Words are fascinating to me. I work with them every day. I read them, hear them, write them, and ponder them. Together they help me to convey the stories that I have within me. They help me to communicate what is inside my head, and hopefully they inspire.
Some words are more powerful than others. Some words teach as well. Some words survive the test of time and the evolution of language. Why is that?
Why do some words get twisted with time so that, inevitably, their meanings are changed or watered down? I’ve studied different languages, but not linguistics, so there is probably an easy answer to this question that I just don’t know.
The other day I was reminded of a word that my eyes had previously glossed over without taking any real notice.
I’m talking about the Greek word, philotimo.
This isn’t just any word. It’s an ideal, a concept, a way of living.
It’s also an ancient word that is said to have no counterpart in any other language.
Philotimo has survived the test of time from ancient Greece to the present day. And to many, it is as powerful as ever.
What does it mean? Very basically, philotimo means ‘love of honour’. But there is so much more to this concept. When Greeks hear this word, the things they are reminded of include a deep love of family, of country, of one’s society and the greater good. It isn’t just about personal honour, because no one person is an island.
Philotimo, at its heart, is about goodness. It’s about selflessness and the force that drives individuals to think about the people and the world around them. It’s no wonder that such a concept came out of the birthplace of democracy.
As a citizen of a polis, a society, it was one’s duty to do what was needed to better, not one’s personal state, but the state of those around you, whether it was your family, your neighbourhood, your city-state, or your country.
A quote that is commonly ascribed to the pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales of Miletus (c. 624-546 B.C.) says this:
“Philotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”
What I find interesting is that this word, and all the meanings ascribed to it, has been expressed since the 7th century B.C., and perhaps earlier. The importance of philotimo survived the polytheistic world of ancient Greece, through the Roman Empire, and on through the Byzantine and Christian Middle Ages to our modern world.
That’s not to say philotimo is an easy way of life. I suspect that few are able to act with pure philotimo in their lives on a day-to-day basis.
I’m half Greek, and I love Greece and Greek culture, but I think that many Greeks, past and present, do not put enough weight on Thales’ words above. I doubt the sad state of Greece is due to the philotimo of the crooked politicians and greedy bankers who have crippled the country and brought the average hard-working person to the edge of ruin, while they live the good life. Their lack of philotimo has done that to the country.
However, it’s the philotimo of the people that will get them through the trials they are currently facing. I don’t usually talk politics here, but it seems apt in this discussion.
I’ve been thinking about events in history where this idea of selflessness and honour can be seen, where philotimo was practiced. There are many.
The first that came to my mind was the stand of the 300 Spartans, and 700 Thespians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Leonidas and the rest of the warriors knew they were marching to meet certain death, but they went anyway, knowing that the delay, and example, they would provide would allow the rest of Greece to rally and meet the Persians.
In the Iliad, Hector goes out to meet Achilles in single combat, even though he knows he is going to die. He does it for his family’s honour, for his people, his country.
All wars are full of stories of horror and atrocity, and we hear a lot about those. They are the subject of books, and they are splattered all over the media and movie theatres.
We need to hear more about acts of philotimo, the acts of goodness in the midst of brutality, despite chaos. Closer to home on the historical timeline, the Greek resistance to the fascists in World War II is another example of people stepping up and laying their lives on the line for the greater good. Think of all those allied troops who bounded out of the trenches into enemy machine gun fire because they believed in the goodness they were fighting for.
Goodness and honour transcend religion, culture, politics, and financial status. The Greeks may have given it a word, and shaped the concept, but philotimo is in essence the best of the human race. Considering that we are, more often than not, an imperfect species, that is saying something.
It can be displayed by warriors on the battlefields of history, or by children in the school playground. Grand acts on the world stage can display philotimo, as can the youth who gives up his or her seat to an elderly person on the subway.
I had forgotten the word philotimo, but I would hope my actions reflect its presence in me, and in the characters I create. I want my stories to be inhabited by men, women and children who display the ideals of love, courage, honour and goodness that the word philotimo embodies.
If you would like to hear more about the concept of philotimo, there is a great video by the OXI Day Foundation in the USA. ‘OXI Day’ or ‘No Day’ is the day that Greece refused to help the Nazis and declared for the good side in World War II. You can see the video here:
What are your thoughts on the concept of philotimo?
Is there a particular event in history that you feel illustrates this ideal of living with honour that you would like to share? Please tell us in the comments below!
As ever, thank you for reading.