What is Arete? It is one of the most important concepts in Mage, and of course there is almost no explanation. After some thought I have come up with this definition: Arete is a measure of how much the mage understands reality. A mage with high Arete understands how reality works, how it influences him, how he influences reality and himself. He will see how he and the world reflect each other. A mage with low arete don't understand how everything connects together, and is filled with the same illusions as most sleepers. As he increases his understanding, he will comprehend more and more of reality, thus gaining power over it.
The spheres of magick are just amassed information about the known rules, patterns and phenomena of different aspects of reality. A mage with Prime 1 will know some about how quintessence flows, telltale signs of its presence and how to manipulate it somewhat. Note the difference between arete and the spheres: Arete is understanding, spheres are knowledge. That is why spheres can be studied and discussed easily, but not arete. To be able to use (or even learn) the spheres you have to have some understanding of reality beforehand, otherwise it is just meaningless information (knowing how a car works doesn't make you a good driver).
Now, what happens when a mage begin to increase his understanding of reality? Each step on the path towards understanding removes the mage one step from the rest of humanity, or even the other mages. They are tempted with power, both over themselves and over the outside world. They cannot see the goal, or even if there is a goal. But still most mages try to understand the world. It is something they need, almost in the same way as a vampire needs blood or a werewolf must serve Gaia. Many mages try to deny the need, and hides it under different guises, but it is there, undeniable.
The first steps after Awakening are easy. The mage slowly learn more about how reality works, and about himself. As he progresses, deeper and deeper truths are revealed. The path becomes harder. Each step will require more and more from the mage, and he becomes more removed from the rest of humanity. What was once a simple quest for understanding will now require sacrifices. At first, the mage must give up his old, comfortable preconceptions about how the world works. He will realise that strange powers influence everything, that the world does not always make sense and that he is himself filled with illusions. The world will become stranger and stranger. Later he will be forced to see himself as he is, a very painful experience. He have to confront his demeanour, and see his real self behind the mask. Later on the path, he must overcome his flaws and his nature, transcend his normal personality altogether. He must realise how he is imprisoned in his own illusions about who he is, and somehow break out of the illusions. Later he may even begin to question his essence.
The Outer Struggle
The inner struggle towards understanding is reflected in the outer struggle towards external knowledge ("as above, so below". Everything reflects everything else). At first, the mage learns the magick of his tradition. Slowly he masters the philosophy and ideas of his tradition, while he also gain the knowledge and power to shape reality in different spheres. Finally, he will understand the full extent of the ideology of his tradition. But the fall is hard, as he begins to realise that his ideology does not explain everything, that some things are outside its reach and that it contain subtle contradictions. The mage must make the painful decision between remaining loyal to his tradition, or try to find his own path.
Those who leave their tradition's philosophies behind, either become introvert, seeking the answer inside themselves, or try to learn the true meaning of magick. These seekers often try to perfect their magick or search out the Oracles for guidance. They hope to find truth inside their magick. This path of Mastery is most common among pattern mages, like Order of Hermes, Sons of Ether and Verbena. The introvert seekers, the mystics, try to understand reality by seeking the clues inside themselves or their experiences. This is often a solitary path, as they spend most of their time studying their own minds and souls. The path of the Mystic is the most common path among ex-members of the Akashic Brotherhood, Celestial Chorus, Dreamspeakers and Cult of Ecstasy.
The groups of Masters around the Oracles study the limits, and beyond, spheric magick. They try to understand how magick and reality interact, and how to overcome the limits they see. The Master may leave his old preconceptions about magick behind, realising that spheric magick is just another way to see reality. He will become an Oracle, in a way a second Awakening. The step from master to Oracle is exceedingly painful, as the mage must discard almost everything he has ever believed in or hoped for. Most Masters will never reach this level, since they are too bound to their old prejudices or content to play with their new powers without having to pay the price of true understanding.
