April 30, 2010

Philotimo: Greece's Most Valuable Commodity

[Written over a month ago, but still worth a read. - J.S.]

Christopher Tripoulas
March 20, 2010
The National Herald

Kudos to whoever wrote President Barack Obama's speech at the White House's Greek Independence Day celebration last week. (For video and text of his full remarks, see TNH's website). It was right on the money, so to speak, with the central theme revolving around the Greek virtue of "philotimo."

A time honored tradition, philotimo represents a unique characteristic of the Greek mindset. Many of the ills plaguing Greece and the Hellenic Diaspora today could arguably be attributed to a present day shortage of that all-important philotimo.

How else could can one explain the fact that there are so many rich Greeks living in such a fiscally impoverished country? How else does one explain the fact that Greece reportedly ranks second in Europe in imports of Porsches, or the fact that it recently okayed a deal with a German company to accept the submarine "Papanikolis," which it been blocking since 2006 on the grounds that it was defective; and that this decision came just days after German politicians and media began calling for Greece to start selling its islands to pay off debts to creditors! And what of the fact that there are so many wealthy Greeks in America - including at least six in Forbes magazine's latest list of America's richest 400 - but no official fund to support Greek schools and Greek language education? Is this altogether unrelated to the absence of philotimo among the community's leadership, or the rest of us who simply follow their lead? Or perhaps the fact that Leadership 100 routinely gives millions to the Archdiocese's Theological School in Brookline, but won't set any curriculum standards demanding of graduates even an elementary understanding of the Greek language. Even this newfound sensitivity to flus, germs, and other infectious diseases when receiving the sacrament of holy communion has put a dent in our Orthodox philotimo. It used to be that even the most unchurched Orthodox Christian could at least boast about the faith's adherence to the longstanding tradition of sharing the common cup - a practice that has withstood outbreaks and epidemics of tuberculosis, leprocy, plague, etc. for approximately two thousand years.

Sadly, our people's virtues (the richest language in the world, philotimo, group solidarity,...) seem much more susceptible to the corrosive effects of time than our shortcomings (civil strife, gossip, stubborness,...).

It is almost as if there is something incompatible with prosperity and philotimo. Most of the honorable accomplishments made by Greeks seem to be achieved during periods of dire economic hardship.

Consider an interesting story from the homeland, fitting for the coming celebration of Greek Independence. The particulars of the story vary from speaker to speaker, but the message is clear. Sometime during the Greek War of Independence - most likely 1826 - when the revolution was in great need of finances, Georgios Gennadios, a teacher of Greece, gave an extremely powerful and moving speech in the city of Nafplio. The speech affected the locals so much that even the poorest woman, known as "Psorokostaina," gave up her lone possessions - a silver ring and a coin - for the cause of the revolution. The villagers, moved by her enormous philotimo, all started contributing as well.

The word "Psorokostaina" (literally meaning the "mangy wife of Kostas") went on to become a synonym for the poor, small, fledgling nation that was Greece. Although the term came to have a derogatory meaning, its origins were altruistic. The real "Psorokostaina" - Panoria Aivalioti - despite her poverty, used to take in orphans, and later volunteer her services caring for them when an orphanage was built in her area.

Another version of her story goes that when Greece's first Governor Ioannis Kapodistrias saw her begging in the streets, he went to offer her some money. As soon as she realized who he was, she instead offered all the money that she had collected to him to aid Greece's troubled finances. (Yes, modern Greece has been in debt since its founding, sigh)

While destitute in material goods, Psorokostaina was rich in philotimo. And like her, Mother Greece, as well, was able to overcome all the hardships that history had in store for her, through philotimo. In fact, it seems that during the country's most challenging times, the people rise to the occasion and their philotimo leads them to do great and heroic things.

Only a few short years after the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922, when destitute Greece had to take in over 1 million refugees, the famous 'generation of the 1930s' was about to provide Greece and its tattered people with a spiritual reawakening whose effects are still being felt today. Similarly, following the Nazi occupation that left the country in ruins, nobelists like Elytis and Seferis began to spring up.

Greece has known poverty all its life. If anything, the current financial crisis may purge some of the hubris and nouveaux riche decadence, and help the people remember that economic hardship is sometimes a springboard for spiritual profit.

It's not more loans or bailouts that we Greeks need, it's rediscovering our philotimo.