Filotimo, a unique Greek word that even the Greeks themselves have trouble agreeing on its single definition, was the subject of a recent BBC article entitled Filotimo: the Greek Word that can’t be translated.
According to the BBC’s travel writer Stav Dimitropoulos and her research this word dates back to the dawn of Greek classical period, “the exact meaning of filotimo is hotly debated, given that the word belongs to the pantheon of Greek lexical items that defy easy explanation.
“‘Love of honour’, its official translation, is a utilitarian yet insufficient attempt to convey the constellation virtues squeezed into the word’s four syllables,” writes Dimitropoulos.
In most common dictionaries, the word filotimo is almost impossible to translate sufficiently, as it describes a complex array of virtues that encompasses honour, dignity and pride, the ideal actions and behaviours, hospitality, bonds, and responsibilities between each other.
“I think we all know what the word means, instinctively, if we are Greek or have been around Greeks for 40 years as I have,” says travel writer, interpreter and translator Paul Hellander in an interview with Neos Kosmos.
“Although the etymology is not too hard to work out, explaining the concept outside of the Greek scene becomes difficult because there is no equivalent in English or any other languages that I am familiar with. But this, in itself, is not unusual as many languages have words that cannot be rendered adequately in other languages.
“I conclude that the word ultimately refers to the concept of a ‘none-for-profit altruism’; the willingness to do something for someone without seeking reward, but simply because it feels right,” Hellander says.
Truth is, some words are more powerful than others and seem to magically survive the test of time and the evolution of language.
Elder Paisios (Saint Paisios of Mount Athos) once said “Greeks may have a pile of faults, but they also have a gift from God; filotimo and leventia; they celebrate everything. Other peoples do not even have these words in their dictionaries.”
According to Elder Paisios’ definition of the word, filotimo refers to “the relevant distillation of goodness; the radiant love of the humble man bereft of himself, but with a heart full of gratitude to God and his fellow man; because of his spiritual sensitivity he tries to repay even the slightest good that others do to him.”
When Greeks hear the word filotimo, the things they are reminded of include a deep love of family, of country, of one’s society and the greater good.
“Greeks feel it is a virtue to have filotimo. Some words to describe it are unconditional love, kindness and generosity all in one; it is like a mirror to your soul,” states Anna Stroubis, who admits that she doesn’t feel she could ever live a happy life in the absence of filotimo.
“I believe it is a choice to use it, but on the occasions I have second-guessed whether or not to use my filotimo, in the end I feel like I have lost myself and part of who I am,” she admits.
“Filotimo is when you offer your helping hand on your own, without someone having to ask you, or when a person opens their home to you and shares everything they have on the table, even if they have just met you, and they receive no benefit for their hospitality.
“Filotimo is when you offer your heart in any situation without expecting to gain anything in return,” continues Stroubis.
In essence, filotimo at its core, is about goodness. It is about selflessness and the force that drives an individual to think about the people and the world around them. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that such a concept came into existence and evolved from of the birthplace of democracy.
Lecturer in Ancient Greek Philology at the National & Kapodistrian University of Athens, Vassilios P Vertoudakis, explains that filotimo comes from the Ancient Greek word philotimia (φιλοτιμία), of which the first attested written reference dates to the dawn of the Greek classical period (6th and 7th centuries BCE) in the writings of lyric poet Pindar. For Pindar and other early writers, the word meant love of honour or distinction, or ambition, but often in a negative way. In mythology, for example, Achilles’ filotimo was wounded when King Agamemnon took away Queen Briseis, his prize for bravery on the battlefield.
“It was only after the consolidation of democracy in classical Athens around the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, when competition was replaced by co-operation, that the word gained a more positive connotation. At that time, “a man with filotimo signified someone who loves to receive the praises of his city, but first serves the community.”
“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, 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,” Vertoudakis writes.
“The mythology that accompanies this elusive concept is without precedent. Indeed, the word cannot be translated precisely to any other language. All the same, filotimo has become one of the building blocks of the Greek disposition because of the unique standing of Greece in relation to what we call the West,” he concludes.
Dimitropoulos also interviewed various Greeks about their own understanding of filotimo and received very different responses which she included in her story.
“Doing the right thing,” states Pinelopi Kalafati, a doctor. “Loving and honouring God and your society,” says priest Nikolas Papanikolaou. “Striving for perfection,” answers actor Kostis Thomopoulos. “Stepping out from your comfort zone to help someone in need,” suggests Tatiana Papadopoulou, a volunteer in Malakasa detention camp for refugees.
“Filotimo binds two of the most important words of the Greek language, that of friendship and honour,” explains Michael Tsianikas, Professor of Modern Greek and Director of LOGOS Australian Centre for Greek Language and Culture, in an interview with Neos Kosmos.
“From Homer’s times these two words work as the compass for an ethical, aesthetic, and practical way of life; this trilogy characterises the classic Greek and that was the example that was later adopted by others.
“The uniqueness of this word lays on the fact that it combines a human feeling, which is the need of friendship, with an absolute abstract concept, that of honour,” concludes Professor Tsianikas.
Ultimately, those who still find it hard to understand the essence and rich meaning of the word can simply turn their gaze over to the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, and Kos, places renowned for their beauty and popularity with tourists – yet all in years of deep recession – they have transformed into places where locals have been jumping in boats to rescue refugees reaching the eastern Aegean shores in droves. Some have even been witnessed plunging into icy waters as the rickety boats approach the islands.
“The emotional and moral satisfaction drawn from exhibiting filotimo far outweighs any attempt at conceptualising it,” concludes Dimitropoulos.
“It is however, pre-Socratic Ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus that sums it all up beautifully: Filotimo to the Greeks is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”