The Oracles have transcended spheric magick, fully realising their potential over reality. They are extremely powerful beings, hardly human any more. They have powers beyond the comprehension of lesser beings, but also responsibilities and problems of the same magnitude. They cannot explain their understanding to any lesser being, and they have definitely lost touch with anything resembling normal reality. In effect, they have become gods (and maybe some of them even take the place among the celestines). But they have not yet understood everything. Many Oracles are content with their almost unlimited power, but some make the painful realisation that they have done the same mistake twice, and see the emptiness in their understanding. They start to seek to unify themselves and reality, they start to seek the answers within.
As the most advanced Oracles turn towards the path of the Mystic, the most advanced mystics realise that they have understood only part of the truth. They turn outwards again, seeking the path of the Master. This level of the seeking is impossible for anybody else to understand.
Oracles and the Ascension War
Why don't the Oracles help their traditions in the Ascension War? One obvious answer is that they have left their traditions and have no loyalty to them. But if the Technocracy is such a threat against Ascension, why wouldn't they interfere anyway? There are many possibilities, take your pick:
The Oracles have realised that the Ascension War is a trivial little affair, it is just entertainment and training for the lesser mages which they need to test themselves. Or the Oracles have become so alien that they simply isn't interested in helping the lesser mages.
The Oracles can't interfere. Perhaps they have become so powerful and alien that they no longer can work in static reality anymore. If an Oracle would appear in the world, just his perceptions would be so different that he would be destroyed or removed by paradox. Perhaps they can manifest in the world, but not with their full powers. They must manifest in a lesser form. Perhaps Christ was a manifested Oracle.
The Oracles are fighting in the Ascension War, its just that they fight above the heads of everybody. They magick is so powerful and subtle, that nobody below their level even can perceive it.
The Oracles know that if they interfere, they would do even more harm. They must remain inactive to protect reality.
What happens when a mage reaches total understanding (Arete 10+) is unknown, and probably unknowable. Many call this Ascension, and see this as the goal (this view is prevalent among the Akashic Brotherhood, Marauders and the Gnostics). But many traditions believe in a global Ascension, involving the whole of mankind, like the Reconciliation of the Celestial Chorus or the Singularity of the Virtual Adepts. The Enlightened Ones will probably take a part in this, the traditions believe. But these ideas about Ascension are mere speculation, even if the traditions hotly deny it. Nobody really know what the Ascension truly is, except perhaps the Enlightened Ones.
The Enlightened Ones have transcended everything. Perhaps they have ceased to exist, merged with the universe or remain in eternal balance, waiting for the time when they shall return. Perhaps they have never existed, and the whole idea of personal Ascension is a myth.
The whole process of enlightenment is exponentially harder and more painful. Each step is more than twice the last step. Many mages fail, and instead of continuing on the path, they stop and remain at their level indefinitely. Some even lose their enlightenment, fleeing backwards into comfortable illusions when confronted with the harsh light of Understanding.
Arete in the game
In game terms, I treat Arete as follows:
|1 - 3||The mage has understood the basic principles of his tradition. He can use the simplest types of magick, and has reached some self-knowledge. To advance further, he must overcome himself more and more. Many mages change demeanours during their seeking towards the next levels. Many mages never manage to rise above this level, and remain as lesser mages.|
|4 - 5||The mage apparently masters the external world. Many mages think they have reached a deep understanding of themselves. Most mages on this level have risen far into the ranks of their tradition. The seeking has become very hard, as the mage must not only overcome the flaws of his nature (note the elegant bind here: if the mage roleplays his nature, complete with flaws, he will be awarded more willpower and experience. But if he tries to overcome his flaws, he will not gain this. It is tempting to step of the path.) To raise Arete on this level, the quests can take years.|
|5 - 6||The mage has mastered his tradition (maybe not in knowledge, but in understanding). He is powerful, and apparently at the height of his power. Many mages on this level are leaders of their traditions. But he will begin to see the flaws, inconsistencies and outright errors of his tradition too. To continue the path, he must take the painful step away from his tradition, losing the support and help it once gave. This may take a lifetime. Many mages never do this, and remain here, trying to lead their traditions. This is probably as far as roleplaying is possible, the later levels are too hard to imagine.|
