Everyday Arete

August 22, 2012

Did you see the Great British Bake-Off last night? Well, one of the twenty-something lads won, but the bad-teeth fella got kicked out after he got his plaits wrong. I spent much of the episode lusting hungrily after the various bready products portrayed on screen, and largely in incomprehension proportionate to my terrible cooking skills.

But still, it got me thinking: cooking is a skill, and a skill in which a great many people take pleasure. It is simultaneously a chore and an arete; a pain and an excellence. Clearly it is an excellence which our culture celebrates, judging by the number of cooking programmes and celebrity chefs our culture produces. It stands alongside singing and dancing and DIY as an arete which is simultaneously accessible to all and the subject of media offerings which have mass appeal. There is clearly a market in providing the public with examples and illustrations of excellence in a given skill, just so long as that skill is open to everyone to try.

Now hold on, you might say, I’m a keen wood-whittler and there’s no prime-time show showing how best to carve your own oaken squirrel. The only thing you need to whittle wood is some kind of knife and a bit of wood. This is true, but the barrier to involvement in wood-whittling is not its accessibility but the difficulty associated with achieving excellence in it. It is much easier to paint a room well with the minimum of practice than it is to carve a gargoyle made of chestnut. The learning curve is, in this instance, a clear barrier to The Great British Whittle Off being a thing.

Why is this important? There’s a strange inclination in the philosophical world to describe ‘excellences’ and ‘virtues’ as things that pertain to ‘higher’ pursuits; MacIntyre uses the example of chess to illustrate his theory, and of course classical Aristotelian virtues mainly relate to aspects of interpersonal relations and personal conduct. However, in doing so we miss out on a whole set of arete that actually matter to people, and in doing miss out on some important insights into the nature of virtue.

For example, MacIntyre claims that ‘real’ virtues can only exist in a small community or polis, that in a vast and alienated capitalist society the only ethical theory possible is a bleak emotivism. Cooking demonstrates that this is untrue. The reason The Great British Bake-Off exists is that there is an appetite for the celebration of excellence amongst a public MacIntyre and his followers believe to be only expressing emotive preferences. If the arete identified through the judging process were unpalatable to the viewers, they would switch off, and if arete identification was a mere emotive process in our society there is no reason why one baking practice should be favoured over another. But, given we are now on the third series of this show, this seems unlikely. What it shows is that the great meta-community of baking fans, brought together through this shared experience, is capable of identifying and celebrating virtue through an aggregate of individual preferences. While the show has gurus, they only receive their status as gurus through their excellence being agreed by the community, rather than by the rules and traditions of a Baking Brotherhood. The internal excellences wrought by the practice of baking are ones determined by all participants, no matter their skill. The preference of each participating individual determines the community, not inner rules of the community itself. Virtues are emergent, not wholly defined by a historical context to which a novice must adhere.

Therefore, we can coherently talk about arete in a market economy. Virtue can exist in a capitalist system; we do not need the polis when we have tele-vision.

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