Philonikers and Philosophers
Posted on July 8, 2016
In Phidias’ famous statue, the small goddess of victory appears in the upturned right palm of the giant goddess of wisdom. As Athena looks out from under her helmet with serene sternness, winged Nike appears cheerful, ready to visit the battlefield with the laurels in her arms. One cannot miss the connection between Athena’s armor and spear and Nike as a goddess who rewards military valor. Phidias designed the statue at a time when the Athenians were eager to interpret their imperial strength over against the Persians as a victory of the forces of light and reason over the chthonic hordes of irrationality.
Anyone familiar with this history will no doubt want me to bring up Nike’s place in times of peace. We instantly think of the laurel wreaths adorning the heads of Olympic champions, and the well-worn but nonetheless plausible argument that sport is a tame and harmless way to play out the aggressive impulses that run wild in war. By something like the transitive property, the toughness required for athletic prowess is of a piece with military success, and by extension the work of being wise requires that we declare a kind of war as well. Does loving Wisdom require that one love Victory? Or can loving Victory come to eclipse and overturn love for the greater divinity, Wisdom? I think it can, and in fact often does. Philosophy, at least as it is frequently practiced in academic circles, is not so much a love of wisdom (philosophia) as it is a love of victory (philonikia).
The term philonikia is not mine—I first discovered it while reading an analysis of Plato’s Laches in Francisco Gonzalez’s outstanding book, Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry. The Liddell-Scott entry for philonikia defines it as “love of strife, eager rivalry, contentiousness, party-spirit, etc.” Given that the siblings of Nike are Bia (Force), Kratos (Strength, Authority), and Zelos (Rivalry), there is a family resemblance here that points to vanquishing an opponent through superior means, redounding to one’s inner resourcefulness and willingness to win. Philonikia is the desire for victory, making one push hard (even a bit too hard) to win—or as we call this zeal here in America, “drive.”
For interlocutors such as Socrates’ old friend general Laches, philonikia is a tad bit embarrassing, and he admits that in his eagerness to defend his definition of courage (andreia) he got carried away by philonikia and is now unable to express what courage really is. Gonzalez ably describes how the project of discovering what courage is is subject to sabotage, even by generals who would appear to be experts on the subject (if anyone would be), by the love of victory. According to Gonzalez, the work of philosophy departs from philonikia precisely through a willingness to genuinely hold oneself open to correction, to leave one’s cherished views vulnerable and risk oneself in the spirit of a mutual search for truth.
Thus it turns out that philoniky is a kind of cowardice, one that aims to neutralize challenges by hook or by crook (so long as one wins), one that launches into the thick of battle (unlike the conventional picture of the coward) but only on the assurance that one is never really at hazard of being defeated (quite like the coward). Philosophy, on the other hand, takes courage, because to truly love wisdom you must see it as higher than you, superior to you, worth more than the gilded excellence of your latest idea or your precious publications; it is a stance of humility and, I dare say, reverence. Philoniky desires to arrogate glory unto itself; philosophy requires giving glory to the truth through a mutual search for it. Sophistry and misology contain an instrumental attitude toward the truth, and see debate as an occasion for self-promotion and one-upmanship. As one of my students in the prison at Jessup rightly put it on Tuesday, you have to truly and sympathetically listen to what the other person is saying, and not just wait for your turn to speak, in order to do philosophy. Philosophy requires patience and sympathy; philoniky validates impatience and rivalry as markers of being “fiercely intelligent,” of having no “sacred cows.”
The philoniker secretly thinks himself wiser than the benighted masses around him, or else a member of those in the know like him, and constantly interprets discussions with those who disagree as chances to revalidate this identity. The philoniker already knows where you’re going with this, has thought through your argument’s problems, and therefore needs to cut you off right there before you keep going on further into error. What a pal. They’re doing you a favor, really. If they hurt your feelings, they didn’t mean it personally—the rough and tumble of debate is all good, clean fun—so don’t take it personally. At the same time the philoniker is giving offense without getting offended, he takes arguments to be no reflection upon the persons making them, yet somehow his personal worth is tied up in being a person who argues rather than simply believes.
The philoniker occasionally glows with pride at how much people learn from him. The philoniker never learns much (if anything) from a debate with you; they never study the texts or ideas you drew from in your argument once they leave the debate, except cursorily and for the sake of showing why they were right after all, just like they said. The philoniker may add to the marginalia in his books, but he never erases them. You may have never intended it or even knew it, but your way of looking at things is like a gauntlet thrown down to the philoniker, and they never turn away from a duel. This is what courage looks like, the philoniker thinks: never running away, or “sticking to one’s post,” as Laches defines it. The philoniker conceives of courage along the lines of andreia (literally, “manliness”), a bookish kind of machismo.
I contend that this intransigent spirit is what prevails in a large number of discussions in academic philosophy—with the implication that most professional philosophers are really philonikers. I think that all of us, myself included, display the qualities of the philoniker to varying degrees and lengths of time. I wince when I remember times I’ve interrupted students because they got some detail of Kant’s ethicotheology wrong. When I hear somebody describe Christianity as reactionary, I can hardly wait my turn to pounce and bring up Thomas Müntzer as a counterexample. It is actually quite hard to be a philosopher and speak in order to listen rather than listen in order to speak. We like to tell ourselves that we are good listeners and egoless debaters who approach all things with a beginner’s mind, but how often do we misinterpret small moments of that humility as signs of our whole character? Perhaps by considering wider unphilosophical practices within the discipline, we could more easily recognize the philoniker in ourselves—as I hope to do in my next post.
Part 1: Philonikers and Philosophers
Part 3: Fiery Friendship
 For instance, it is conventional to interpret the frightening Gorgon head on Athena’s shield as transfixing the unruliness of the passions so that they can come under rational order.
 Plato, Laches 194a-b
 Francisco Gonzalez, Dialectic and Dialogue, pp. 35-36
 Gonzalez, pp. 37-38.
 On page 23, Gonzalez writes that the generals talk about a marine who refused to let go of his newfangled weapon (half-scythe, half-spear) known as a sophisma once it got caught in the rigging of an enemy ship.
 Plato, Laches 190e