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The Admirable And Sad And Complex Notion Of Greek Philotimo

SKALA SIKAMINEAS, LESBOS, GREECE – APRIL 5: Fisherman Stratis Valiamos (r.) sorts out his nets, on April 5, 2016 in Skala Sikamineas, Lesbos, Greece. He and other locals have been nominated for the Nobel Prize for helping migrants. This area is closest to Turkey, and one of the main destinations for migrants coming over in small boats. Locals stepped up to help – with food, clean clothing, etc. Sadly, the migrants’ presence has kept tourists from coming to the island – which is devastating to local merchants. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Over the past ten years I’ve systematically grilled, excoriated and thrashed Greece, Cyprus, and the modern Greek spirit where appropriate, and I have been doing so with just cause and in light conscience because, goodness knows, they (we) deserve it. We’ve failed time and again to live up to the high standards set by our forebears, keeping only the pride and pathos they bequeathed us while foregoing the order, discipline and steel necessary to soar the heights of which we deem ourselves worthy.

I’ve been examining this phenomenon with diligence, analyzing the situation in an effort to provide a chronicle on the state of modern Hellenism, focusing on many a negative qualities, being unreservedly critical where appropriate.

But today is not such a day, at least not entirely. Today I’m focusing on a positive aspect, with a twist.

The word ‘philotimo’: it means ‘love for honor,’ but it’s more than that. It connotes a sense of duty and compassion, morality and care. It involves empathy and understanding, pride, bravery and altruism, common sense. It conjures a form of transcendence from the mundane, enabling individuals to rise up to whatever challenge is presented to them, ranging from something as titanic as standing one’s ground against an assailant, to offering the shirt off one’s back to someone in need.

I could go on, but this BBC article (see link below) does a great job of presenting the multiple facets of philotimo, so let me refer to it, pointing out key details and excerpts.

For example, the article starts off with Andreas Deffner, a German tourist and writer who comes across philotimo by surprise, all because he responds to the question ‘How are you?’ with a laconic and probably (too) honest ‘so, so.’ The article says:

‘Next thing the German tourist knew, he was sweating over a bowl of delicious, steaming-hot chicken soup, the watchful eyes of Grandma Vangelió and her daughter Irini glued on him. When Irini started wildly gesticulating at her brother Pericles, who had just arrived, Deffner broke out in cold sweat. “What’ve I done?” he asked, warily.’

‘”If you answer ‘so, so,’ locals think you’re sick and their sense of philotimo urges them to heal you, thus the chicken soup,” Pericles replied, roaring with laughter.’

In other words, be reserved at your own risk, at least in Greece. ‘Marginally well’ means you’re getting fed.

As everyone in Greece knows, a grandma’s first tool is her cooking arsenal, so out came the chicken soup, and poor Deffner found himself in the lovingly precarious position all Hellenic children find themselves in (Jews and Italians may relate), scarfing down food he had no appetite for, looking for ways out of a most peculiar predicament.

Granted, there are worst problems in the world that being force-fed by doting mothers and grannies and aunts. Starving to death, for example. Or being shot at by maniacs.

Still, it’s a problem, this compulsory eating thing — a second- and first-world problem, but a problem nonetheless.

Our featured German tourist probably figured out what Greek philotimo feels like, and how to always respond to the question ‘How are you?’: with a spontaneous ‘Very well, thank you, and you?’ unless, of course, he’s itching to be placed under doting scrutiny again. The trick is to respond in a way that conveys health, and even then it’s not a done deal. One may still find oneself exchanging personal information about one’s state of mind, which may drag on for a while, especially on the Greek islands where the rhythms of life are slower and more interpersonal. Where people expect you to respond in a way that confers what you really feel, having an engaged discussion over it in the middle of the street in the middle of the day — such is the way life works on the isles, at least in the non-beach-club parts.

Deffner, the tourist, may have also understood that curtness and personal distance are not easy-to-manage concepts in Greece, or indeed in the Hellenic world, depending on the location. Reactions and customs vary across the Greek world, sure, but one thing remains, and that is the term ‘Philotimo,’ whose varied and variegated definition shapes a local’s reactions to everything.

‘Philotimo 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 BC) in the writings of lyric poet Pindar.’

Back then, the article mentions, the term had a negative connotation, one associated with ambition.

Over the centuries, the connotation changed.

First, in the era of democracy, circa 500-300 BC, the term took on a positive meaning associated with serving one’s community, meriting praise from one’s city.

Then, two thousand years later, during the period of Ottoman rule (referred to as the ‘Years of slavery’ in Greek history), philotimo became associated with strong communal ties between agrarian societies cut off from the rest of the world, forced into a life of subsistence-farming by their rulers.

Says the article, quoting Vassilios Vertoudakis, lecturer of Ancient Greek philology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens:

‘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 philotimo, which was triggered not by law and logic but intense emotion and some degree of intimacy.’

