This post strays a bit afield from the normal subject matter of PanaceaChronicles, but I feel strongly about what is happening to one of the countries I love most – Greece. We are already hearing a lot of “experts” giving us their opinion of this and that aspect of the Greek crisis, and there is a lot of pontificating about how the Greeks are this way or that way. In the almost two years that I have been writing this blog I have come to know that my readers are fair-minded, thoughtful people and so I want to offer an idea that explains a lot about what is going on, and what will almost certainly come to pass in Greece. You will probably never hear about Philotimo in the mass media, but it is a concept that holds the key to the future of the Greek people and the core reason why they will survive the attack of the predatory multinational banks and the hostile governments of Northern Europe. (This passage is from my book “Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life In Greece“, if you want to learn more about the real Greece behind the superficial headlines.)
If you were to ask a Greek what he means by honor he would certainly reply by introducing you to the word philotimo – feel -OHT-ee-moh. Quite literally philotimo means a love of worth or honor. It means being honest, respectful, and moral. Philotimo knows no barriers of class or education; anyone can and should have it and anyone can lose it.
None of these explanations, however, tell you how Greek philotimo differs from an American’s own sense of honor and self-esteem, nor do they explain how you get philotimo or how you lose it. A more useful explanation for foreigners may be that Greek honor depends on observing a moral code that is always linked to appropriate group behavior. The key words here are “group” and “appropriate.”
It is action within the group that bestows honor on an individual. It is public behavior, not private moral dilemmas and decisions that count. The honor that you protect and exemplify is the family honor (or the parea honor or the national honor). Honor is rarely, if ever, a purely individual matter. Moreover, it is the group, not oneself, that judges honor. With public opinion as its sounding board, honor becomes largely a matter of a good reputation. Pose for a Greek the old conundrum “If a tree fell in the forest and no one heard it, would it make a sound?” and he will probably answer a resounding “No”’ because in his value system an action unobserved or unacknowledged by the community has no moral context. It is neither honorable nor dishonorable. It is merely neutral. In a very real sense, the appearance is the reality insofar as honor is concerned.
The other key word in defining philotimo is “appropriate,” by which is meant “consistent with culturally defined roles.” These roles, as you have already seen, have traditionally been determined by sex-related concepts and actions. Women traditionally exemplified family honor by their sexual modesty; men, by their manliness. These two concepts were exclusive, but complementary.
How does one achieve philotimo? A Greek might tell you that you’re either born with it or you’re not. Certainly coming from an honorable family helps. But beyond that “you have to be carefully taught,” as the old song says. Since behaving honorably is primarily a matter of good form there is careful attention paid to early role modeling, parental exhortation, and constant exposure of children to family and friends as they indulge in a favorite pastime: criticism and gossip about other people.
Another way of achieving a sense of self-esteem focuses on prestige in a worldly or material sense. Prestige has less to do with conformity to social roles and more with the acquisition of wealth and power, the conspicuous display of the symbols, of wealth and power, and a generous amount of self-praise.
Most Americans can relate to the drives toward wealth and power, as well as the need to display their symbols. Those are games they’re into also. But some may have trouble with the forms taken by display and self-promotion among the Greeks.
Those raised under the shadow of the WASP credo feel that it is most fitting for a person to behave modestly, speak diffidently, dress “down”, entertain casually, and forego blowing one’s own horn, so long as others take note of one’s worth. Greeks, however, definitely don’t do things that way. A politician is expected to indulge in inflated rhetoric. A member of an organization is expected to “toot his own horn” at meetings. A host is expected to entertain lavishly; hospitality thus proffered advertises not only one’s material good fortune, but also one’s unrivaled generosity. A woman – and a man, too – is expected to dress well, preferably in the latest fashion. Our classic Yankee model of the Boston Brahmin wearing the same suit or hat for thirty years would be greeted here with ridicule and contempt.
If some of the Greek ways of accruing honor seem odd to us as Americans, so will some of the strategies to avoid shame – the other side of the coin. Avoiding blame, for example, may seem strange to those brought up on the notion that honorable human beings always admit their faults, mistakes, and failures. Only being in love, as Erich Segal fans know, condones never having to say “I’m sorry.” Greeks, by contrast, do not consider it irresponsible to make excuses for what someone else may perceive as a shortcoming. It is but another way of protecting one’s self-esteem.
Once you understand that in Greece its O.K. to avoid blame by any means and O.K. to never ever say “I’m sorry,” then a lot of phenomena become clearer. Carried to extremes, however, this tendency to make excuses leads to a search for scapegoats. On the national level, it takes the form of what David Holden calls “the passionate addiction to conspiratorial interpretation of events.” In this regard, it seems to the foreigner that no election occurs but what the loser cries foul play; no summer fire breaks out but what one political group blames another for setting it; no crisis in government occurs but what Soviet imperialism, international Communism, monarchism, or the CIA are not held responsible. And, ironically enough, after a few years in this atmosphere, almost everyone – Greek and foreigner alike – finds himself playing the national game of “suspect your neighbor.”