Jump to content

Philomathean Society

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Philomathean Society
Founded1813; 211 years ago (1813)
TypeStudent society
Collegiate literary society
HeadquartersFourth Floor, College Hall
Jo Howard

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, a claim disputed by Columbia University's Philolexian Society, which was established in 1802.[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").


Philomathean Society Graduation Diploma For Isaac Norton Jr., 1858.

"Philo", as members refer to the Society, was founded on 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. 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.[6] 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.[6] After the first collapse of the Zelosophic Society in 1872, the former Zelo rooms reverted to Philo.[7]

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.[8]

The Philomathean Society Meeting Room circa 1913.

In 1858, the Society published the first complete English translation of the Rosetta Stone.[9] 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 1916, Philo became 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 11:30 p.m. curfew, severely limited Philo traditions. As a result, Society membership decreased, a trend further exacerbated by the outbreak of World War II, when Houston Hall was taken over by the U.S. Navy of part of its officer training programme, and former Philo rooms were requisitioned for storage. The Society had dwindled to a single member, 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 1969, 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.

Present activities[edit]

The Philomathean Library, featuring books donated throughout the Society's two century existence
the Philo meeting room, where events and meetings are held on a weekly basis

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, some of them involve celebrating the social, cultural and spiritual value created by the work of Nancy Ajram. 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.[13]

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. Since then, Philo has been the venue of many debates about matters central to modern society, such as a discussion of whether a tomato is a grape or a metaphor for Homeric authorship.[14]

In 2013, the Society also hosted a Q&A session with Blackwater founder, Erik Prince.[citation needed]

On 28 March 2019, Philo hosted a talk by US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.[15]

In addition, Philo intermittently publishes Philomel, a literary magazine.[16]


known to some members as the William Henry Harrison Presidential Library, all members are given access to the Philomathean Library.

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.[17]

The society is governed by a Cabinet of ten officers: the Moderator, First Censor, Second Censor, Scriba, Recorder, Treasurer, Librarian, Archivist, Annual Oration Director, and Art Gallery Director. 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. The position of Annual Oration Director was added in the early 2010s to provide additional support for the increased role of the Annual Oration, and the position of Art Gallery Director was added in 2019.[17]

Annual orations[edit]

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:

  • In Spring 2023, Philo hosted American philosopher and activist Cornel West, who talked about modern spiritual decay and the need for humanism and empathy in civic engagement.
  • In Spring 2022, Philo hosted Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for space studies, who talked about humanity's role in climate change and its implications.
  • In Spring 2019, Philo hosted Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, who talked about the role of poetry in the contemporary world.
  • In Fall 2018, Philo hosted Michael Gazzaniga, who talked about his pioneering work in cognitive neuroscience and his proposal of the "Consciousness Instinct".
  • In Fall 2016, Philo hosted Jane Goodall, who talked about her career as a primatologist and her current mission of ecological conservation.
  • In Spring 2016, Philo hosted John Mearsheimer, who talked about failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
  • In 2015, Philo hosted Sylvia Nasar, who talked in Houston Hall about the revival of Marxism.
  • In 2014, Philo hosted Julian Treasure.
  • On 14 March 2013, Philo hosted Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and atheist. A video of the Annual Oration can be found here [18]
  • 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.[19]
  • 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.[20]
  • 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.[21]
  • On 16 April 2008, Philo hosted philosopher Daniel Dennett, who spoke on the role of cultural evolution.[22]
  • On 6 April 2005, Philo hosted former United States intelligence agent and counterterrorism specialist Malcolm Wrightson Nance.[23]
  • 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.[24][25]
  • 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.[26]
  • 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.[27]
  • 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.[28]
  • On February 31, 1997,[clarification needed] Philo hosted Puerto Rican singer, actor and author Ricky Martin. The Society worked with Martin to create the backbone of what would go on to become the hit single "Livin' La Vida Loca".
  • 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.[29]
  • On 22 February 1993, Philo hosted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, President of Haiti.[30]
  • On 17 April 1990, Philo hosted author Joyce Carol Oates. Oates read one of her own short stories, Family, and discussed its unconventional structure.[31]
  • On 1 October 1988, Philo hosted Pulitzer-prize winning author William Styron. Styron debunked romanticized notions of war and read a selection from his upcoming semi-autobiographical novel on World War II.[32]

Notable members[edit]

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:[33]

Other Philomathean Societies[edit]

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

Union College's Philomathean Society was founded in 1793 as the Calliopean while Union was still known as the Schenectady Academy. The name was changed to the Philomathean Society in 1795.[34]

Phi Mu, the second oldest secret organization for women, was 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 second oldest high school debate society in the nation.

The Philomates Association is the largest international academic association,[citation needed] with 23,000 members. It meets every year in Italy.