It’s a simple but compelling explanation.

This situation is also responsible for the institutionalized graft, corruption, fraud and theft normally associated with modern Greek culture — what I refer to as ‘sticky fingers.’ Under the Ottomans one had to make do in any way possible, within the relative peace afforded them (bar the odd destruction of unyielding communities and other dissidents, as was the trend back then). To have things stick to your fingers meant you had a higher chance of surviving, an attitude that persists to this day.

This juxtaposition of philotimo and sticky fingers is a fascinating paradox. In fact, the two phenomena are related. A sense of philotimo may drive someone to procure a favor or item via questionable means, all in the name of upholding one’s honor, in the name of a starving family, in the name of an exploited country.

Philotimo is a tricky term, impossible to trace out.

The article quotes a few local definitions to showcase the complexity of the matter:

‘”Doing the right thing,” Pinelopi Kalafati, a doctor, told me.

‘”Loving and honouring God and your society,” said priest Nikolas Papanikolaou.

‘”Stepping out from your comfort zone to help someone in need,” suggested Tatiana Papadopoulou, a volunteer in Malakasa detention camp for refugees.’

In fact, this over-emotional version of philotimo endured over the centuries, manifesting in ways that defied logic:

‘In May 1941, when the Axis powers launched an airborne attack on the legendary Minoan island of Crete, locals not only grabbed kitchen knives or unsophisticated weapons to go out and fight the enemy, but also trudged through the towering, rugged mountains and steep gorges of Crete to find the best hideouts for the British and Australian soldiers. Neither the fact that they were half-starved due to the Nazi-induced Great Famine nor the death penalty for sheltering soldiers fazed them; their sense of duty, honour and courage took precedence.’

And decades later, on the backdrop of the war in Syria and the refugee and migration crises the conflict has spawned:

‘Locals on the islands of Lesbos, Chios and Kos, places renowned for their beauty and touristic prowess – yet all in years of deep recession – have been jumping in boats to rescue refugees reaching the Eastern Aegean shores in droves. Some have even been witnessed plunging in icy waters as the rickety boats approach the islands.’

One may deem this kind of reaction natural, and it is. But to understand it one must go deeper, ask questions as to how and why this behavior comes about. The scientists and researchers and chroniclers among us would like to trace it out, profile and contour the psychological and cultural forces that give it shape and form.

‘”Why are you congratulating me, my children?” asked 86-year-old Emilia Kamvisi when journalists asked her why she and her friends, 90-year-old Efstratia Mavrapidou and 86-year-old Maritsa Mavrapidou – who were later nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize – go to the coast of Lesbos every day to help weary female refugees and their children. “What special am I doing? Wouldn’t you do the same?”‘

It seems that the best way to understand this awesome behavior is to listen to those engaged in it, hear what they have to say.

Back at the chicken soup scene, Andreas Deffner, the German tourist suffering from an acute case of the ‘so, so’s,’ was asked his opinion on what philotimo is.

His definition was thus:

‘Two to three positive thoughts, one litre zest for life, 500 grams of hospitality, 10 drops of sympathy, an ounce of pride, dignity and your inner guide.’

Trust a German to quantify the unquantifiable.

And yet, jokes aside, this is what the Ancient Greeks did back in their halcyon days. This is what our ancestors did back when their spirit soared, their adamant values paving the way for progress and innovation: they quantified the unquantifiable, putting words to the undefinable, giving form to virtues that reformed the world.

Maybe we, modern Greeks, should look to them — to all the outsiders who have embraced the Ancient Greek spirit over the centuries — and learn from them. We, all the Hellenes inside and beyond Greece, including Cyprus, Great Britain, Australia, the USA, and elsewhere, we need to observe and learn from the outsiders, learn what we have managed to forget, applying it anew, again, as we haven’t been able to all these centuries so that we may finally rediscover ourselves, touching base with our past, catching up with all those who choose to honor our ancient values in ways that we haven’t been able to, not for a while. We long ever so deeply to beat the isolation and backwardness imposed on us in the years of slavery, eager to introduce the steel of the Ancients, our esteemed forebears, to the emotional fire of our enduring philotimo, paving a fresh way ahead, one in line with our precious inheritance.

It’s in our hands, like it or not. The first step toward progress and knowledge begins with an examination of one’s life and all that it entails, after which a strategy may be formulated based on facts, laying out the measures needed to combat the obstacles one faces, breaking out of the impasses and dead ends, marching into a sustainable, respectable future.

Examining one’s life in order to adequately improve it! Another age-old lesson begging for reapplication. It may clash with the current version of philotimo, at least with parts of it, but in time it will render all who employ it fit and ready to deal with what lies ahead.

From your honor-bound and pander-to-no-one (including one’s own) Spin Doctor,

Eyes open, mind sharp.

For the BBC article, click here: