Aegean to Appleton: The Golden Word

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Note: For the sake of facilitating a discussion on morality, the conviction that moral responsibility does not exist, as posited by hard determinism, does not apply to this article.

In perceiving morality strictly as a set of social norms, we lose track of a complex array of virtues that are related to moral theory. However, a word that exists solely in Greek avoids this kind of confusion by encompassing the highest of virtues that can be attained by a human being. The word I am referring to is philotimo. In its purest of forms, the word philotimo means a “love of honor.” It describes a life of gratitude and appreciation towards one’s family and one’s role in the world, while also promoting active engagement in the betterment of society.

The ancient Greek philosopher Thales once wrote that, “philotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.” In this article, I will investigate the meaning of this word by examining a small, yet very significant case: the treatment of refugees by the people of the Greek island of Lesbos.

Lesbos—the birthplace of several famous Greeks, including the Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis—is located in the northeastern Aegean Sea near mainland Turkey. The short distance between Lesbos and the Turkish coast has facilitated the travels of refugees who wish to reach Europe. Of the 900,000 refugees who entered Europe in 2015, most were well-received by the people of Lesbos. Groups of fishermen from Lesbos and several other Aegean Islands gave up their work and rushed to help the local port authorities rescue as many refugees as possible. In addition, numerous Greek islanders opened their homes to the dispossessed, provided food to the malnourished, and cared for the sick and injured.

The Greek economy is in a state of decay. The country’s political backbone is comprised mostly of aged, conservative politicians who keep taking advantage of the underprivileged to benefit themselves. Yet, despite all this sociopolitical turmoil and financial mayhem, a large portion of the Greek populace responded with tremendous humanism and self-sacrifice to the victims of the refugee crisis. Through their exemplary behavior, one will recognize the true value of philotimo.

Unlike other forms of humanistic ideology, philotimo truly encapsulates the essence of empathy. An individual is considered to be philotimos when they are an eager citizen of the world, striving to improve themselves and their society. Due to their courageous and humane response, there is an international push to nominate the Greek islanders who have been on the frontline of the refugee crisis for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Philotimo is a truly invaluable word. It urges individual members of society to act in favor of their community while also expressing their individuality. As seen in the example above, philotimo encourages one to be empathetic towards one’s peers no matter what their own situation may be. I believe that this moral concept can be incorporated in modern societies around the world as a means of cultivating a general sense of duty towards our fellow humans.