What is Philo?

WEB PhiloThe Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania exists for those who feel that college should be about more than getting a degree. It strives to promote the examined life in all its riotous splendor, and unites every discipline in the pursuit of its mission: “increasing the learning of the members and the academic prestige of the University.”

Founded in 1813, Philo is the oldest student group at the University and the oldest continually existing collegiate literary society in the United States. Throughout its nearly two hundred years of existence, the Society has pursued its mission of learning outside the classroom in whatever ways struck its membership best; a common answer to the question “what is Philo” is “whatever Philos want it to be.”

Thus, Philos have at one time or another embarked on major works of scholarship (like producing the first English translation of the Rosetta Stone), founded departments (such as Comparative Literature and Religious Studies), launched campus publications (the longest-lived of which is the Daily Pennsylvanian), and staged major dramatic productions (the Masque of the American Drama involved every undergraduate then enrolled at Penn).

Today, the Society hosts weekly series of lectures, panel discussions, and afternoon teas with prominent Penn professors, as well as poetry readings, film screenings, dramatic performances, art shows, debates, special classes, and frequent moments of gentle madness – not to mention the Annual Oration, held each Spring, where Philo invites a distinguished public intellectual to speak to the Penn community (past Annual Orations have included Jared Diamond, Judith Butler, Daniel Dennett, Salman Rushdie, and Arthur Miller). All of our events are free and open to the public.

Philo also publishes an interdisciplinary journal (Philomel), a weekly listing of upcoming events at Philo and around campus in collaboration with other groups (Ben’s List), and the occasional book, essay, work of fiction, and audio recording. This brief discussion of publications and events is by no means an exhaustive list – check out the rest of this website, and our calendar, for postings on what we’re up to presently. Most of Philo’s events and activities take place in the Philomathean Halls, on the 4th floor of College Hall.

Philo’s structure, activities, and future are determined by its undergraduate and graduate student membership. Members elect a Cabinet each semester led by a Moderator who, among other things, chairs Philo’s “flamingo-populated” general meetings held on alternate Fridays at 8pm PhST (Philo Standard Time). Membership in Philo is eternal; it continues long past one’s time at the University, and indeed, on this Earth. For more about joining Philo, see our page on membership.

Finally, many magazines and journals have attempted, like this page, to capture the essence of Philo, and, as one might attempt to capture the scent of a rose after a year away from a garden, only a trace is thereby displayed. The only way to really learn about Philo is to see what we do, so come visit us some time!

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