The term from Homeric times onwards is not gender specific. Homer applies the term of both the Greek and Trojan heroes as well as major female figures, such as Penelope, the wife of the Greek hero, Odysseus. In the Homeric poems, Areté is frequently associated with bravery, but more often, with effectiveness. The man or woman of Areté is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties: strength, bravery and wit, to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, Areté involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans. The concept implies a human-centered universe in which human actions are of paramount importance; the world is a place of conflict and difficulty, and human value and meaning is measured against individual effectiveness in the world.
Areté is explicitly linked with human knowledge, where the expressions "virtue is knowledge" and "Areté is knowledge" are used interchangeably. The highest human potential is knowledge and all other human abilities are derived from this central capacity. If Areté is knowledge and study, the highest human knowledge is knowledge about knowledge itself; in this light, the theoretical study of human knowledge, which Aristotle called "contemplation," is the highest human ability and happiness."
The Ancient Greeks applied the term to anything: for example, the excellence of a chimney, the excellence of a bull to be bred and the excellence of a man. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes, since everything has its own peculiar excellence; the arete of a man is different from the arete of a horse. This way of thinking comes first from Plato, where it can be seen in the Allegory of the Cave. In particular, the aristocratic class was presumed, essentially by definition, to be exemplary of arete: "The root of the word is the same as aristos, the word which shows superlative ability and superiority, and "aristos" was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility."
By the 4th and 5th centuries BC, arete as applied to men had developed to include quieter virtues, such as dikaiosyne (justice) and sophrosyne (self-restraint). Plato attempted to produce a moral philosophy that incorporated this new usage, but it was in the work of Aristotle that the doctrine of arete found its fullest flowering. Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean is a paradigm example of his thinking.
Arete has also been used by Plato when talking about athletic training and also the education of young boys. Stephen G. Miller delves into this usage in his book "Ancient Greek Athletics". Aristotle is quoted as deliberating between education towards arete "...or those that are theoretical". Educating towards arete in this sense means that the boy would be educated towards things that are useful in life. But even Plato himself says that arete is not something that can be agreed upon. He says, "Nor is there even an agreement about what constitutes arete, something that leads logically to a disagreement about the appropriate training for arete." To say that arete has a common definition of excellence or fulfillment may be an overstatement simply because it was very difficult to pinpoint arete, much less the proper ways to go about obtaining it.
It was commonly believed that the mind, body, and soul each had to be developed and prepared for a man to live a life of arete. This led to the thought that athletics had to be present in order to obtain arete. They did not need to consume one's life, merely exercise the body into the right condition for arete, just like the mind and soul would be exercised by other means.
In Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, "arete" is used mainly to describe heroes and nobles and their mobile dexterity, with special reference to strength and courage, but it is not limited to this. Penelope's arete, for example, relates to co-operation, for which she is praised by Agamemnon. The excellence of the gods generally included their power, but, in the Odyssey (13.42), the gods can grant excellence to a life, which is contextually understood to mean prosperity. Arete was also the name of King Alcinous's wife.
According to Bernard Knox's notes found in the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, "arete" is also associated with the Greek word for pray, "araomai".