Philolexian Society

The Philolexian Society of Columbia University is one of the oldest college literary and debate societies in the United States, and the oldest student group at Columbia. Founded in 1802, the Society aims to "improve its members in Oratory, Composition and Forensic Discussion." The name Philolexia is Greek for "love of discourse," and the society's motto is the Latin word Surgam, meaning "I shall rise." The society traces its roots to a literary society founded by Alexander Hamilton in the 1770s.

The Philolexian Society
The Philolexian Seal, or Philogo
TypeSecret society
Student society
Debate society
Literary society
  • New York City
Official language

Philolexian (known to members as "Philo," pronounced with a long "i") has been called the "oldest thing at Columbia except the College itself," and it has been an integral part of Columbia from the beginning, providing the institution with everything from its colors, Philolexian Blue (along with White, from her long-dispatched rival Peithologian Society), to some of its most solemn traditions and many of its most noted graduates. Members are admitted after a highly selective evaluation process and are sworn to secrecy thereafter.

Historical background

Philolexian is one of many literary societies that flourished at the nation's early colonial colleges. Before fraternities, publications, and other extracurriculars became common, these groups—which generally bore Greek or Latin names—were the sole source of undergraduate social life. Indeed, it was not unusual for two or more groups to coexist at one institution, often in competition. Surviving examples include the Porcellian Club and Institute of 1770 of Harvard University; Crotonia Society, Linonian Society, Calliopean Society, and Brothers in Unity of Yale University; Philodemic Society of Georgetown University, the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at the University of Virginia and the Whig–Cliosophic Society at Princeton University. Yale University also has a number of student literary and political societies with similar purposes (though without the Greek names), the most notable being the Elizabethan Club and the Yale Political Union.


Columbia's first such society was formed in the 1770s, when the school was still known as King's College; among this unnamed organization's members was future Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (Class of 1778) and his roommate Robert Troup. After the Revolution, a similar group known as the Columbia College Society for Progress in Letters was formed; among its members were John P. Van Ness (Class of 1789), later mayor of Washington, D.C., and Daniel D. Tompkins (Class of 1795), vice president of the United States under James Monroe. The group became extinct in 1795.

Building on these earlier efforts, Philolexian was established on May 17, 1802. Among its earliest members were future Columbia president Nathaniel Fish Moore (Class of 1802), and Alexander Hamilton's son, James Alexander Hamilton (Class of 1805), U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. To accommodate freshmen, who were initially ineligible for admission, the Peithologian Society was formed four years later. For most of the next 100 years, Peithologian would serve as Philolexian's primary literary rival.

For most of the 19th century, Philo engaged in a wide range of literary activities, including debates within and without the society, essay writing, correspondence, and hosting speeches by eminent men of the city. In 1852, at the organization's semi-centennial celebration, alumni raised a prize fund of over $1,300 to endow annual awards in three categories: Oratory, Debate, and Essay. (The awards were eventually combined into a general "Philolexian Prize" which, since the 1950s, has been awarded annually by Columbia University's English department.)

20th century

In the 20th century, Philo broadened its range of activities as it became a training ground for essayist Randolph Bourne (Class of 1912), poet A. Joyce Kilmer (Class of 1908), and statesman V.K. Wellington Koo (Class of 1909), all prize winners in their time at Philo. In 1910 the society took a decidedly dramatic turn when it commenced a 20-year stretch of annual theatre productions, ranging from Elizabethan comedies to contemporary works. Many of the older productions, by the likes of Ben Jonson, Nicholas Udall, and Robert Greene, were North American debuts. Oscar-winning screenwriter Sidney Buchman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Cleopatra) (Class of 1923) got a start playing Shakespeare's Richard II for a Philo production.

Although Philolexian members during the Great Depression included such figures as future Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Berryman and publisher Robert Giroux (both Class of 1936) and noted Trappist monk and humanist Thomas Merton (Class of 1938), the economic hardships of the period severely curtailed the group's activities. By the late 1930s, according to former society president Ralph de Toledano (Class of 1938), the organization was devoted mainly to drinking wine and listening to jazz. Philo effectively ceased to function by the beginning of World War II.

