The Forum - Jan.-Feb. 2009 - (Vol 10 Issue 1)
What is the legacy of Greek-letter societies?
Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta
In the initiation rites of one well-known brotherhood, a neophyte is brought into a dark room lit by a single candle. There, he is asked a series of questions and oriented toward the aims of the brotherhood, then compelled to undergo ordeals to test his loyalty. At the end of these rites, the neophyte is brought to a table upon which lie a sheet of paper and a bolo. There, he swears an oath in the name of God and country to defend the aims of the brotherhood and signs his name in blood.
This is the initiation rite of the Kataastaasan Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan or the Katipunan, as recounted by Reynaldo C. Ileto in his The Diorama Experience: A Visual History of the Philippines. From the first initiation rites held in 1892, membership into this brotherhood soon grew to the tens of thousands, until the cumbersome ritual—replete with symbols taken from the traditions of Freemasonry—had to be streamlined into a simple oath-taking ceremony. The secrets of this brotherhood eventually came to light after the Katipunan was betrayed to Spanish authorities, sparking the revolution that would shape our nation’s destiny.
Today, the tide of public opinion seems to have turned against such organizations, with their shroud of secrecy and exclusivity, and their willingness to shed blood—not necessarily their own—in the name of brotherhood. Earlier in the year, UP Public Administration student Cris Anthony Mendez became the latest name in the list of victims of fraternity-related violence and the public’s rallying cry against Greek-letter societies in general. In the subsequent storm of negative publicity for both the UP College of Law-based fraternity Sigma Rho and the University itself, the questions once again arise: Do fraternities and sororities still have a place in society today? Is brotherhood still worth the price of a life?
At first glance, there appears to be no common ground between the Katipunan and the fraternities under fire today. Their circumstances and the context of their formation are completely different. But Agerico M. de Villa, Associate Professor of the UP Department of Philosophy, begs to differ. He asserts that not only are fraternities, sororities and other similar organizations necessary in developing Filipino society, but they are also inevitable products of UP’s brand of liberal education. The explanation, he says, lies in the answer to a question that occasionally crops up when dealing with fraternities: Why the Greek-letter names anyway?
For this, he says, we need to go back even further. Specifically, to around 600 BC, the time when the ancient Greeks invented two things that were to become the bedrock of the entire Western civilization: democracy and philosophy.
The wisdom of the ancients
“Before the concepts of democracy and philosophy became known, people believed that their lives could only change by a miracle,” says de Villa. “In other words, our destinies were believed to be in the hands of the gods and the deities.” The ancient gods constantly asserted their will upon human beings, often through the intervention and mediation of the ruling kings, emperors and high priests, the gods’ chosen people. Many aspects of a person’s life—from the naming of a child to the time of planting and harvesting—hung on the word of the deities. Those seeking the favor of the gods would occasionally sacrifice chickens or cattle; in extreme cases, the sacrifice of human prisoners or children was required to please the gods. “Everybody believed that they could not live their lives independent of these gods. If someone made the mistake of saying they could act independently of the gods, they would be lucky not to be buried alive.”
Then, through a string of happy historical coincidences, the concepts of democracy and philosophy began to develop in ancient Greece. After the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, there was a need for the remaining Greek states to establish new political and economic structures. Since the land was not conducive to agriculture, people turned to trade, giving rise to a merchant class. Lacking any strong fervor for any religion, there arose instead a kind of civil religion. The monarchies were replaced with city-states, and in Athens, Solon’s reforms established a democratic form of government. The tradition of democracy, along with the practice of debating every point in a discussion, continued for several generations, until the habit of asking questions, using logic and looking at all sides of an issue became second nature to the Greeks.
This curious mindset soon traveled to Persia and through Persia, the rest of the world. “The Greek mindset is open to possibilities,” says de Villa. “They were accustomed to debating and asking questions. They were the first to ask what the universe is made of and what the nature of matter is. Is it any wonder that the Greeks are the ones who invented physics, biology, geometry—the same subjects you still study to this day?” Through the use of science and mathematics, the Greeks developed the technology and infrastructure, including irrigation systems, bridges, highways, even plumbing and sewerage systems, that enabled them to surpass the civilizations in Egypt, Persia and China in a relatively short time. “It was the Greeks who first said that through our own efforts, our capacity to reason, to be inventive and to be innovative, we can control our own destinies independent of any gods and deities.”