|6 - 7||The mage has left his tradition, and probably changed his nature as well. These mages are outside the protection and support of the traditions, and their vision is almost impossible to understand even for other mages. Most retreat into the Umbra to escape the Ascension War. Some mages try to find the Oracles to perfect their magick. Others try to find themselves. To continue, the mage must transcend his limited view of the world and/or himself, experiencing a second Awakening. This can take several centuries to do. Many mages prefer to remain on this level, finding pleasure in their power or self-knowledge.|
|7 - 8||This is the level of the Oracles. They have realised that their old ideas about the spheres work was just another arbitrary way to look at reality. They are able to freely choose they way they like to see magick; in the same way a lesser mage can change reality by viewing it in an arbitrary way, an Oracle can change the way they (or anybody else) see magick. Thus they transcend spheric magick, being able to use magick in any way they want. this can take thousands of years. Many Oracles prefer to remain Oracles, but a few tries to understand the world even further.|
|9 - 10||These levels are so high that maybe only the most advanced Oracles can even begin to fathom them.|
Mages start out as humans. But do they remain humans? In the beginning, the changes are mild, "just" a total change of world-view and other psychological changes. But as the mage becomes more powerful, they drift apart from humanity. After a while their minds are no longer quite human, and their worldviews are even stranger. Even the most social and amiable mage will become quite alien when they begin to understand reality. Think of the world of a mage with Time 5 and Correspondence 5! He will know and see that time and space doesn't exist, that everything exists at the same time, at the same place. And this is possible at Arete 5. Can a human even imagine the world of an Oracle, who still is much lesser than an Enlightened One?
Here is my "Normality rating", a kind of humanity for mages. Instead of showing how far the vampire had succumbed to the beast, it shows how alien or non human the mage has become. At first the mage is quite human, but as he develops he looses his humanity. Finally, he reaches normality 0, which means that he has become altogether impossible to understand for normal humans (and most mages). Of course it is impossible to squeeze something as deep as the alienness of a person into a one-dimensional scale, but I'm a technomancer anyway :-)
A small warning: I do not intend this to be used as an actual trait in the game (although would be possible). This should really be roleplayed, but it is much easier to explain using rules. The best way is perhaps to just keep it in mind during the game. The ideas I present here are not finished, just some suggestions.
A mage starts with a normality of 10 (normally. It could be changed by his background). It is decreased with 1 for every dot in arete. It may also be lowered when the mage encounters or does other normality-lowering thing like changes of his body and mind, exploring the deep umbra, performing actions outside of the ability of any human, powerful supernatural effects or suffers form paradox. Most mages will reach 0 long before they reach Arete 10.
I think normality would limit the dice-pool for social interactions with sleepers (and other mages on higher levels). It may have other effects too, like the strength of quiet and the amount of "weirdness" around the mage. A "Hieararchy of Sins" for this trait is shown below:
|10||You are a quite normal human.|
|9||A bit odd or eccentric. Some artists or bohemians belong to this level. You often get involved, or notice weird things. You have unusual ideas or thoughts.|
|8||Quite strange. Things happen to you or around you that no normal person would believe could happen. Your perceptions of the world are no longer the same as consensus reality.|
|7||Very strange. A psychologist would think you are clinically insane and commit you to an asylum. You become involved in extremely weird events. People will notice you immediately. Your ideas are quite different from anybody else's.|
|6||Insane. Anybody can realise that you are insane if they spend some time with you. Things happen to you that no sane person could even imagine. Your daily life is utterly strange. You no longer think in ordinary terms. You see the world in a very different way.|
|5||Clearly Insane. Your daily life is extremely surreal. No normal human could avoid thinking that you are insane. They find it hard to relate to you and vice versa. Your thoughts are far beyond the what anybody think is normal or even human.|
|4||Not quite human. Sleepers would not believe in your daily life. Small signs of alienness make normal humans very uncomfortable. You see the world in an alien way.|
|3||Not human. Anybody will notice that you are not quite human anymore. Mages will begin to have trouble relating to you. You have a hard time understanding or interacting with Sleepers.|
|2||Alien. Your daily life is beyond comprehension of normal humans. It is obvious to anybody that you no longer are wholly human. You cannot interact successfully with sleepers anymore.|
|1||Incomprehensible. You are very alien. Most mages have a hard time relating to you, and vice versa.|
|0||The mage is completely alien to anybody.|