Etymology: From pílos (phílos = friend, here »loving«) + Tīmń (tīme = honor) + -o (-o)
The most untranslatable, sophisticated, and truly mysterious word in the Greek language is the noun filotimo, literally translating into »friend of honor.«
However, filotimo is infinitely more. It is a complex constellation of values that is hard to define; even Greeks cannot agree on one meaning. It describes an array of virtues, including ideas such as honor, justice, dignity, pride, self-sacrifice, respect, gratitude, and hospitality. The core concept is that of small, random acts of kindness that reflect one’s personality and the manner in which one was raised. Filotimo describes an attitude toward fellow humans and humanity at large. It means showing empathy, compassion, and generosity without expecting anything in return, taking pride in doing what is right and honorable and being humble at the same time. It extends to appreciation for one’s heritage, manifested in love for family, community, and country. Filotimo is something that has to be inspired and cannot be imposed. If one »doesn’t have filotimo,« one embarrasses not only oneself but also one’s family and community. This idea of being accountable for your family and community pervades Greek culture and makes filotimo, next to filoxenia (hospitality), one of the horizontal measures that govern the Greek collective soul. To a Greek, filotimo is essentially a way of life.
Filotimo comes from the word filotimia. The first attested written reference of the word dates to the early writings of the Greek Classical period. At that time, filotimia was used in a rather ironic or negative manner, meaning »covetous of honour and distinction,« while the verb filotimeomai was used in the sense of »lavish upon.« It took a couple of centuries for the word to gain a positive connotation. Around the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. the meaning shifted from the individual toward the collective, when classical Athens saw the consolidation of democracy, competition was replaced by cooperation, and a man with filotimo was someone who loved to receive the praises of his city but first served the community. From then on it developed in its more noble senses such as meekness, humility, and selflessness. Over the centuries, it was reduced to its modern use, which is infused in all layers of modern Greek society and popular culture, allowing individuals to claim it and give it those different meanings, filling them with pride and confidence.
Peoples and languages invent words out of the necessity to express specific concepts and apparently Hellenism had this need. But where did this need come from; what circumstances promoted its establishment as one of the building blocks of the Greek disposition and imaginary, and why is it relevant today?
In the fifteenth century, while the West was experiencing Enlightenment and developing modern states that tied together individuals under the rule of law and an abstract sense of responsibility, Greece spent 400 years under Ottoman rule, which forced a large part of the population into subsistence farming through heavy taxation and limited education. The subjugated and inward-looking Greeks were bound by pride, localism, and interpersonal relationships. Instead of developing the kind of institutional consciousness seen in Western Europe, Greek communities were imbued with filotimo, which was triggered not by law and logic, but intense emotion and some degree of intimacy.
Those ideas of empathy and intimacy reflect the emotional side to a national character and are the pillars on which the word filotimo is well-founded. They can be found in actions and stories throughout modern Greek history until the most recent days. Decades of poor governance and corruption, the great depression that the ongoing financial crisis caused, followed by a humanitarian crisis and – with a general fear of the Other – the rise of nationalism, exhausted large parts of Greek society. However, people rallied around each other and society kept its cohesion, individuals were mobilized and did their »duty« in solidarity. Solidarity manifests itself through different forms of human values, behaviors, protocols, and negotiations. Filotimo is this common value, the common imaginary, that has kept the Greek community strong and vibrant in the hardest of times.
At the height of the refugee crisis, locals on the eastern Aegean islands dove in icy waters trying to help refugees as their rickety boats reached the shores. Hundreds of fishermen, volunteers, housewives, retirees, teachers, artists, and students waited by the beach every day to offer help and open their homes to people fleeing war and terror – an international disaster in the hands of individuals practicing filotimo. For them it is simply a way of being, and the emotional and moral satisfaction far outweighs any attempt at conceptualizing it. This willingness to open one’s home and embrace others, without implicit expediencies and rewards, is care put into practice. I don’t have anything, but you can have it all. It is a kind of altruism, but more extroverted, more open. Unlike other forms of relationships (friendship or love) you cannot transmit filotimo on your own, or say »I have filotimo.« It is the intelligence of the Other that defines »you have filotimo.« In that sense, the word is active, but only through the perspective of the observer. This existence of a bidirectional relationship is fundamental and important. Filotimo entails mutual recognition, coexistence, and togetherness. Beyond the popular »legend« Greeks like to brag about – that filotimo is something that Greeks are born with and that runs through their veins – for me, filotimo is truly a practice of solidarity and care.
In our individualistic, alienating, capitalistic society of constant competition and striving for growth, where »relationships have been converted to services and commons to commodities,« there is an urgency for collective actions that nurture collectivity, solidarity, and care: »civic – person-to-person and horizontal – responsibility that enables people to be able to conduct, with agility, the full spectrum of the stages and elements of care as an ongoing, interrelational practice […]«
What if we incorporated the principles of filotimo into the fabric of our societies and let it permeate every aspect of our daily lives? Can this multifaceted word, with its multiple meanings and etymological and syntactic peculiarities, bring meaning back into our broken social systems? There is a certain magic around filotimo and its use can be of benefit both on a personal and collective level, be exemplary for a more solidary and care-ful dealing with each other, living well, and thriving.