Whom God favors
This mindset, according to de Villa, held sway until the reign of the Roman Empire, only to be lost during the Early Medieval period around 400 AD. “Until the Renaissance period, there was a return to the attitude of pre-philosophical times—that human lives are controlled by the gods. In this case, by the God ascribed by the Catholic Church.” During this period, people were to be concerned only with the state of their souls, and any intellectual endeavor that dissented from the Church’s worldview was met with swift, painful and often fatal retribution.
“Nowadays, if you’re raking in money, people will assume you’re into information technology,” says de Villa. “In the time of the Romans, you were a general. During the medieval period, you were either a monarch or a priest.” With the Church controlling the purse strings, coupled with its preoccupation with the building of churches, chapels and cathedrals—structures that will show that man is a superior, creative being made in the image of God—the biggest business of the time was construction. These included painting, sculpting, window-making and, of course, masonry.
After the Crusades, the knowledge of the ancient Greeks began trickling back into Europe through the Crusaders’ and later the merchant classes’ contact with Muslim intellectuals who had kept the writings of the Greeks intact. With this knowledge came scientific concepts, including mathematics, alchemy and physics, that would enable a painter to mix better paints and a mason to create better building materials. “They needed to study the ancient texts of the Greeks in order to improve in their craft. The problem was, anybody caught reading such texts were burned at the stake as heretics, and their books burned with them. So what could they do?”
The guilds and the Freemasons
Hence the birth of the fraternity known as Freemasonry, although there are many other factors leading to the formation of this prominent society, whose true origins are obscured by legends. “Many authenticated historical documents establish that during the Middle Ages there existed bodies of the Masons who built the cathedrals and other public buildings of those centuries,” writes Emmet McLoughlin. “They were called Free and Accepted Masons. Those working at their trade were called ‘operative’ Masons. This designation covered many crafts besides stonemasons, such as carpenters and even tailors. Others—burghers, noblemen and even kings—were gradually initiated into the lodges as ‘speculative’ Masons…”
Concurrent with these were the formation of secret guilds by the merchants. In the centuries that followed, these societies and their members became the guardians and proponents of the ancient knowledge that became the driving force behind the development of Western civilization, knowledge that would otherwise have been lost to the blind ignorance of the masses and the unthinking arrogance of the powers who believed in their divine right to rule.
“The use of Greek letters in the names of fraternities is no accident. Through fraternities, the lessons of the ancient Greeks—that man can control his own destiny through the use of his own powers of reasoning, innovativeness and inventiveness—are kept alive for the rest of civilization,” says de Villa. This practice is rooted in the ancestry of fraternities and sororities and other like-minded organizations. As scholar Manly P. Hall writes: “The ancient philosophers believed that no man could live intelligently who did not have a fundamental knowledge of Nature and her laws. Before man can obey, he must understand…They taught man to use his faculties more intelligently, to be patient in the face of adversity, to be courageous when confronted by danger, to be true in the midst of temptation, and, most of all, to view a worthy life as the most acceptable sacrifice to God, and his body as an altar sacred to the Deity.”
During the Renaissance, more and more people gained access to the writings of the ancient Greeks, spurring a new age of scientific inquiry and humanistic philosophy that eventually led to the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the end to the absolute reign of monarchs. The impetus toward “liberty, equality and fraternity” manifested in the American and French revolutions, which gave power to the republic through government parliaments. In time, these ideas reached across the oceans to other parts of the world, including a small Spanish colony in the Far East, and were eagerly studied by the intellectuals and reformers there. “Jose Rizal’s idea of a united Philippine archipelago in La Liga Filipina was based on the confederation of ancient Greek states,” says de Villa. “His writings inspired two other Filipino philosophers—Emilio Jacinto and Apolinario Mabini—and in their own writings you can read traces of the mindset of the Greeks, which is precisely what Greek-letter fraternities are supposed to stand for.”
