The Philolexian Society of Columbia University in the City of New York is one of the oldest collegiate literary 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 Philolexian is Greek for "Lover of discourse," and the society's motto is the Latin word Surgam, meaning "I shall rise."
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 the long-dispatched rival Peithologian Society), to some of its most solemn traditions and many of its finest (as well a few of its most notorious and most dissipated) graduates.
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 Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Whig-Cliosophic Society at Princeton University.
Columbia's first such society was formed in the 1770's, 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). 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 F. Moore (Class of 1802), and Alexander Hamilton's son, James (Class of 1805). To accommodate freshmen, who were initially ineligible for admission, the Peithologian Society was formed four years later. For most of the next 100 years, Peitholoigian 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 1950's, has been awarded annually by Columbia University's English department.)
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. But in 1943, at the behest of Columbia 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; in 1947, 14 Columbia College undergraduates became the last students to sign one of the original Philolexian parchment membership scrolls. In 1952, thanks to waning interest and, according to some, the infamous presidency of poet Allen Ginsberg (Class of 1948), the society entered into a 10-year interregnum. A short-lived revival in 1962 was followed by an even longer period of inactivity.
In 1985, under the guidance of Thomas J. 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.
Today the Philolexian Society holds meetings every Thursday when school is in session, consisting of a debate and the presentation of a literary work. Meetings are often serious and absurd simultaneously. The society also hosts a number of other events throughout the year and publishes a collection of poetry and prose called "Surgam."