Philotimo Lost in Translation – BALKAN NEWS MAGAZINE

Philotimo – The Most Esteemed Vertue of The Greeks


Philotimo – Φιλότιμο – a Greek word, that since the time of the ancient Greek Philosophers, has remained untranslatable. This doesn’t mean that the word can’t be explained or that the feeling of it, the essence of it can’t be described.

Philotimo is a noun and translates literally as “A friend of honour” or a “Lover of honour”Broken into two parts it is:”Philos”- Friend and “Timi”- Honour.

Philotimo is the highest of Greek virtues, is an amalgam of virtues;
Honour, Integrity, Duty, Pride, Dignity, Courage.


Dionysios Solomos, the author of the Greek national  anthem, or Hymn to Freedom – Ύμνος εις την ελευθερίαν”-  the Greek Hymn to Liberty.In ancient Greece the worst thing that could happen to a man, was to lose his honesty, his honour, his philotimo.


Any man accused of this, was judged by six thousand Athenians, if the six thousand voted and if a man was dishonourable, he was thrown out of Athens, out of society, and he lost all his civic rights.

It was far worse, than being accused of theft, or murder! Today, in Greece, if someone acts inappropriately, they are likely to be asked – “How could you act that way? Have you lost your philotimo?”


Plato, Greek philosopher

Philotomo, was used profusely in Hellenistic literature. In early writings, it was actually given a negative sense, by the philosopher, Plato, in his work – The Republic.

Plato used the word philotimo ironically, insinuating, that the love of honour and pride, or distinction vigour, strength and ambition, was akin to being prodigal, lavish and conceited.

Since the emergence of Christianity, philotimo has been known as a good, positive word, which appears at least three times in the New Testament, written by the Apostle Paul, a native Greek speaker, well educated in Greek literature.


Greek Courage & The Greek revolution . War of Independence. 1821
The most prominent of Greek philosophers, have written about philotimo –


“If a man lacked most virtues, but had unconditional courage, he will be saved”


“You will never do anything in this world without courage.It is the greatest thing next to honour”


“All the gold which is under or upon the Earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue


Maybe the philosopher Thales of Miletus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from Miletus, in Asia Minor, and one of the Seven Sages of Greece, best describes, what philotimo means; “Philotimo is part of the essence of being Greek. “Philotimo to the Greek is like breathing. A Greek is not a Greek without it. He might as well not be alive.”


Pride: A Greek man from Crete, in traditional Greek Cretan costume.

Philotimo is not only a trait to be admired, It is expected, it is an ideal, a concept, a lifestyle. Philotimo is pride in oneself, family and the community.

Philotimo is respecting others, helping others, not because there might be something in it for you, but because you have a duty to do the right thing.

It is philotimo, which kept the close-knit Greek community, strong for thousands of years.

During WWII, strong bonds were formed, which still exist. Locals risked their own lives, without expecting anything in return, sheltering Australian and British soldiers, in Nazi-occupied Crete.


What the World thinks about The Greeks

Here are my thoughts on Philotimo –

It is the pride of the Greek man, I do think that this is more of a male trait, the pride in his country, the love for his country, the pride in himself. His hospitality, to help people, to open his house to people. He will fight to the death for his family, for Greece.

I remember touring Crete with my Father

On a quiet country road, an elderly gentleman, waved us down with his walking stick.

We stopped the car, he approached and asked the time, yes, he stopped us just to ask the time, but then he told us he lived nearby, would we like to come and have lunch with him and his family.

Sadly, we had to decline this impromptu invitation, from this wonderful Cretan character, we were on a tight schedule, but had we accepted, he would have made us feel like members of his family.

It was his duty, his honour to do this.

This is philotimo.

A word from Crete: Kopiaste, is known all over Greece.

It means sitting down, when told by the Greeks, it means, welcome, come in, join us, have something to eat!

I was a stranger here in Greece forty years ago, but I was accepted, I was looked after. After being here for only a few months, my husband went to do his national service.

I was a bit worried about being on my own, with not much understanding of the Greek language. I shouldn’t have worried, I never had a minute to myself.

I was invited out for meals, for coffee, into peoples homes. Any of them that had relatives or friends over from America, Canada and Australia, came to find me, so that I could meet them, speak my own language, they didn’t want me to feel alone.

They did it for me, but mostly, I think they did it for my husband, they were showing their  philotimo to him, as his friends and family, it was their duty.


Duty – Tsolias, guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

When trying to define Philotimo, there is something more, something with no name, something magical. Sophocles the philosopher said – “The meaning of philotimo remains a mystery”

Melina Mercouri said – “Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. In South America they throw flowers to you. In Greece the Greeks throw themselves ”


Melina Mercuri – Greek actress and politician
So, what is philotimo? Philotimo is Greekness. Greekness is unique, it is what makes a Greek a Greek. Have you ever thought ” Is there a word for that?” or, are you fascinated by how different  cultures express themselves?

The novelist Salman Rushdie, wrote in his novel “Shame” – 

“To unlock a society, first look at its untranslatable words.”

This little treasure of a book – They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases – which does exactly that!