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By Caren Lissner | Illustration by Courtney Granner

High Above College Green, Close to the Stars, Illustration by Courtney Granner

After five years in exile, the Philomathean Society -- the oldest continuous collegiate literary society in the nation -- has returned to its historic quarters on the top floor of College Hall. What Now

They dress in black. They smoke cigars. They organize "vespertils" and debate existentialism on Friday nights. Depending on who you ask (provided you ask someone who's heard of it at all), the Philomathean Society is either one of Penn's most prestigious organizations, or its most pretentious. But the fact
One night at Philo...
that the 184-year-old literary society is sometimes stereotyped as a circle of socially-awkward elitists is not its biggest concern right now. The group, which has always had a unique relationship with alumni, is looking to them to restore some of the traditions that have been lost since 1993, when it was forced out of its 120-year-old quarters on the fourth floor of College Hall as part of the building's ongoing renovation. Last summer, the society began moving back into the halls from the three classrooms on the second floor of College Hall where it had been temporarily housed.
   On a campus where it is as easy to spot scaffolding creeping up the walls as ivy, members of groups and departments displaced by construction have all, at times, wondered if they'd ever return to their old haunts. "Philo" had more at stake than most. The nation's oldest continuous collegiate literary society, its constitutional mission -- defined when 13 members of the senior class founded it in 1813 -- is to "promote the learning of its members and increase the academic prestige of the university." Its motto, Sic itur ad astra, means This is the way to the stars. For close to two centuries, Philo has carried out its mission by hosting readings, speeches, art shows, plays and debates, as well as events of a more humorous nature. It has always filled gaps in campus intellectual life, having founded The Daily Pennsylvanian in 1885 and Punch Bowl in 1899; helped launch the American Civilization department in 1960, and hosted a nationally-broadcast debate with Princeton's literary society in 1984.
   Philo's signature event is its biweekly meeting, held every other Friday night and lasting up to eight hours (see box). At these gatherings, members report on events completed and planned, listen to literary presentations, and engage in short debates before a gavel-wielding, robed moderator and in strict accordance with Robert's Rules of Order. Well, not exactly strict. Just before the meeting's mandatory three-minute reading of the society constitution, Philos will make wacky amendments -- for example, that it be read in Esperanto, while the librarian is pummeled with paper airplanes, with two members commentating as Beavis and Butt-head, punctuated at the end by a Porky Pig-style, "That's all, folks." During the treasurer's report, he or she is goaded to sing a song whose lyrics are simply, "Pay, pay, pay your dues." When someone makes a crack that is beyond the pale of political correctness, members chant, "That's not funny, that degrades women, that's heterosexist, that's a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy." And at the end of the meeting, members are fined for frivolous offenses -- in prime number amounts up to 97 cents (That would be 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, and 89, for anyone who's counting).
   The meetings are a challenge of wits, savvy, and sometimes just plain silliness. It is this atmosphere that has kept a handful of Philadelphia-area alumni coming back as often as every two weeks, years after their graduation. And alumni are not considered Philo graduates, but "senior members," encouraged to pace the halls anytime. (Students are known as "junior members.") This designation means one never really leaves and is always warmly welcomed back.
   But Philo today is at a crossroads. Many new student groups have formed since 1813 that run activities similar to some of those in Philo, so the society's role in present university life has come into question -- though, to an extent, this is a tradition, too. Attempting to define Philo has been a common avocation of members for years, alumni say.
   But any soul-searching in the last five years had to be put on hold while the group vacated its fourth-floor quarters, as making sure Philo did not fall apart took priority over figuring out what it was. The relocation robbed Philo of access to its historic library, meeting room, and office, which contains a dark wooden dais, wood pews, artwork, books, archives, and piano. During this time, membership dropped. Traditions were forgotten. Art shows fell by the wayside. With the return to the halls accomplished, Philo's "identity quest" has resumed as well, says the current moderator, Jen Marzullo, EAS'98. "Before, not being in the halls was something to focus on. When something went wrong, we would be convinced not being in the halls was the real problem. We weren't finding real answers. Everything was, 'It'll probably be fixed when we get back into the halls.'"
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 2/9/98