Filotimo – The most untranslatable and unique Greek virtue

By Christopher Xenopoulos Janus

The most untranslatable, demanding and really mysterious word in the Greek language is the word Filotimo. Literally, of course, it means friend of honor. But Filotimo is exceedingly much, much more.

I think it was the philosopher Thales who said, “Filotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”

Filotimo involves personal pride, dignity, courage, duty, sacrifice – even one’s life – and above all demands respect and deep personal freedom. And Filotimo is not something that above all demands respect and deep personal freedom. And Filotimo is not something that is taught a Greek; it is inbred.

The first sign of Filotimo in children is a natural and loving respect for their parents; then comes pride first for being Greek and this translates into duty to his country. There is a certain magic and feeling in Filotimo and it is said if you can involve and appeal to a Greeks’ Filotimo he cannot help but do anything for you.

The Filotimo in a Greek makes him stand tall in all of life’s good and adverse circumstances. It makes him feel: I am a person, a free individual and no matter who you are, no matter how powerful or how low, I demand and without asking your respect.

And then not to take himself too seriously, a Greek says, I have the humor to prove it!

Most prominent Greeks of antiquity have written about the various characteristics of Filotimo and without necessarily tying it to the word.

About honor, Socrates says that the individual man should seek to know himself of what he really is and should esteem himself for his true worth. His desire to be known and esteemed by others according to his merits. Honor is the name that Socrates gave to the good that satisfies his natural desire and he prized it highly among the goods that a virtuous man should seek – higher than wealth or sensual pleasure.

And Thucydides writes it is only the love of honor that never grows old and honor, it is not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness.

About pride, Aristotle writes in his ethics: “The proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man, most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man. And it would be most unbecoming for a proud man to fly from danger; swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another; for to what end should he do disgraceful acts, to whom nothing is great? If we consider him point-by-point we shall see the utter absurdity of a proud man who is not good. Not, again, would he be man who is not good. Not, again, would he be worthy of honor if he were bad; for honor is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good. Nor, again would he be worthy of honor if he were bad; for honor is the prize of virtue, and it is the good that it is rendered. Pride then seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character.”

Marcus Aurilius writes about dignity:
“Do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity; and feeling of affection, and freedom of justice. Thou will give thyself relief if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all hypocrisy, self love, and discontent. Thou seest how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows as quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things done in great dignity.”

Epictetas philosophizes about freedom:
“The man who is not under restraint is free, to whom things are exactly in that state in which he wishes them to be; but he who can be restrained or compelled or thrown into any circumstances against his will, is a slave. But stances against his will, is a slave. But who is free from restraint? He who deserves nothing that belongs to others, and what are the things that belong to others? Those which are not in our power either to have or not to have. If you are attached to any of these things as your own, you will pay the penalty…not desiring what belongs to another leads to freedom, that is the only way from escaping from slavery and to be able to say at last with all your soul:

“Lead me, o Zeus, and thou o destiny the way that I am led by you to go.”

Of all the virtues, and one essential to Filotimo and most frequently extolled by the ancient philosopher is courage. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says, “If a man lacked most virtues but had unconditional courage, he will be saved.”

Aristotle in his ETHICS writes about courage and cowardice:
“The coward is a despairing sort of person, for he fears everything. The brave man, on the other hand, has the opposite disposition; for confidence is the mark of a hopeful disposition The coward and the rash man, and the brave man, they are concerned with the same objects, but are differently disposed towards them; for the first two exceed and fall short which the third holds the middle which is the right position. Rash men are wish for dangers before hand and draw back when they are in there, while brave men are keen in the moment of action and quiet beforehand.”

All of the above mentioned virtues are part of Filotimo but it is essential to appreciate and understand that Filotimo is much more than the sum of its parts.

There is something more; and that something more has no name; and none of the ancient philosophers has defined it. In one of his plays, Sophocles says it is a mystery. However, we do know that this is the mystery that makes a Greek a Greek and like no other person on earth!