In Greek the word “philo” means friend, though it can also mean to “cherish” or to “love,” as in “philosophy” (the love of wisdom), or “Philadelphia” (love between brothers). Timo or τιμη in Greek, means honor. So, one might assume that the wondrous Greek word φιλοτιμο (philotimo) simply translates to “love of honor.” Ah, but it comprises much more. A person can use philotimo, or someone can possess philotimo, so in a sense it is both a noun and verb, one that has no true counterpart in any other language, though people have long attempted to universally define the term. Articles and documentary films have been dedicated to that noble pursuit. Roughly, the phrase can be defined as “striving for excellence, the innate desire to always do the honorable thing,” or even as “true generosity and hospitality.”
As the ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, philotimo is an inborn trait for us Greeks; and I’m sure all you fellow Hellenes reading this article could share your own experience in exercising philotimo. In fact, it is best to illustrate philotimo rather than try to define it in words.
The idea for this post came to me this morning in the wake of reading an article about Zorba’s, a Greek restaurant in Virginia. After spotting someone rummaging through their trash for food scraps, they posted a note by the Dumpster that said, “For your next meal, please come in and let us know you are hungry and unable to pay. You are a human being and worth more than a meal from a Dumpster. No questions asked!”
My initial reaction upon seeing that was to take a deep breath worthy of Thales’ famous quote. My next instinct was to spread word of such a perfect example of philotimo. In creating their sign, the restaurant owners treated a person in need with the respect and dignity deserving of us all. In the face of human tragedy, however ordinary, however small, they exercised compassion. They exercised true philotimo.
When I was a boy, eight or nine years old, I went to the hospital to endure surgery. Post operation, friends and family were at my bedside, showering with me with toys, balloons and treats. I shared a room with another child around the same age, though I noticed he rarely had visitors, apart from his parents, nor did he enjoy a windfall of get-well gifts. Finally, one morning, still weak from the operation, feeble on my feet, I got up and went to his bedside to bestow him with a balloon and toy from my stash. No one suggested I do this, nor did my roommate ask for anything. I simply felt moved to do so, and I believe it was this innate sense of philotimo that motivated me.
But you don’t need a sad occasion to witness philotimo. During holidays such as Christmas and those oh-so-joyous Greek Easters, we open our arms, hearts and homes (not to mention our ovens) to friends and family and ensure good times are had by all.
Seeing happiness in others makes me happy. Philotimo is meant to be shared. Philotimo is an extension of self.
Now, what does philotimo mean to you? I hope you’ll leave some comments below!