Being a Greek: The word “philotimo”

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Over the years, I have met people from all over the world through work and education. And I’ve learned that each nation has its own moral qualities and always one of them is more prominent than the others, one that dominates the nations’ way of thinking and living, one that makes you a member of this ethnic family; one that simply distinguishes your nationality from others. For example, the British are distinguished by their courtesy, the Germans by their organizational skills, the Italians by their love for romance, the Russians by their seriousness, the Albanians by their hard work. These moral qualities -positive stereotypes that those people themselves admit- derive from the experiences of each ethnic group, the location where it’s based, its contact with other nations.

Similarly, the Greeks are distinguished by philotimo. A word that means so many different things and that’s why it does not exist in any other language except for Greek. It exists exclusively in the Greek vocabulary because its meaning is perhaps too special and too complex for us to explain to someone who is not Greek. But one thing is certain; this is our common quality, this is how the Greeks recognize each other. Even if one of your parents or grandparents is Greek, we will still find out that you have a Greek background, because you have been raised with philotimo. It is indispensable, an integral part of our existence which follows us wherever we go.

As I said above, it’s difficult to describe philotimo, but I’ll do my best. In any way, we begin to live by philotimo before we even know the word. I learned the word when I was a senior in primary school, although I learned to live by it when I was a toddler. Philotimo means self-sacrifice for the sake of others or for the sake of your moral principles (which include the “other” anyway), to stop what you are doing to do a favor to someone, to be there to advise, protect, advocate, to show respect. There is no space for distinctions here; we consider philotimo necessary while dealing either with friends or enemies.

It doesn’t matter how you will do it, but death is a method as well. Philotimo is reflected on our military oath as well, which demands that the soldiers are prepared to die defending their flags. Actually, they are expected to defend them as they die as well (“I swear…to defend with faith and dedication the flags until my last blood drop and not to abandon them or part myself from them”). The military history has shown that the Greeks are prepared to die fighting for an ally as well. And contemporary people believe that philotimo is behind this.

Philotimo is a matter of honor. The word itself means love for honor. The way a Greek sees it, one does not deserve to live if they don’t have philotimo. Not having it brings trouble in school and family and in general, in all sectors of our social life. A person of Greek descent who does not have philotimo is seen as a shame for their family and for themselves. They are not treated quite as equal in the Greek society we could say.

But I’ve described enough. I’ve already said that philotimo is too complicated for someone to fully explain, because it’s simply a Greek’s nature. But here is the video by The Washington Oxi Day Foundation about it. This video gave me the inspiration for this post anyway!





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