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Philotimo: A Greek lesson we should all learn

In a speech last week in Athens, President Obama used a Greek word I’d not heard before: philotimo. It’s a big idea, but a very hard word to translate. 

A fairly literal translation is ‘friend of honour’, and the idea encompasses a whole range of virtues, from love and respect and kindness for family, community and country to pride in one’s ancestors. 

It seems to be based on the principle of doing good for others in a selfless way. 

It is a concept with a long history. It was discussed by many of the great Ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, and was referred to by St Paul – a native Greek speaker – in his Biblical writings.  

And some commentators see philotimo as the essence of the Greek character and society, an outlook that has kept a close-knit Greek community strong for many centuries. 

Greece of course is made up of ordinary human beings – so, like every country in the world, it is not perfect. 

It has had governments that have not always used public funds wisely, an elite that has got away without paying taxes for many years, not to mention many more ordinary small business people who don’t put everything through the books – but is this any different to the UK?  

But it certainly has a lot that it can be proud of, both in its past and in the present. 

The basis of democracy, medicine, philosophy, drama and so many more aspects of our modern world can be traced back to Ancient Greece. 

More recently, the Greek resistance to the Nazis was central to the fascists’ eventual defeat. The sacrifices made by countless Greeks in Crete during WW2 helping British and Australians troops are held up as a great example of philotimo

At the time Churchill said: “hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.” 

And today, despite the huge hardship endured by the majority of Greeks because of the economic crisis, the country has still managed to welcome, and accommodate, the tidal wave of refugees swept up onto its shores. 

These enduring qualities are what I hope will see the country through to the other side of the dreadful economic downturn they have endured for the past few years. 

These are not qualities unique to the Greek people. 

In these turbulent times, let’s hope that citizens and politicians across the world can draw on their own compassion, their own philotimo – to recognise that pride in their own communities and nations is enhanced, not diminished, by the offer of respect, kindness and a helping hand to all our neighbours.

 

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