A Culture in Transition: The Changing Nature of Philotimo

Prof. Simeon Magliveras delivering a guest lecture

Prof. Simeon Magliveras delivering a guest lecture

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In the second week of the course, Prof. Simeon Magliveras gave a guest lecture on the Greek concept of philotimo and how it relates to patron-client relations in Greece. Philotimo literally means “friend of honor,” and has long served as a moral code for Greeks, governing their behavior and social relationships. As with most “honor cultures,” Greece had long been more collectivistic than individualistic. Collectivistic cultures are characterized by a relational conception of the self and emphasize obligations to others over individual rights. However, with integration into the European Union and increasingly globalization, Greece—like many places in the world—has gradually become more individualistic, and is truly a culture in transition.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in changing understandings of philotimo. With respect to the patron-client relations (e.g., politicians and their constituents) that Prof. Magliveras addressed, the obligation to promote client interests as a matter of personal and family honor has been replaced by more materialistic, self-interested motivations (which isn’t to say that political corruption is new in Greece, or anywhere for that matter!). At the level of personal experience, philotimo is now understood more as a matter of honesty and forthrightness that, when absent, reflects poorly on an individual’s character but no longer has the same potential for shaming his or her family (which was once a powerful disincentive).

As with all changes, this transformation of a central Greek social and psychological concept has had both positive and negative consequences. As the “honor culture” fades away, women have been accorded more freedom and agency, since they were traditionally defined primarily by their power to bring shame to their family and community if they strayed too far from their prescribed roles as first virgins and then mothers (think about the horrible ending of “Zorba the Greek”!). At the same time, some of the (less repressive) social moorings that philotimo provided have also gone the way of the drachma. For example, one of the articles we read for class reported on a multinational study of personality that found a cluster of traits apparently unique to Greece, one characterized by social uncertainty paired with competition.

If this trip has taught us/reinforced anything, it’s that no culture has found the best solution for all the shared social and psychological challenges we face as humans. We Americans tend to be quite fond of the “politeness culture” (though we constantly bemoan its decline) that serves as social glue for our very individualistic populace. But Greeks (and many others) find our version of politeness somewhat inauthentic, and they appear to be a culture in search of a new animating social force to replace what they have lost and what they mourn.

The Perfect Day in Greece?

2014-06-07 11.34.27 2014-06-07 12.38.31 2014-06-07 12.56.15 2014-06-07 15.21.35 2014-06-07 15.54.47Several years ago, I traveled with family members to Ireland. While much of the trip did not live up to expectations, we had one glorious, fairly impromptu day of touring on the Ring of Berea in County Cork that thereafter became known as “The Perfect Day in Ireland,” or PDI for short. This day—which included kayaking with seals, meandering through the ruins of two castles that were privately owned and which we had all to ourselves aside from grazing cows, a harrowing (but well-worth-it) gondola ride to tiny Dursey Island, and then tea and scones at small café overlooking Kenmare Bay—has long set a travel standard for me (and a very high bar). On Saturday, June 12 our outing to Mycenae, Nafplio, and Epidaurus came very close to matching that legendary day. From the moment I hopped aboard our little touring van, I had a smile on my face and a premonition of good things to come.

Although we were thrilled with our Delphi tour guide, she had nothing on Hera, who spent the entire day with us, imparting historical, cultural, political, economic, and geographic knowledge from our pick up at 8:00 AM (well, there were some stragglers) to drop off at 6:30 PM. Our morning started with coffee near the impressive Corinth Canal. Snapping a picture of two from the crowded little foot bridge is obligatory, except perhaps for those who are squeamish about heights. We arrived at the historic site of Mycenae, a citadel that Agamemnon once called home. Although the ruins are somewhat limited, the panoramic views of mountains and see were absolutely stunning, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather. We concluded our tour of Mycenae to a very impressive tomb (for whom no one really knows) dating to about 1,250 BCE.

Then it was on to Napflio, which served as the capital of the Hellenic Republic during the Greek War of Independence, for a walking tour and lunch. The city features an impressive fortress on top of a very high hill, and a charming “old quarter” with architecture mostly dating from the revolutionary period (early 19th Century). After walking around a little, we headed for Vasili’s Taverna, where a traditional Greek meal awaited us, including Greek salad, spanakopita, and oven-baked lamb. An hour and a half and several courses later, we were all happy, relaxed, and satisfied, if not a little stuffed. But when Hera suggested that we visit an authentic Italian gelateria nearby, somehow we all managed to find room for (a second) dessert!

Our final stop was at the theater and healing center at Epidaurus. The theater is still in use, and, although the stage itself was destroyed long ago, the stadium seating is largely intact. The steps to the top offered quite a work out, and the last stretch was a little too steep for some folks, but the views from the top were worth it. At the theater, we met some very well-behaved junior high students from New York—I was very impressed by the teachers and chaperones who brought 12- and 13-year-olds across the Atlantic! The ruins of the Healing Center were of particular significance to the Nursing Students, who had been looking forward to this portion of the trip for months. Given it was a long day spent largely on our feet, the long ride back to Aghia Paraskevi was mostly spent napping. We all returned “home” (i.e., to the residences) in agreement that this had been one of our very best days here. This is my third visit to Greece, and it certainly ranks among my favorite days.

Trip to Delphi: What a Difference a Good Tour Guide Makes!

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On our second Saturday in Athens, we toured the Acropolis, the most popular tourist destination in Athens, if not in all of Greece, and one of the most important archeological sites in the world. Given that this was my third guided tour of the site, you might think that I viewed the outing as an obligation more than as an exciting new adventure. That was certainly the case on my second visit, particularly since our tour guide was a holdover from the first visit. As knowledgeable, passionate, and dynamic as she was, I just assumed that she was mostly following a well-worn script. I couldn’t have been more wrong. So wide and deep was her knowledge of the Acropolis, and of Greek history more generally, that I’m not sure she repeated material from the first tour even once.

Accordingly, I had high expectation for the third visit, this time with a new tour guide. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I certainly don’t want to disparage the qualifications of this individual, and it may have been a matter of English proficiency (or lack thereof), but the students and I agreed that she didn’t seem particularly knowledgeable, passionate, or dynamic. After we passed some other English-speaking tour groups, some of the students verbalized the question that I was asking myself: Can’t we join one of those groups?! I was disappointed for the students and frankly annoyed that they weren’t able to have the same high-quality, engaging educational experience that I had during my first two visits.

Fast-forward to this past Saturday, when we embarked on an all-day outing to Delphi and nearby Arachova village. We were all a bit apprehensive given our previous experience, though we were fortunately assigned a different tour guide. After a two-and-a-half hour bus ride, we arrived at the ancient home of the Oracle, which according to myth was selected by Zeus as the center, or navel, of mother earth (the egg-shaped object we are touching in the photo is a representation of a navel, a replica of one the priestesses were believed to use as a sort of tactile crystal ball). As the legend goes, Delphi was later established a sacred site by Apollo, to atone for his slaying of Python, the dragon that protected the site; as the site’s prophetic deity, it was Apollo that the priestesses served. Upon our arrival, we were immediately greeted by Ageliki, who quickly ushered us off the bus and made a few good-natured jokes at our expense. I knew immediately that I liked her (and I think the students concurred).

Over the course of the next two hours, Ageliki led us through the site itself and the associated museum, stopping only at the most important artifacts and ruins, while nevertheless providing a comprehensive account of the site’s history and drawing a rich portrait of what daily life at Delphi (or rather monthly life, as the priestesses only worked once a month!) might have been like. Her expertise, wit, and good sense of how much information is enough reminded me what a difference a good tour guide can make!