Then, as now, Filipino thinkers saw the need for a systemic shift in the attitudes of the people in order to enact truly effective change. De Villa points to the icons of Philippine society today, which include such apparently disparate things and persons as the EDSA Shrine, Cory Aquino, Cardinal Sin, Erap Estrada, Mike Velarde, Robert Jaworski and Nora Aunor in the fairly recent past. All these have one thing in common. “They represent the belief of the Filipino that their lives can only change by the stroke of a miracle,” de Villa observes. The lives of Estrada, the perceived bad boy from the slums, and Aquino, the widowed housewife—both of whom managed to become president—have taken on the patina of rags-to-riches, favored-by-the-gods legend, to say nothing of superstars such as Aunor and Jaworski. Even the 1986 overthrow of a dictatorship is proudly touted as an act of God. “A Chinese person with money problems makes plastic yoyos to sell on the street. A Filipino with money problems crawls on his knees in the churches of Baclaran and Antipolo, then goes out to buy a lotto ticket or bet on jueteng. This pre-philosophic mindset is precisely what Rizal, Jacinto and Mabini sought to change.”
As a fraternity, the Katipunan had three goals: to free the Philippines from the yoke of Spain, to teach good manners and good morals and eradicate obscurantism, religious fanaticism and weakness of character, and to promote civic cooperation and support of the poor and defenseless in particular. These goals were immortalized in Jacinto’s Kartilya ng Katipunan and Mabini’s Dekalogo. Unfortunately, things did not go as the original Katipunaneros had planned.
“Most Filipinos believe that their leaders should be like the feudal kings,” says de Villa. “When you died, your king spent for your burial. When you got sick, your king had you cured. When you got married, your king provided for you.” After more than three hundred years of the Catholic Church’s rule, this belief that people are essentially helpless before the fates and must be led by the hand by God’s chosen “kings” has become deeply entrenched—a trait the Philippines shares with other former colonies in South America. “Emilio Aguinaldo, when he became president of the Republic, had a kind of throne constructed on the second floor of his house in Cavite. Behind this throne was a map of the Philippines. He had failed to understand the underlying philosophy in Mabini’s and Jacinto’s writings. Aguinaldo represents the typical Filipino.” The Filipino intelligentsia, according to de Villa, do not.
Philosophia Bios Kybernethes
The revolution against Spain and the war against the new colonizers later had left the Filipino intelligentsia, an embattled group of thinkers, orphaned. Then in 1908, a new kind of university was founded, created in the image of the universities in America, the birthplace of the first Greek-letter organization. According to various fraternity and sorority websites in the Internet, the first Greek-letter organization, Phi Beta Kappa, was organized almost immediately after the birth of the American Republic in 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. During its meetings, its members discussed the pressing issues of the day, creating a need for secrecy to avoid discovery by disapproving school authorities. As one of its founders was a Greek scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa adopted a secret grip, ritual and the use of Greek letters, a practice adopted by subsequent fraternities and sororities. During the anti-secret movements in the 1830s, Phi Beta Kappa revealed its secret Greek name, Philosophia Bios Kybernethes, or “Philosophy (is the) guide to life.” Phi Beta Kappa still exists to this day as a scholastic honor society.
“America is a creation of Western civilization, the civilization founded on the wisdom and principles of the ancient Greeks.” According to de Villa, many of those who drafted the US Constitution were Freemasons after all, as were many of the members of the Malolos Congress who drafted the Philippines’ first Constitution. So it is no surprise that, given its ancestry, the intellectuals of the Philippine revolution have found a new home in the University of the Philippines.
“This is why it is at UP that the first Greek-letter organizations in the Philippines were founded,” de Villa says. “UP is a fertile ground for such organizations precisely because of the nature of the UP education.” As a bastion of democracy and philosophy, UP has ingrained in its students and faculty the habit of using their reasoning, inventiveness and innovativeness. “Here in UP, we are willing to fight for our academic freedom. We are willing to die for it; sometimes we will even kill for it. But we will never tell you we can never be wrong.” Fraternities, sororities and similar organizations flourish in this kind of environment. Professor De Villa will go so far as to say that preventing people from forming such organizations in UP would be practically impossible.
