12/16/2014 12:24 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Searching for Philotimo

Philotimo Foundation

What's in a word that may hold a secret for a person, or a whole nation?

A word known hitherto almost exclusively to Greeks has suddenly gained international momentum through a video produced by a US based organization championing the catalytic role played by Greece during WWII. The video features accomplished Greek Americans attempting to define what is referred to as "The Greek Secret"; namely, philotimo.

What does this mean, and why should you care?

Well for starters, meaning demands more meaning, just as reason demands more reason. Such is the nature of language as our ultimate framework for understanding, that words being the smallest nuclei of shared meaning, may hold an entire world of meaning beyond mere spelling and articulation.

Alas, the case of 'philotimo' consists of a curious example of a word which, as every Greek would have you know, cannot be translated directly into any other language. It's a word that dates from the time when Greece was at the centre of the civilized world and bears meanings that we are all too familiar with, such in the prefix 'philo' from words like philosophy or philanthropy meaning 'love of' or friendship of the highest form, according to Aristotle.

So far, we have asserted that words are worth paying closer attention to and that the Greek word 'philotimo' may indeed carry a secret worth discovering.

So what's in the word philotimo?

According to noted sociologists, philotimo is the Greek core cultural value encompassing all others. Classical as well as recent references abide as to how inescapable the metric of philotimo has been in measuring the worth of a person in society. It literally translates as "love of honor" and lies at the heart of Platonic and Aristotelian ideals of character virtue and good citizenship, such as civility, integrity, empathy and other self-developmental and prosocial virtues that describe the complete human personality in harmony with the state.

In recent years, philotimo has been evoked in public statements as a possible solution to the 'Greek problem', by world leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and not least US President Barack Obama, who highlighted the Greek concept of philotimo as 'the quintessential sense of right and wrong and the duty to do what's right'.

George Logothetis, prominent businessman and the first Greek to speak out on philotimo internationally, describes it as "...the undercurrent of Hellenism, the commonest and starkest theme that unites all Greeks ...duty, loyalty, integrity, honor, love, trust, faith and, perhaps most important of all, the pride in being decent."

In the above sentence you will note words that hold significant meaning to Greeks and non-Greeks alike, describing concepts that are often thought of as being conducive to a thriving society, while being in short supply across modern societies of the world today. Despite all historical and current rhetoric revolving philotimo, there have been very few attempts to understand its psychosocial dimensions outside a select few, rather dated, anthropological references.

But why should we bother searching for the meaning of a Greek word, when the above concepts are perfectly translatable in our own native languages?

Refraining from quoting the usual references regarding the extensive influence on world civilization by Greek intellectual traditions such as philosophy, political science and democracy, one may nevertheless also add that Greece's role in shaping western civilization was due to the empowerment of its citizens to think openly, freely and responsibly towards the Polis (Greek for 'city', rooted in the word 'politia', which also gives us the English word 'police'), and in doing so also confirming the citizen as being responsible for the upkeep of everything that was good for the city.

Although one may be too quick to argue that modern Greeks have a long way to go before escaping the shadow of their ancestors, let alone be in a position to give lessons to the rest of us (especially following Greece's scapegoating as a central culprit behind the latest global economic crisis), I would once more urge you to consider the (mostly unanswered) question of philotimo, as a question of what makes a good citizen who knows right from wrong and to whom falls the duty of protecting the well-being of the Polis.

As a result, out of the dominant socioeconomic power relations across the world and the pressures exercised on society, nationalistic rhetoric--often of the far-right orientation--has been on the rise. This is, of course, familiar to sociologists, who know that in the absence of positive paradigms, fear and insecurity push people to join extreme ideologies.

These were among the issues that brought about the creation of the Philotimo Foundation, a non-profit social innovation centre dedicated to exploring the foundations and dynamics of philotimo in modern Greek culture and their implications for 21st century global citizenship. Its first project involves the crowdsourcing of meanings of philotimo, in the form of an open invitation across the international Greek-speaking community to contribute definitions, stories and multimedia related to philotimo.

The Greek and non-Greek people behind this project believe that there is real value in shedding light on the articulation of narratives that concern intrapersonal, interpersonal and sociopolitical realities experienced by individuals within a culture.

Words form stories, and stories are not merely the vessels of private or public life, but also the best descriptions of how the world and the struggle for political change are shaped.

In this respect, communal and personal stories become essential in the way politics operate, both in how people understand it in parliament and out on the streets, as well as in how it is practiced by decision makers.

Searching for the "Greek secret" may not seem like an important concern for the average English-speaking reader, but asking ourselves what defines the American, British or German Secret, could prove of paramount importance during times where civic unrest in the name of social justice is shaking the foundations of Western democracies.

Perhaps it may be time to define what philotimo means to every citizen of the world.