A Stubborn Love of Honor

Eighty years ago, when Mussolini attacked Greece, the people—deeply offended—simply fought back. Their response followed Plato’s definition of a situation wherein the desire to win a fight is fueled by the desire to have one’s honor restored. Plato called it philotimo, the literal translation being “love of honor.” I remember the word and the war quite clearly: my mother’s four brothers and my father going off to the front, the church bells ringing after each victory, a neighbor screaming in agony at the news of her son’s having been killed in action.

It’s funny how, although I had just turned four, the war that began in late October 1940 remains so clear in my memory. I suppose monumental events outweigh, say, a black actor slapping a black comedian during the Oscars, especially when the honor of one’s family and one’s country are involved. The Albanian border that the Italians had crossed into Greece is only a six-hour drive from Athens; hence the fighting felt close from the start.

My mother’s oldest brother, an Olympic hurdler, was among the first to be mentioned in war dispatches; he had killed an Italian “Alpini” high up on a snowy slope during a bitter winter. The unfortunate Italian stabbed my uncle before he died. I say “unfortunate” because after my uncle shot the Italian dead, he searched his body for identity papers, which revealed that he had just killed a 20-year-old.

Courage is simpler to admire than to define. The notion of courage is obvious and elemental, but it is difficult to interpret in terms of something else. An Athenian speaking to Socrates put it this way: “If someone is willing to stay at his post and fight, you may be sure that he is brave.” Not so fast, said Socrates. Lions are not brave as they lack knowledge of all dangers. Courage, he pointed out, implies that you know the good things in life, for which you must fight courageously, as well as the bad things you must fight against.

The notion of courage obsessed the Ancient Greeks. It was associated with manliness, a word that must be anathema to today’s feminists, but in view of my age and background, I will use it to my dying day. In Homer, bravery was the hallmark of nobles, heroes, and demigods like Achilles, who were ruthless in battle but scrupulous about their personal honor.

I was brought up learning about honor-obsessed men, paragons of male strength, endurance, and patrician manners. That last criterion, manners, is important—which is why the contests between the muscular behemoths in the NBA and NFL don’t inspire like the deeds of the Homeric heroes. On the other hand, honor-obsessed warriors were often prisoners of their own self-esteem. Excuses, however valid, did not remove blame. Sophocles, the most Homeric of tragedians, illustrates this plight of inherited guilt and self-punishment most poignantly in dealing with Oedipus.

I’m bringing all this up because I’m cruising the Greek islands and reading the Greek texts. And because a man creating a school curriculum in the U.S. recently asked me whom I considered to be the three greatest Americans. Rather than naming any Founding Fathers, who were born Englishmen, I named three born-and-bred Americans: Robert E. Lee, Charles Lindbergh, and Ernest Hemingway. The man was not best pleased…

Never mind. Today’s Greece does not have much to brag about, as far as heroics are concerned, because we have modernized—a horror word—and have gone commercial. But, unlike in America, we Greeks still follow Socrates’ thinking that virtue is indivisible. In other words, we believe that one cannot be a pious murderer, an honest thief, or even a heroic outlaw. In America, however, there are statues heroizing the career criminal and drug dealer George Floyd, while statues of Lee gather dust in some depot. I wonder what Socrates or Plato would think of such outrages.

Back in 1940, Greek troops were ordered to form a purely defensive front, but once the Italians attacked, philotimo took over, and we counterattacked, driving Mussolini’s army back 150 miles into Albania and capturing town after Albanian town. A joke at the time went that soon there would have to be signs on the French border asking the Greek Army to stop pushing west before they marched into France. That was a joke too far for Il Duce.

In April 1941, Hitler came to his rescue and attacked us. Fighting against both Axis powers, we still managed to last six weeks, far longer than Holland, Belgium, Norway, even mighty France itself. My four uncles came back, but the youngest died from his wounds. Old Dad returned and shut down his factories to spite the Germans.

Perhaps it would have been wiser to allow the Italians to cross Greece and attack the British in the Middle East. Perhaps it was not wise for Greece to resist the Wehrmacht. But would Socrates and Plato been proud that we chose to fight? That answer is a resounding yes. Which is good enough for me.

Image: Greek soldier sitting on a captured Italian tankette CV-33, during the Battle of Elaia-Kalamas, Greco-Italian War, 1940 (Athens War Museum / via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

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