President B. Obama explaining the Greek word philotimo (φιλότιμο) is roughly right – saying that philotimo means love of honor, love to family and community, sense of belonging and working together, sense of obligation, doing the right thing, dignity and respect. Yet, despite the mentioning of all those nuances, Obama’s speech did not really manage to capture the essence of philotimo.
Perhaps an example would help. Let’s say someone shows me that he considers me worthy enough to undertake an expedition. If I honor the idea of undertaking an expedition, then I’m trying voluntarily to fulfill his expectations, expectations not in any way forced upon me, this way protecting the ground of our relationship, because this relationship can be essential only if based in our common appreciation and understanding of the specific value of undertaking an expedition.
Thus we understand philotimo to mean love for the continuation of an honor someone reveals for me, my will to become worthy of our common appreciation of a value, in order to protect and advance my relationship with the other.
This means also that our common value has in the same time a primary and a secondary importance. A primary, because without it a relationship is impossible, and a secondary, because the relationship by itself is the ultimate purpose, and not the cultivation of a value. The wish of my friends for me to become better, takes inside me the ‘form’ of philotimo, or, philotimo is the existing in me equivalent of their hope and love for me – or, philotimo is my better self, trying even from the outside, to make me better.
To have the virtue of philotimo, you need societies where forces such as the feeling of obligation, of duty, etc, are not very important, compared with the demands existing in love and friendship. What a ‘mechanical’ society achieves through discipline, sense of duty, ideologies, etc., a society in friendship achieves even stronger through philotimo. This is why Plutarch said that lovers are the greatest fighters, because they avoid by all means to appear to their beloved ones as cowards or as anything inferior and unworthy of their expectations.