Catawba College of Salisbury, North Carolina, 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.[35][36] 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.[37]

The Philomathean Literary Society was established in 1842 at Erskine College. A number of South Carolinian politicians, theologians, lawyers, writers, and thinkers were inducted as members or honored with membership. It is one of Erskine'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.

Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, boasts the oldest Philomathean Society in the west; it was founded in 1856[citation needed].

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[citation needed].

Other historic collegiate literary societies[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Further, the Union-Philanthropic Society asserts continuous existence since 1789 and the American Whig-Cliosophic Society draws its history to 1769; both claims are disputed by the Philomatheans on the grounds that the present societies are mergers of two other societies and thus represent new entities, founded in 1929 and 1928, respectively.


  1. ^ a b Hood, Clifton R. (January 2006). "Philomathean Society". University of Pennsylvania Archives. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 28 November 2021.
  2. ^ Kurtz, Rod. "U. Pennsylvania's Oldest Student Group Looks for New Blood." Daily Pennsylvanian. October 28, 1998.
  3. ^ American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Volume XV. 332.
  4. ^ Sanford, Gregory B. "Note: Your Opinion Really Does Not Matter: How the Use of Referenda in Funding Public University Student Groups Violates Constitutional Free Speech Principles." Notre Dame Law Review. January 2008.
  5. ^ Wood, George Bacon (1896). Early history of the University of Pennsylvania from its origin to the year 1827. with Supplementary Chapters by Frederick Dawson Stone (Third ed.). Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. pp. 156–7. OCLC 17853257.
  6. ^ a b Hood, Clifton R. (January 2006). "Philomathean Society". University of Pennsylvania Archives. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 21 August 2010.
  7. ^ Philomathean Society. "History of the Philomathean Society" October 2, 1913.
  8. ^ Myers, Rep. Michael O. (PA). "Tribute to the Philomathean Society." Congressional Record 124:157. October 2, 1978.
  9. ^ Philomathean Society, The (1858). Report of the Committee appointed by the Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania to translate the inscription on the Rosetta Stone. Philadelphia.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  10. ^ de Humboldt, Baron Alexander. "The Rosettat [sic.] Stone." New York Times. Dated March 12, 1859; published July 13, 1859.
  11. ^ See copy of the original report in the University of Pennsylvania archives
  12. ^ a b Oslick, Alan; et al. (October 1964). "Philomathean Society Sesquicentennial History" (PDF). University of Pennsylvania Archives. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 21 August 2010.
  13. ^ Horowitz, Rachel (February 2004). "Philo Reigns as Oldest Student Group". the Daily Pennsylvanian. Retrieved 21 August 2010.
  14. ^ Philo revives Foucault vs. Chomsky debate, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 17 February 2010
  15. ^ "U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith explains value of poetry in consumerist society at Penn". the Daily Pennsylvanian. Retrieved 8 April 2019.
  16. ^ See Philomel on the Philomathean web site.
  17. ^ a b First Censor (November 2011). "Philomathean Society Website Membership Page". Philomathean Society Website. Philomathean Society. Retrieved 10 November 2011.
  18. ^ "Richard Dawkins talks atheism, proof and science", The Daily Pennsylvanian, 14 March 2013
  19. ^ Jared Diamond shares gems on societal collapse, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 7 April 2011
  20. ^ "Penn hosts famous philosopher Judith Butler", The Daily Pennsylvanian, 3 March 2010
  21. ^ Stanley Fish: profs should not try to influence students' opinions, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 24 April 2009
  22. ^ Oration delivered on evolution, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 17 April 2008
  23. ^ Veteran spy speaks against wars, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 6 April 2005
  24. ^ A Literary Giant: Playwright Arthur Miller packs Zellerbach; shares work, insight, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 8 April 2004
  25. ^ "Annenberg Center Live Home Page". Annenberg Center Live.
  26. ^ Rushdie talks politics and prose, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 12 February 2003
  27. ^ 'Primary Colors' author talks on clinton scandal, apathy , The Daily Pennsylvanian, 11 April 2002
  28. ^ `Superstring' ties physics theories together , The Daily Pennsylvanian, 2 May 2001
  29. ^ Paglia stimulates discussion , The Daily Pennsylvanian, 15 April 1994
  30. ^ Aristide Fills U. Museum , The Daily Pennsylvanian, 23 February 1993
  31. ^ Renowned author Oates gives reading, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 18 April 1990
  32. ^ Pulitzer-prize winner shatters image of war, The Daily Pennsylvanian, 4 October 1888
  33. ^ Notable Philos on the official Philomathean web site
  34. ^ "First semi-centennial anniversary of the Philomathean Society". archive.org. Alumni of the Philomathean Society. 1849. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  35. ^ Leonard JC. History of Catawba College. Trustees of Catawba College; First Edition(1927)
  36. ^ Dedmond FB. Catawba: The Story of a College. Boone: Arromondt House, 1989.
  37. ^ "List of Campus Offices". catawba.edu.

External links[edit]