of your ‘practical’ articles, but this is a standout for sure. Demonstrating our excellence is a concept lost in today’s world. We’ve been influenced into an emotional economy of feeling. And when we choose to seek hardship to sharpen our excellence – as you advise – life is generous with those opportunities.

Anxious to hear what is next. And looking for the next challenge in the meantime.

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