It is true that there are far fewer intellectuals willing to teach and serve than there are people languishing in ignorance, but according to de Villa, as long as the ideals are kept alive by the Filipino intelligentsia, our country still has a chance.
The price of brotherhood
Over the decades, fewer and fewer fraternity members are taught the real roots of their organization. The usual enticements for joining a fraternity nowadays include gaining a place in a kind of snob society and the promise of a social network that would secure one’s future career—things that do not exactly lead to the ennobling of the human spirit. In the public mind, fraternities have been equated with brawling street gangs, regardless of whether they are based in UP or not. Joining a fraternity has become a game of Russian roulette, and the names of those who have lost have fed media frenzies for years.
According to the GMA News Research team, those who have died due to hazing include Gonzalo Mariano Albert of Upsilon Sigma Phi in 1954; Ferdinand Tabtab of Alpha Phi Omega in 1967; Arbel Liwag in 1984; Joselito Hernandez of Scintilla Juris in 1992; Mark Roland Martin of Epsilon Chi in 1995; Alexander Miguel Icasiano of Alpha Phi Beta in 1998; Marlon Villanueva of Alpha Phi Omega in 2006; and Cris Anthony Mendez of Sigma Rho in 2007. Those who have been killed in rumbles include Rolando Perez of Upsilon Sigma Phi in 1969; Rolando Abad of Alpha Phi Omega in 1977; Dennis Venturina of Sigma Rho in 1994; and Den Daniel Reyes of Alpha Phi Beta in 2000. Even non-members are not spared: The only time Niño Calinao was involved with a fraternity was when he was mistaken for a member of Scintilla Juris and gunned down in 1999. If fraternities today are known only for their lethal initiation rites and violent rumbles, there is perhaps a good reason for it.
Every secret society since the dawn of time has had initiation rites, designed to protect the teachings of the society from the undeserving. Later, besides the need to protect the teachings, there was also the need for the society to be able to trust its members, especially during the period when not being able to trust even one of your brothers led to a scorching death for everyone concerned. “[The initiation rites of a group] boils down to this: You should be prepared to die so that others within the community will not die,” says de Villa. An initiate of old would be blindfolded, brought to the edge of a bridge and told to jump. A willingness to jump meant a willingness to sacrifice oneself rather than betray the brotherhood. Trust in your brothers, something an initiation rite is supposed to instill, can spell the difference between life and death.
Arguably, the circumstances today are far different. With freedom of association enshrined in the Constitution, there is no need for such secrecy. What happens instead during initiation is hazing, defined in the website StopHazing.org as “any activity expected of someone joining a group (or to maintain full status in a group) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate”.
Hazing is a problem in all organizations, not just Greek-letter societies, and is not limited to Philippine fraternities. In fact, journalist Hank Nuwer produced a book in 1990 entitled Wrongs of Passage based on his research on the deaths and injuries caused by hazing among college fraternities and organizations in the US.
There was a time when fraternity initiations weren’t always so harsh. Top fashion designer Jose “Pitoy” R. Moreno (BFA’51), an alumnus of the Upsilon Sigma Phi, recalls his own initiation period: “The master brought us to the Ideal movie theater in Avenida, where the film ‘The Unfinished Dance’ was being shown. After the movie, when the curtain came down over the screen, our master told us to climb up onstage, announce to the audience ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will finish the unfinished dance!’ and perform ballet moves. We were chased off by the security guard.” Another time, his master brought him to a room in the Philippine General Hospital, where they had to enter via the window. The room housed several cadavers, one of which Moreno was forced to kiss.
