The Precursors to Modern Greek Life
Let’s just take a step back for a second. So, now we know what motivated most early Greek life. But what other kinds of organizations or groups inspired its development? Basically, why were early Greek letter organizations structured and organized the way they were? There’s a reason for that.
The structure of early Greek life was heavily inspired by the fraternities that existed during the American Colonial Period. Before the “United States” (as we now know it) even existed, collegiate fraternal organizations bloomed in the soon-to-be country. The purpose of these organizations was to help promote rhetoric, scholarship, and ethical conduct amongst students. Still, these weren’t initially a wide-spread trend—the earliest, pre-Greek life fraternities existed only at the College of William and Mary, Yale, and The College of New Jersey.
Not too much later, college literary societies began to catch on, growing in popularity and availability. Soon enough, these literary societies (or, more specifically, Latin literary societies) existed in pretty much every college in the United States. From around the post-Colonial Period to the time of the Civil War, college literary societies were thriving. These social organizations are now considered to be the most immediate precursor to modern day Greek letter fraternities and sororities.
Like the name “Latin literary societies” would imply, rather than taking their names from the Greek alphabet, these early organizations based their names around Latin. Most of the time, this involved compound Latinate names.
Unlike the Greek life that’s to come, college literary societies weren’t all about discussion and debate. Sure, this was certainly a big component of these post-Colonial organizations. That much is definitely true. But rather than just discussing various topical issues, college literary societies valued what their name would imply: literature. Whether it be essays, music, poetry, or something else entirely, members were encouraged to present and share these works amongst the group. Actually, many college literary societies even curated their own libraries, full of literary works available to the organization’s members.
Similar to early Greek life, also, was the popularity of controversial topics within literary society discussion and subjects. If the school’s official curriculum was avoiding a topic due to its controversial nature, then college literary societies became an outlet for students to say whatever was really on their minds. These so-called controversial topics often involved social, political, or religious areas of discussion. Yet, after the Civil War, the popularity of college literary societies began to decline, as Greek life began to overtake them in popularity.