Peithessophian Society

Rutgers University

History

Throughout the ninetheenth century, two literary societies played a major role in the intellectual life of Rutgers undergraduates. Both, Peithessophian and Philoclean, were founded in the mid-1820s.

Peithessophian and Philoclean -- like their counterparts Whig and Clio at nearby Princeton -- were "secret" societies, in the sense that selection of members was not conducted publicly, but were not exclusive: most Rutgers undergraduates belonged to one or the other. Both sponsored debates on topics of general intellectual interest, held weekly meetings to discuss literary, historical, or philosophical works not on the regular curriculum, and to listen to talks given by members.

Rutgers campus in 1851. To the left of Old Queens is Van Nest hall, in which both the Peithessophian and Philoclean Societies had their rooms.

In addition, both societies elected honorary members from outside the university, inviting one each year to deliver an address at Junior Exhibition during commencement week. These orations were celebrated public events. "The seats were filled to overflowing with an immense throng," reported a local newspaper in 1830, when the distinguished jurist William Wirt delivered an address not only to members of the Peithessophian Society but to a crowd that had come from as far away as New York city.

"Notwithstanding the heat and the crowd," wrote one woman present at Wirt's address, " I listened nearly two hours with unwearied and unabated interested, only dreading at every point that he was coming too soon to a close. When he ceased to speak there was a silence of many seconds throughout the whole audience as if they were spellbound. Such an effect I never before witnessed."

Meeting Rooms and Libraries

Histories of Rutgers emphasize the importance of Peithessophian and Philoclean in student life. In his bicentennial history of the university, for instance, Richard P. McCormick comments as follows:

The societies played a large, even an indispensable role in the College, for they engaged the interest of the undergraduates in intellectual activities, successfully met an obvious social need, provided opportunities for leadership, and even helped bridge the chasm that separated the faculty from the students in their formal relationship. They constituted a strong cohesive force within the College and stimulated lasting feelings of loyalty among their graduates. Indeed, to returning alumni, the halls of Peitho and Philo, rather than the professorial classrooms, seem to have evoked the warmest memories of their college years. Recognizing that the societies were an essential feature of the College, the faculty and the Trustees gave them every encouragement, even to providing them with rooms.

The rooms originally assigned to Peitho and Philo were in Old Queens. When Van Nest Hall was completed in 1848, the Trustees awarded what Professor McCormick calls "two large and well appointed halls on the first floor" to the literary societies -- Peitho to the right and Philo to the left of the entrance" in recognition of their centrality to the intellectual life of the college. Both societies maintained, as well, large and well-stocked libraries for the use of members.

 

Van Nest Hall in1859. The window just visible behind the tree looks out from the Peithessophian rooms and library.

 

With the change of times and the growth of enrollments, Peithessophian and Philoclean found themselves less central to undergraduate life. Philoclean ceased to exist shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. Peithessophian, though with a smaller membership than previously, continued to be active until the 1930s. With the coming of World War II, the continuity with an older Rutgers past was ultimately broken. Today, the space that once housed the Peitho meeting rooms and library is devoted to staff offices.

Peitho Today

Today's Peithessophian Society, like its forebearer, provides an opportunity for discussion and debate among undergraduates with intellectual interests lying outside the standard curriculum. To encourage the easy and informal exchange of ideas and arguments, membership has so far been kept small -- in recent years, 10-12 members -- but in response to growing interest the Society is currently discussing ways of expanding membership while preserving the intimacy of group discussion. Members also have plans to sponsor, each term, an "Oxford Union style" parliamentary debate open to the university community, with either Rutgers faculty members or distinguished outside guests as main speakers supported by Peithessophian members as auxilliary speakers on both sides of the issue.

Peithessophian induction, Kirkpatrick Chapel, 2008

One recent Rutgers graduate said "In the midst of the impersonality of Rutgers, Peithessophian was my real home. I totally understand why alumni returning to campus a hundred years ago thought of the Peitho rooms and library as the place where they'd spent the most rewarding hours of their undergraduate years."

Like its forebearer, today's Peitho elects Rutgers faculty as honorary members, as well as asking individual faculty members for nominations of students whom they have found to have a broad intellectual range and an interest in lively debate. The Society welcomes student inquiries about prospective membership.

 

 

"So we see that in the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates ordinary Americans thought nothing of listening for three whole hours, their attention never wavering, to passionate and closely-reasoned argument on opposite sides of the great national debate about slavery and American freedom.

Today, we find it nearly impossible to imagine a scene like this. And it's exactly because it seems so unimaginable that I think this gathering in Kirkpatrick Chapel must be considered a significant event in college history.

In a world as desperately fragmented as our own, where the attention is incessantly assaulted by predatory advertising, where people have almost forgotten what it means to settle down with a book for four or five hours of absorbed reading, where even informal discussion among friends is likely to be desultory and fitful and uninformed, where politicians speak in slogans and sound bites and use marketing firms and continous surveys to 'package themselves' to various demographic groups rather than speaking to a sense of community that thinks in terms of the good of the whole, this spontaneous revival of Peithessophian seems to me a sign that your generation has glimpsed the possibility of something better. If not, we would not be here today.

The Peithessophian Society as it has been reinaugurated represents an important part of Rutgers' history as an old and distinguished university. If it thrives -- if in the face of a mindless consumerism and a nation given over to vacuous celebrity-worship and a shallow and cynical politics it keeps the flame of intelligence and reasoned argument alive on the Rutgers campus -- you will, in the longer run, have done something much more than to have revived a once-moribund literary and debating society. You will have done your part to bring back that lost and better Rutgers that is, today, the only university really worth saving."

-- Peithessophian induction address, Kirkpatrick Chapel, 2002

 

 

Officers and newly-inducted members of Peithessophian,

Kirkpatrick Chapel, 3 May 2010