Delivered by Thomas Vinciguerra (CC 1985) at the Bicentennial Dinner of the Philolexian Society, April 11, 2002:

"I can't tell you how happy I am to be here on this special night, this singular moment in Philo history. I may be the Avatar of Philo, but I have to share this with the students, the alumni, everyone who made this possible, especially the people who got the thing going again. There were six of us who dusted Philo off back in 1985, who roused her from her long slumber. Myself included, four are here this evening. Please join me in paying tribute to Michael Marubio, Jeff Arle, and Michael Maschio.

"Looking back over our 200 years, though, you have to wonder why Philo had to be revived at all. Let's face it: for sheer classiness, no other student group can touch us. At the very least, Philo's emphasis on writing, speaking, and criticizing embodies the skills taught every day in the classroom. One of the many Philo alumni who have sent their greetings for the bicentennial said as much. He wrote to me:

" Within Columbia, Philo has stood for centuries now as a beacon of discussion, disputation, analysis, and unashamed pride in erudition. It is as open to all as the whole spirit of learning is open to all who wish to learn, and this is its glory: the only qualification is love of learning to be carried on for life. The love of learning is pure...but it also sometimes helps to win a game or two on my show, and that ain't bad, either. Good luck for another 200 years. -- Ben Stein (CC 1966)

"One other communication from an absent member:

" Let me declare I would love to be there and palaver with my putative peers, and to ask John Hollander if he ever found the yellow sweater my then-wife Lynn left in his parents' apartment one night in the early 50s and also yes, yes, to say, if I've never said it directly to him, that I do indeed like his poetry, enjoy it, admire it, and would say so in print -- if I were in print. -- Ted Hoffmann (CC 1944)

"As you may have guessed, Philos are unique. We hear much about diversity at Columbia, and Philo is diversity incarnate. No other campus group so readily accommodates monarchists and anarchists, libertarians and libertines, reactionaries and radicals, feminists and misanthropes, aesthetes and bohemians, the doctrinaire and the unorthodox. Not long ago, when I told a friend about tonight, her response was, 'I guess there's going to be a lot of weirdos there.'

"She was absolutely right. [Philos pride themselves on their intellectual iconoclasm. If as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, Philo is the continuation of education by radically different means.]

"One of our current members, David Lane, gave us my favorite example of our native ingenuity. The debate that night was 'Resolved: Reality is For the Weak-Minded and Uncreative.' En route to the meeting, Mr. Lane came across the grounds crew trimming the trees on College Walk. He grabbed a branch about six feet long, weighing at least 75 pounds, strode into the room, went up to the speakers' table, dropped the severed limb on it, and said, 'Disprove this! '

"The resolution was defeated, but the branch remains in our office, a totem of Philo's unusual path to truth.

"This kind of thing is nothing new. The following description of a typical Philo meeting comes from 1879:

"For this, the sign of literary might,
The freshman is asked to descend some night
To Mott Memorial Hall and thus be made
A member of the Philolexian staid.
He heeds the call, reveres the noble name,
Nay doubts his fitness for the lofty post.
But ah! The folly of the dubious host!
He finds that all is but outrageous noise,
A group of children playing with their toys,
Destroyers foul, and yet resenting blame.

"Such boisterousness, of course, stems from our huge egos, but also from our untrammelled appetite for discourse. Not everyone understands Philo's affectations -- the mock pomposity, the obsequious addresses to the moderator, reports from the Self-Aggrandizement Committee, the chants of 'Nobody abstains in the Philolexian Society -- they're just hard up!' Such outrageous noises are the basis of our continuity. They are a lighthearted way to discipline the mind, but they also link us from meeting to meeting, and across the years.

"And across the years we have reached. Present tonight, including our current students, are some 80 Philolexians -- the largest number in one place in decades, representing nearly a third of our living membership. Sixteen and a half years after our refounding, we are here to stay.

"Amid these glad tidings, I have one warning. The only possible reason for our past extinction was our lack of a permanent physical presence on any of Columbia's three campuses. Our sister societies at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill, the University of Georgia, the University of Virginia, Princeton, and especially our dear brethren at Penn, all have richly appointed halls, reflecting the esteem in which their alma maters hold them. We deserve no less. A physical heritage is necessary to preserve our spiritual one.

"That is especially true now. Last week, all student activities on the fifth floor of Lerner Hall, Philo included, were told that the entire space is being reconfigured. We are thus losing the office we currently share with the Parliamentary Debate Team, an office itself less than half the size of the one we occupied by ourselves in Ferris Booth. Our library, ou archives, our very essence, are about to be mothballed.

"Our brilliant alumnus, Andrew Shiner, has presented a master plan for the effective use of space in Lerner for speaking, for lectures, for archival use, for our library, to share with other student groups that hold our principles so dear. At this critical juncture, I urge all those present to do everything they can to secure space for Philo that is commensurate with its antiquity, its present noble purpose and its vast future potential. Philo must have halls.

"I end on what I hope will be an exuberant note, with a nod to the past and the future. The following is a description of Philolexian's centennial celebration in 1902. That night was unique. And yet like tonight, and like so much of Philo down through the ages, it will be quite familiar to those who know and love us:

" One hundred years young was Philolexian on that 17th of May. Earl Hall, spick and span, welcomed the assembled guests.... Three raps of the gavel, wielded by the youthful president, marked the beginning of a new cycle, and hushed the boisterous laughter of the gay old grads who clustered round him on the dais. The boy's voice, clear and strong, welcomed all to Philo's shrine....

" The exercises reflected the dignity of the occasion.... The newly-installed president of the University brought, with his regrets that fortune had not made him a Philo man, a packet deposited in the Library on the 50th anniversary to be opened at this, the 100th. The message from the past was received with due reverence by a former president of the Society, and amid an awe-inspiring silence the begrimed bundle was unlaced. From it fell musty tomes and scrolls recording the simple enthusiasm and loyal consecration of an older day....

" The ceremonial feast in the new first story of University Hall passed amid the cheer of jolly fellowship. The venerable dean of the College [Van Am, himself a Philo] toasted the toasts with fiery wit, and proclaimed that from the skies alone came the Philo Blue which college spirit had more lately seized that it might be immortalized in Columbia's blue and white. The other toasts, breathing the same fire... continued so late that when the last speaker closed his peroration, proclaiming "Surgam," the guests thought morning had come, and realized that a new day had indeed dawned for Philolexian.

"A century later, that day has dawned again. Philo's flame has returned to the campus. Never will it be extinguished. Happy 200th birthday, dear Philolexian, teacher, guiding spirit, ennobler of us all. Now and forever, 'Surgam.' Thank you."


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