Friday, March 14, 2008
The Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania is the oldest continuously-existing literary society in the United States and the oldest student group at Penn. Founded in 1813, its goal is "to promote the learning of its members and to increase the academic prestige of the University." 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").
The society is governed by a Cabinet of eight officers: the Moderator, First Censor, Second Censor, Scriba, Recorder, Treasurer, Librarian and Archivist. The first four are attired in full academic gown at all society meetings, which are held eight times per semester on the top floor of College Hall. Philo also has regular afternoon teas with professors and sponsors other academic events such as lecture series.
Traditionally, the Society emphasized the arts of rhetoric, oratory, and writing. Its three-step membership process retains vestiges of this emphasis, but its modern members' activities extend to a broad range of academic and artistic pursuits.
"Philo," as members affectionately refer to the Society, is credited with helping to found entire academic departments, including American History, Comparative Literature, and History of Science, and many campus groups and publications, including the Daily Pennsylvanian and the Mask and Wig Club.
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.
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. 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.
Every year, Philo brings a public annual oration to the University, given by a prominent figure in the arts and sciences. Recent orations have been given by Arthur Miller (2004)  and Salman Rushdie (2003) .
Prominent Philomatheans include founder of the Wharton School for Business Joseph Wharton, statesman Robert J. Walker, US Senator and CSA diplomat James M. Mason, US Attorney General Henry Dilworth Gilpin, seminal science fiction author Alfred Bester, founder of the Philadelphia Museum of Art Eli K. Price, and philosopher Hilary Putnam.
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