Time for others

By coincidence, after I’d seen many reports of people going the extra mile during the latest terrorist outrages, I saw an article in the Beeb’s travel pages about a Greek word nobody, even Greeks, can translate satisfactorily. It’s ‘philotimo’ (from the ancient Greek φιλοτιμία which appears in Homer and Pindar). Down the centuries the meaning segued from ‘ambition to impress’ to ‘altruism’ and ‘doing the right thing’ and these days seems to hover somewhere in between those apparently contradictory concepts.

Did the ancients see a connection there, I wonder. Did they reckon acts of kindness might be motivated, perhaps subconsciously, by a desire to appear virtuous, a wish to deserve praise?

Anyway, see what you think! Just askin’.


Author: janus

I'm back......and front - in sunny Sussex-by-the-sea

7 thoughts on “Time for others”

  1. I read Chinese history and philosophy. In the Chinese tradition, sincerity was not necessary, but benevolence was fundamental. Even if it was only to keep up appearances, the Chinese philosophers argued that behaving morally and for the best interests of humanity was duty. Erasmus, later on, made a similar argument. If it is for the greater good, then it is irrelevant if it is for self-serving ends, be they spiritual or temporal. Luther was more caught up on the fine points of sincerity and doing so with no real personal interest. His, unfortunately, has become far too popular an argument.

  2. I suppose ‘noblesse oblige’ carries some of the same connotations as your Chinese example. Is sincerity overrated? Not sure.

  3. Early on in my career I learnt two things –

    “Enlightened self-interest” and –
    “Sincerity is probably the most important part of your job. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made”

    These would seem to be close relatives of your Greek. 🙂

  4. Janus: China hasn’t had a true aristocracy since the An Lushan Rebellion. The ruling classes were constantly changing. The grandson of a farmer from the provinces could become the highest official, the grandson of a chancellor could become a rag-and-bone man. The maintenance of position relied on following the rules of proper behaviour and benevolence. Chinese dynasties were rarely based on “blue blood”, either. The Ming were founded by a farmer’s son who watched his family starve to death, the Song by a career soldier, the Sui and Tang by mixed-race military officials in a society that did not worship the martial.

  5. Bearsy, yes. Business convention demands the same philotimo. Inevitably ordinary folk will have similar attitudes.

  6. In the Selfish Gene, Dawkins wrote about vampire bats which, having returned to their roost after a night out, shared some of the blood on which they had gorged, with other bats that had not managed to feed successfully. At first glance this may appear to be pure altruism until it was observed that while some bats reciprocated, others did not. Eventually those bats that never reciprocated were rebuffed and generally excluded from the community. ( I am not sure what is the collective noun for bats).Ultimately, the act could be shown not to be altruistic, but self-serving. You scratch my back, I will scratch yours.

    At the risk of offending Boadicea and probably every other member of this site, humanity has taken the idea of so-called altruism to a new level. Many religions preach that by doing good in this world, people will gain a reward in the next. Certainly I was brought up on the philosophy that any ‘genuinely’ charitable act, or act of suffering, would build up, ‘treasure in heaven’. For the most part it worked, though I suspect my pile of treasure has diminished somewhat in the intervening years. Whether you admired them or not, the likes of Mother Teresa and her ilk, make/made sacrifices to bring about what they perceive to be the good of mankind, But their reward is not of this earth!

    Of course introducing the idea of an after life, brings with it not only decent behaviour but intensely evil deeds as witnessed by the acts of the Jihadis. Given that both good and evil acts can be considered non altruistic, since a reward is being sought, I would argue that performing an act, whether good or evil, with the specific purpose of getting to heaven sooner, is less altruistic that one where the main justification is the act and the reward is incidental. So martyrs, whether ‘goodies’ like Janus’s ancestor, or a baddies like those Islamic gooks are essentially more selfish than those who lead a full life but make personal sacrifices along the way.

    I seem to remember that in Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham had one of his characters argue that even soldiers who committed acts of extreme courage did so for selfish reasons. For some it was the glory and for others it was the fear of being considered a coward. I think it may have been coincidence that his protagonist was called Philip. (Phil Carey rather than Phil O’Timo. Geddit?)

    By definition, pure altruism is illogical from an evolutionary perspective. Expending energy and resources on others with no benefit whatsoever to the donor, not even at a group level, is not a good survival mechanism. Of course like many non-beneficial phenotypes (if I have used the word correctly) it will occur in nature, but ultimately it will be bred out.

    So, my question is, why do people donate money to Oxfam and other such faceless institutions with faceless beneficiaries.

  7. Sipu, I find nothing offensive in your comments at all. As to your question, I believe some, if , a not most people give to good causes anonymously out of generosity, the desire to help – without strings as it were.

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