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Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania

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Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania

This article is about the society at the University of Pennsylvania. For others by this name, see #Other Philomathean Societies.
The Philomathean Society
College Hall of the University of Pennsylvania is inhabited exclusively by the Philomathean Society.
Motto Sic itur ad astra
Formation 1813
Type Student society
Literary society
Location Philadelphia
Moderator Michael-David Mangini

The Philomathean Society /ˌflˈmθiən/ of the University of Pennsylvania is a collegiate literary society, the oldest student group at the university,[1][2][3] and a claimant to the title of the oldest continuously-existing literary society in the United States.[note 1] Founded in 1813, its goal is "to promote the learning of its members and to increase the academic prestige of the University."[4][5] Philomathean is derived from the Greek philomath, which means "a lover of learning." The motto of the Philomathean Society is sic itur ad astra (Latin for "thus we proceed to the stars").


"Philo," as members affectionately refer to the Society, was founded October 2, 1813, by all thirteen members of the junior class, its original purpose being "the advancement of learning;" a counterweight and complement to Penn's academic coursework.[6] In the first meeting, the title of Moderator was chosen for the Society’s presiding officer; two Censores Morum were appointed by the third meeting, who were given the responsibility, maintained to this day, of fining members for various real or imaginary infractions.[7] Philo’s first meeting was on Friday night, at which time it would remain up to the present day. Minutes of the Society’s Meetings have been kept (relatively) faithfully in large leather-bound volumes since the first Meeting. Members still sign the Recorder’s Roll upon their initiation into the Society, following the tradition started by the founders. Early meetings were dominated by spirited debates and literary exercises where members would present original research, essays, or literary productions; both practices have continued through the present day.

When the University of Pennsylvania moved its campus from Ninth Street to West Philadelphia in 1872, four rooms at the top of College Hall were specifically built for the use of the Society and its rival Zelosophic Society.[7] After the first collapse of the Zelosophic Society in 1872, the former Zelo rooms reverted to Philo.[8]

The Society is credited with helping to found entire academic departments, including American Civilization,[1] Comparative Literature, and History of Science, and many campus groups and publications, including the Daily Pennsylvanian and the Mask and Wig Club.[9]

In 1858, the Society published the first complete English translation of the Rosetta Stone. The work was performed solely by three undergraduate members, Charles R Hale, S Huntington Jones, and Henry Morton. The translation quickly sold out two editions, and was internationally hailed as a monumental work of scholarship.[10] In 1988, the British Museum bestowed the honor of including the Philomathean Rosetta Stone Report in its select bibliography of the most important works ever published on the Rosetta Stone. The Philomathean Society maintains a full-scale cast of the stone in its meeting room, along with several original lithograph prints of the report.[11]

In its internal governance, Philo reflected the progressivism of the early twentieth century by being, in 1916, the first Penn group to require its members take an oath not to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, and religion; in 1948 the Society voted to admit women as full members, prompting the headline “Philo hits rock bottom, admits women”.[12] The Society vehemently defended the decision more than 25 years before women were admitted to the University proper.

In 1927, overcrowding at the University led the Philos to agree to vacate their space in College Hall in exchange for temporary quarters in Houston Hall until more class space could be found. Houston Hall was not an ideal location: space constraints and building policy, especially the 11.30pm curfew, severely limited Philo traditions. As a result, Society membership decreased, a trend further exacebated by the oubreak of World War II, when Houston Hall was taken over by the US Navy of part of its officer training programme, and former Philo rooms were requisitioned for storage. The Society had dwindled to a single member, one Hilary Putnam, who tried to preserve the Philomathean customs and arranged informal meetings in Members’ apartments. After the war, the Society held more formal Meetings and grew in membership, but it was not until 1951, under the direction of Moderator Charles Fine Ludwig, that the old pre-war customs were revived. Ludwig re-acquired the Philomathean archives and reintroduced academic attire, consistent meeting minutes, a regular literary exercise, and an official lecture series, among many other Philomathean customs. Ludwig also established the tradition of Philo’s graduates, or “senior members“, participating in the Society’s activities and taking an ongoing interest in the welfare of the Society.[12]

Finally, in 1967, after a determined campaign of lobbying University administrators for permission and senior members for donations, the Society returned to its beloved Philomathean Halls on the fourth floor of College Hall, where it has remained (with brief absences for maintenance) until the present day.


Membership in the Society is by application; all currently enrolled undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania are eligible for membership except in their final semester of study. Applications consist of three parts: an interview with four to five members of the Society, a presentation on a topic of the applicant's choice to a General Meeting of the Society, and a submission of creative or critical value. Members are elected once each academic semester by the Society at large.[13]

The society is governed by a Cabinet of nine officers: the Moderator, First Censor, Second Censor, Scriba, Recorder, Treasurer, Librarian, Archivist, and Director of the Annual Oration. The first four, often termed "the Bench" in reference to their position during meetings, are attired in full academic gown at all society meetings, held eight times per semester on the top floor of College Hall, on Friday evenings.

