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Live with honor. Philotimo.

Live with honor. Philotimo.

In Greek the word “philo” means friend, though it can also mean to “cherish” or to “love,” as in “philosophy” (the love of wisdom), or “Philadelphia” (love between brothers). Timo or τιμη in Greek, means honor. So, one might assume that the wondrous Greek word φιλοτιμο (philotimo) simply translates to “love of honor.” Ah, but it comprises much more. A person can use philotimo, or someone can possess philotimo, so in a sense it is both a noun and verb, one that has no true counterpart in any other language, though people have long attempted to universally define the term. Articles and documentary films have been dedicated to that noble pursuit. Roughly, the phrase can be defined as “striving for excellence, the innate desire to always do the honorable thing,” or even as “true generosity and hospitality.”

As the ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, philotimo is an inborn trait for us Greeks; and I’m sure all you fellow Hellenes reading this article could share your own experience in exercising philotimo. In fact, it is best to illustrate philotimo rather than try to define it in words.

The idea for this post came to me this morning in the wake of reading an article about Zorba’s, a Greek restaurant in Virginia. After spotting someone rummaging through their trash for food scraps, they posted a note by the Dumpster that said, “For your next meal, please come in and let us know you are hungry and unable to pay. You are a human being and worth more than a meal from a Dumpster. No questions asked!”

My initial reaction upon seeing that was to take a deep breath worthy of Thales’ famous quote. My next instinct was to spread word of such a perfect example of philotimo. In creating their sign, the restaurant owners treated a person in need with the respect and dignity deserving of us all. In the face of human tragedy, however ordinary, however small, they exercised compassion. They exercised true

When I was a boy, eight or nine years old, I went to the hospital to endure surgery. Post operation, friends and family were at my bedside, showering with me with toys, balloons and treats. I shared a room with another child around the same age, though I noticed he rarely had visitors, apart from his parents, nor did he enjoy a windfall of get-well gifts. Finally, one morning, still weak from the operation, feeble on my feet, I got up and went to his bedside to bestow him with a balloon and toy from my stash. No one suggested I do this, nor did my roommate ask for anything. I simply felt moved to do so, and I believe it was this innate sense of philotimo that motivated me.

But you don’t need a sad occasion to witness philotimo. During holidays such as Christmas and those oh-so-joyous Greek Easters, we open our arms, hearts and homes (not to mention our ovens) to friends and family and ensure good times are had by all.

Seeing happiness in others makes me happy. Philotimo is meant to be shared. Philotimo is an extension of self.

Now, what does philotimo mean to you? I hope you’ll leave some comments below!

Posted in culture, Greek, GreekAmerican, life on August 17th, 2015


  • This was a beautiful post! I mentioned the Olympic Diner that used to be in downtown Seattle.

    Philotimo can also be a sense of something that I think of donoship – if such a word exists. It’s the idea that we never show up empty handed, that any contribution we make matches or exceeds the expected. It’s something along the lines of pride, but I’m not sure that I want to include the pejorative associations with ‘pride.’

    I remember attending wedding of a relative back when I was in grade school. This particular cousin was marrying a man who came from a larger source of means than she – her and her widowed mother lived alone, but the rest of the family chipped in for this. Yet, with family help, the sense was that the wedding should not skimp in anyway. Of course the wishes of the bride had something to do with this, but there was also the sense that we needed to ‘represent,’ that we were, in a way, introducing ourselves and our culture to my cousins new husband and his family (they were of German and Irish extraction).

    My Yiayia, after her parents passed, had their house which she continued to rent out. She had more than one tenant, that I can remember, who was of poorer means and went hungry – until my yiayia found out about it! I remember many trips from her house to her rental (about 3 blocks) with food, loaves of bread, cans of soup, and vegetables which she grew in her garden. It’s that thing, though. It’s that eagerness to give, and then give some more.

    1. “The eagerness to give, then give some more.” That perfectly sums up Philotimo! Ah, I wish Olympic Diner still existed in downtown Seattle. I would’ve been sure to visit on my next trip.

  • Argue – wishing I could edit this…I meant to type ‘donorship,’ as in the act of giving. Sorry..:-)

  • katinavaselopulos says:

    Apollo, you did such a wonderful job describing what philotimo is. It surely is set deep inside our Greek hearts and expresses itself in so many ways.

    I grew up in a family who gave more than we were able to give. I continue the traditions feeding old neighbors, older extended- family members. More than material gifts and food, I am sharing myself, my spirit, and vitality, with those around me and farther out.

    Philotimo is about passing the fire kindled inside, the accumulated wisdom and grace with which life and the divine have blessed us. It is about giving kindly, enthusiastically, lovingly… inspiring and enriching others.
    Do you know the anecdote about Alexander the Great?. I heard it from my son Peter a long time ago, when he chose to give this way—even though he had no obligation to, and it was difficult to do.

    One day, Alexander and one of his generals were riding through a city they had conquered. A beggar stopped them and asked for alms. Alexander reached in a bag hanging from his horse’s saddle, got hold of a golden coin and threw it to the beggar. The general reprimanded Alexander for wasting the golden coin on a vagabond when a cymbal would have been enough.

    Alexander calmly answered: “Maybe a cymbal would be good enough for the beggar, but it would not be good enough for me, Alexander, the king of Macedonia.” That was philotimo …not arrogant pride!

    1. Wonderful story about your family, Katina! Your generous spirit always comes through. I didn’t know that anecdote about Alexander. Thanks for sharing!

      1. katinavaselopulos says:

        Thank you, Apollo! Always my pleasure to read your posts–the ones I catch–and participate with my thoughts. I can’t wait for your book. You are such an interesting person. Blessed to know you!

  • I’m not Greek, so I learned something new from you. I hope one does not have to be Greek to practice philotimo.

    1. Barbara, you definitely don’t need to be Greek to practice philotimo! It’s for everyone! Thanks for reading. Have a great week!

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