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A Woman's Excellence

A concentration on excellence (arete ) distinguishes the code of values of the aristocrats of the Homeric poems. For an aristocratic woman like Penelope1, the wife of the hero of the Odyssey, excellence consists of preserving her household and its property by relying on her intelligence, beauty, social status, and intense fidelity to her husband. This curatorship requires her to display great stamina and ingenuity in resisting the attempted predations of her husband's rivals2 at home because he, Odysseus, is away for twenty years fighting the Trojan War and then sailing home in a long series of dangerous adventures. Although Penelope clearly counts as an exceptional figure of literature, aristocratic women in real life, like men, could see their proper role in life as requiring them to develop an exceptional excellence to set themselves apart from others of more ordinary character and status. Under this code, any life was contemptible whose goal was not the pursuit of excellence and the fame it brought.

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