Present activities

In addition to its eight General Meetings, Philo also has regular afternoon teas with professors and sponsors other academic events such as lecture series, a film series, and other events. Most of these events center around inviting one or more Penn professors to the Halls to present on their research. Society members are given freedom to plan events fitting their personal and intellectual interests, which has led to events as varied as art exhibitions, chamber concerts, math olympiads, and the Poe Vespertil.[14]

The Society has published several books, including, most recently, The Philomathean Society Anthology of Poetry in Honor of Daniel Hoffman — Hoffman, a former professor at the university and a distinguished poet in his own right, had brought many renowned poets and authors, including John Updike, Seamus Heaney, Joyce Carol Oates, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, to read in the Philomathean Halls.

On 16 February 2010, Philo hosted a public screening of the 1971 internationally-televised debate between philosophers Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Philo's was the first public screening of the debate in the world since the original 1971 broadcast. Debate topics included human nature, justice, creativity and war.[15]

Philo publishes Philomel, a literary magazine.[16]

Annual orations

Every year, Philo presents a public annual oration to the University, given by a prominent figure in the arts and sciences. Recent orations have included the following:

  • On 14 March 2013, Philo hosted
  • On 6 April 2011, Philo hosted noted environmental historian Jared Diamond. Diamond presented to more than 1,000 members of the University and local community on the role of water in the collapse or survival of societies, building on his influential book, Collapse.[18]
  • On 3 March 2010, Philo hosted feminism, gender, and sexuality theorist Judith Butler. Butler presented for approximately two hours on "Performativity and Precarity" to more than 400 University of Pennsylvania students and faculty.[19]
  • On 23 April 2009, Philo hosted American literary theorist, legal scholar, and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish. Drawing from his then-unpublished book Save The World On Your Own Time, Fish argued that professors' relationships with students should be strictly academic in nature.[20]
  • On 16 April 2008, Philo hosted philosopher Daniel Dennett, who spoke on the role of cultural evolution.[21]
  • On 7 April 2004, Philo hosted playwright Arthur Miller. Miller delivered scenes from his satirical work Resurrection Blues to a more than 800 Penn students, faculty, and staff at Penn's Zellerbach Theater.[23][24]
  • On 11 February 2003, Philo hosted novelist and essayist Salman Rushdie. Rushdie discussed many of his literary works, political views, and personal anecdotes in Penn's Irvine Auditorium.[25]
  • On 10 April 2002, Philo hosted journalist Joe Klein, author of Primary Colors, the once-anonymously-authored investigation into the 1992 Democratic Party Presidential Primary. Klein discussed Bill Clinton's presidency and contemporary American politics.[26]
  • On 1 May 2001, Philo hosted physicist Brian Greene. Green explained general relativity, quantum mechanics, and super-string theory to approximately 400 Penn students, faculty, and staff in Penn's Houston Hall.[27]
  • On 14 April 1994, Philo hosted author, social critic, and feminist Camille Paglia. Paglia discussed free speech and criticized the academic establishment in front of approximately 500 attendees.[28]
  • On 17 April 1990, Philo hosted author Joyce Carol Oates. Oates read one of her own short stories, Family, and discussed its unconventional structure.[29]

Notable Philomatheans

Philomatheans have included at least seven United States Representatives, three United States Senators, two ambassadors, and the founder of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Daily Pennsylvanian, Mask and Wig and the Pennsylvania Punch Bowl. Prominent Philomatheans have included:[30]

Other Philomathean Societies

Several other societies share the Philomathean name. Among them are:

Phi Mu, the second oldest secret organization for women, was originally founded as "The Philomathean Society" in 1852 at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.

New York University's Philomathean Society was founded in 1832.

Phillips Academy's Philomathean Society, founded in 1825, is the oldest high school debate society in the nation.

Catawba College of Salisbury, NC also charters a Philomathean Society. The group was created in 1851, after the founding of the college, and served as a society for debate and fellowship for young men. Soon after its inception, the Philomathean Society began a library in their home because the college did not yet have one. In the early 1900s the society became inactive, but was resurrected in 1991 to serve in a different capacity. The all-male society now serves as a group dedicated to "Scholarship, Culture, Character, and Service", the motto of the College. Membership is by invitation only.

Philomathean Literary Society (Erskine College) was established in 1842. A number of South Carolinian politicians, theologians, lawyers, writers, and thinkers were inducted as members or honored with membership. It is one of Erskine College's four literary societies today.

Founded in 1849, the University of Virginia's Philomathean Society formed as a splinter group from the Washington Literary Society and Debating Union.

Ouachita College, now Ouachita Baptist University, had a Philomathean Literary Society that existed from 1888 to 1931. The Philos and their rivals, the Hermesians, were the result in a split in the college's original literary society, the Adelphian Circle, formed in 1886.

Other historic collegiate literary societies



External links

  • Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania
  • Philomathean Society of the Italy
  • Daily Pennsylvanian Article about Philomathean Tea with Gov. Rendell
  • The Pennsylvania Gazette Article about Philo
  • "Philo. Society reigns as Penn's oldest student group" from the Daily Pennsylvanian
  • Hood, Clifton R. "Philomathean Society: Foundation as the University's First Student Organization, 1813." University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania, 2006.
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