Look up the Greek word philotimo and you will find one of the longest entries in your dictionary. Ask a Greek what he means by philotimo and you will see this dictionary entry personified. The individual you have chosen to ask will most likely embark upon a lengthy oration, emphatically waving his hands to illustrate his points. He will probably endeavor to elucidate this term via a series of personal examples. A taxi driver returning the iPhone lodged between the seat cushions, or a street vendor tracking down the customer who had given him a fifty instead of a five. There’s probably the story of the breathtaking young wife who never dreamed of straying from her marriage vows, even while her husband was away at war. Or you might get the one about the brother who would bring fresh flowers once a week to his sister’s bedside.
Philotimo is a term that simply does not translate into English. You will find yourself engaging in a Charades-like conversation, as you exclaim words like “integrity!” and “self-esteem!” and “honor!” You will run out of guesses before long, and your Greek counterpart will grow frustrated of shaking his head. Apparently, English will somehow never do justice to the implicit meaning of philotimo.
I came across an article written almost half a century ago, containing a definition that resonates strangely today. According to distinguished scholar Admantia Pollis, philotimo involves the idea of the individual as an integral part of a pre-existing organic system. It entails the fundamental understanding that the greater entity to which an individual belongs– whether that be his network of extended family, his neighborhood community, or his church community– demands certain behavior of him. Rather than aspire to fulfill his own desires and aspirations, the individual should strive to fulfill his role within this group. In other words, according to this particular definition, philotimo is a view of self that repudiates individual autonomy, demanding instead a steadfast devotion to the group.
Perhaps today’s crisis is partially rooted in this intrinsic cultural understanding. Grounded in the underlying assumption that one must look out for one’s own, Greek political culture is riddled with patronage systems and clientelism. Kinship systems often remain perfectly intact as they transpose themselves into the business world or the political realm. In fact, the professional world is replete with obvious examples of this. Diaplekomena symferonta, or interlinked interests, is the term scholars use to refer to the opaque links between powerful private firms and the leading political parties.
My “Charades teammate” (i.e., Greek counterpart) raises his eyebrows, while simultaneously tilting back his head a tad. Though he clicks his tongue only softly, this combination of gestures indicates a very resounding “no.” I have found that when I present this theory of mine to Greeks, they quickly become offended and aggravated. As I trace this cultural value through to its political manifestations and economic implications, I am told that I misconstrue its meaning. Or rather, I twist and convolute it until it becomes no longer recognizable. Philotimo connotes something honest, innocent, and pure, but I corrupt and contort it until it turns into something else.
But is it really that different? Traditional associations might no longer be as prevalent today as they once were, but new associations have come to take their place. To a large extent, unions have replaced the classic social networks of church communities and extended families. Transcribed from the mountain villages to the bustling city of Athens, these new associations adhere to Pollis’ description of philotimo: individuals will still seek to play their role within the greater whole.
And the problem is that this “greater whole” does not refer to the country, but to a person’s immediate group. If the average Greek aimed to fulfill his role within the country, perhaps the current crisis could have been largely averted. But it is difficult to have faith in a government that does not represent your interests and does not produce results. As your tax dollars magically make their way into other people’s pockets, it is difficult to have faith in a system that does not produce dividends. Overrun with corruption and clientelism, neither the government nor the system is worthy of the people’s faith and support.
As a result, these voluntary associations consolidate, becoming stronger and more resistant. Abandoning nationalism, the people fall back on their sense of philotimo. They come to rely on their immediate group, turning to it for assistance and support. Perhaps this partially explains the prevalence of tax evasion: if you cannot subscribe to a greater good, and your loyalty lays instead with your immediate network, you will not hesitate to exploit the loopholes in the system.
In fact, the idea of philotimo is fundamentally undemocratic. The group determines political participation. Your political stance becomes a collective issue, rather than an issue of individual choice and personal responsibility. Philotimo thus gives rise to the conflict mentality that is so acute in Greek political culture. Compromise and trade-offs are simply impossibilities since each group believes its interests to be exclusive and fixed. In Greece, the harmonizing or aggregation of group interests is basically impossible. The multi-party system dissolves into inter-group rivalry and fragmentation, making policymaking impossible and creating the political statism that characterizes the Greek system. The political scene is perceived as a zero-sum game, characterized by a high degree of mistrust and uncertainty. The idea of a government that exists to represent and serve the people is lost. Instead, a person’s immediate association garners his unyielding allegiance and support.
In other words, philotimo is the idea that a father would do whatever it takes to see that his daughter attends the best frontistirio, receiving the highest quality private tutoring that Athens can offer. Or your policeman cousin will pull whatever strings necessary to get you out of those expensive parking tickets. Or your neighbor, who works at the pharmacy, will ensure that all your prescriptions are free of charge. Your neighborhood mechanic will declare that your car damages were twice as expensive as they actually were, so that insurance will unknowingly cover the total cost. Greeks will defend the interests of their immediate groups for all they are worth. Philotimo is honor and integrity in the sense that they are fiercely loyal to their voluntary associations.
“Yes!” my Charades teammate exclaims. “That’s exactly it!” In the States, we could call a lot of this corruption. But that’s probably because we wistfully wish we could get away with it too. It’d be nice to have some philotimo magic dust to help us through the daily grind.