Decline and renewal

But in 1943, at the behest of Columbia history professor and former Philo president Jacques Barzun (Class of 1927), several undergraduates competed for the Philolexian Centennial Washington Prize, an oratory competition endowed by J. Ackerman Coles (Class of 1864), bestowed on the society on the occasion of its centennial in 1902. This short-lived revival was followed by another wartime incarnation. By 1952, due to waning interest and, according to some, the infamous presidency of poet Allen Ginsberg (Class of 1948), the society entered a 10-year period of dormancy. Another brief revival in 1962, spearheaded by members of the Columbia chapter of Alpha Delta Phi, was followed by an even longer period of inactivity.

On Wednesday, October 16, 1985, under the guidance of Thomas Vinciguerra (Class of 1985), the society was revived in its current incarnation. Mr. Vinciguerra was subsequently recognized as the society's "Avatar" in honor of this and other critical and successful efforts for Philo. In 2003, an award in his name was established.

On Saturday, October 16, 2010, the society celebrated the 25th anniversary of its revival with a reception and meeting for students, alumni (known as "Geezers"), and various supporters; the occasion was dubbed "Resurgam 25." The debate topic, "Resolved: The Philolexian Society Has Never Had It So Good" was overwhelmingly approved.

Current organization

The Philolexian Society holds meetings every Thursday the University is in session; the agenda typically consists of a debate and the presentation of a literary work. It also hosts a Croquet Tea, the Annual Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest [1] (which has received coverage in the New York Times) (the winner of which becomes the Poet Laureate of the society until the next Contest), a beat poetry event appropriately called Beat Night, and a Greek-style symposium. The organization also publishes a collection of poetry and prose called "Surgam." Starting in 2003, Philolexian has organized a fund for small theatre projects, later named for Robert C. Schnitzer (Class of 1927), and sponsored an improv comedy group called Klaritin.

In 2003 the society held a constitutional convention that updated the original document, adjusting the organization to suit changes that had happened in the previous 200 years, such as co-education. Nonetheless, the society has retained its traditional forms and rituals almost in their entirety. Philolexian has several officers, the Moderator (de facto president), Scriba, and Censor (emeritus president), as well as other enviable positions, including Herald, Keeper of the Halls, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sergeant-at-Arms, Whip, Minister of Internet Truth, Nomenclaturist-General, Symposiarch, and Literary Czar, editor of the literary journal of the Society.

The number of Philolexians is unknown. Those who wish to gain full membership within the society must speak at three consecutive meetings and attend regularly. Those candidates who qualify may receive an invitation to New Member Night, a secretive initiation rite. A petition for membership and a work of original, creative merit must be provided by the candidate. This meeting is not open to the public. Members have access to a large number of privileges through the organization.

Notable Philolexians

In addition to the names cited above, prominent Philolexians have included:

Awards and accomplishments

Philolexians have:


  • Barzun, Jacques (editor): "Samplings and Chronicles, Being the Continuation of the Philolexian Society History, With Literary Selections, From 1912 to 1927," New York, published by the Society, 1927
  • Bellah, James Warner: "When the College Was Younger and, Perhaps, More Literary," New York, Columbia College Today, Spring 1962
  • Cardozo, Ernest A.: "A History of the Philolexian Society of Columbia University From 1802-1902," New York, published by the Society, 1902
  • Swindler, Josie. "Debate Club’s Debauchery Continues in 21st Century" Columbia Spectator. (October 27, 2005)
  • Vinciguerra, Thomas J.: "Contemporary Civilization Meets Monty Python," New York, Columbia College Today, Spring/Summer 1987
  • "Philolexian Annals 1902-1912 With the Constitution and By-Laws," New York, published by the Society, 1912
  • "The Columbian" (yearbook): New York, Columbia University, various years

Inline references

  1. Sefton, Dru (August 3, 2005). "If I'm As Bad As I Can Be, Won't You Please Not Publish Me". Newhouse News Service. Archived from the original on 2005-12-18. Retrieved 2008-02-20.
  2. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-10-13. Retrieved 2014-07-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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