Dr. Rodolfo L. Nitollama (BS’71), also an Upsilon alumnus and alumnus as well of the UP Medicine-based Phi Kappa Mu fraternity, relates: “The initiations in the Upsilon were known to be one of the longest and toughest among the UP frats. Due to the length of the recruitment period, a lot of neophytes eventually ‘quit’ and an unsavory stigma was usually reserved for these ‘quitters’.”
There are exceptions, though. “I quit every day,” Moreno recalls laughingly. “In Upsilon, if you get rejected just once, you’re out. I had 32 rejections.” That he actually managed to finish the initiation period was thanks to his being the youngest and smallest of his batch as well as the only Fine Arts recruit at the time, and to his protectors, who included Salvador Laurel and Gerry Roxas.
Engr. David M. Consunji (BSCE’46; LLD’93), Chairman of the Board of DM Consunji, Inc. and alumnus of the UP Engineering-based Beta Epsilon fraternity, remembers a brother who was made to roll a ten-centavo coin up the steps of a building using only his nose. “It took him all day. He ate there, slept there, went to the bathroom there.” Consunji himself had to count every single window in their building.
With regard to whether hazing is practiced in the fraternity, a Beta Epsilon alumnus who requested anonymity, says, “Lahat naman ng frats meron.”
For some fraternities—even the Phi Kappa Mu, Nitollama recalls—there was a certain amount of ceremonial paddling involved, but none were as brutal as the hazing that had allegedly killed Mendez, although Moreno still recalls the neophyte who died of a ruptured appendix, an incident that tossed Upsilon into the same hot water Sigma Rho is in today.
Rebels without a cause
Humiliating and arduous as the initiation rites were, casualties were rare. According to de Villa, the nature of fraternity initiation rites shifted toward the extremes during Martial Law in the 1970s. General Order No. 5 declared illegal any gathering of five persons or more, which forced all UP organizations, except the UP Student Catholic Action which was under the protection of Jaime Cardinal Sin, into retirement.
“Fraternities suddenly had a monopoly on student organizations. With such a huge market of potential members, each fraternity came up with its own gimmicks to entice membership.” One of these gimmicks is the now-famous Oblation Run of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity. Others were far worse as fraternities competed with one another over which one was “better”; in fact, de Villa recalls incidents in the late 1970s of UP fratmen who kidnapped the son of a public official for ransom and ended up stabbing their victim to death, while other UP fratmen were charged with raping two girls and killing their boyfriends. The need for secrecy in order for a fraternity to slip through the net of Martial Law also played a part, although the excesses were equally caused by too many members, too much booze and narcotics, and too little control.
The rumbles and inter-fraternity wars are also part of the negative image of fraternities in general. Dr. Jesus U. Socrates (BS’69cl; MD’73), a member of the UP Medical Alumni Society in America and alumnus of Phi Kappa Mu, recalls: “As a college student in UP Diliman, I witnessed two fraternities hurling stones at each other in front of the Vinzon’s Hall. Some of my classmates proudly showed me their fresh third-degree intentional burns that marked them as fratmen. On my last Lantern Parade, Rolando Perez became a victim of a fraternity rumble—clubbed on the head to death with an iron pipe. I was in the fourth pavilion of the Arts and Science building when I heard the threatening voices of one frat group hunting down members of another, seeking vengeance. [Back then], there was no incentive for me to even think of joining a fraternity.”
Given all this, is it any wonder then that most non-frat people feel outrage at being called the barbarians by these groups? “During the medieval period, the term ‘barbarian,’ as opposed to the members of the secret brotherhood, meant the people who were only beginning to be introduced to civilization,” says de Villa. “Literal barbarians [were] those who didn’t know the unspoken rules of city life, rules established by men based on their capacity to reason” and form social contracts necessary to hold together a civilization. In that sense the term is obviously no longer appropriate today.
Whom the gods favor
“It’s disappointing how a kind of elitism has developed among our fraternities,” de Villa says. It is the same kind of elitism fostered by the Church and other organized religions, what he calls “the chosen people” syndrome.
Consunji phrases it more bluntly: “Filipinos are mahambog. It’s something our educational system has failed to cure. It’s always ‘we’re better than you,’ whether it’s between tribes, regional groups, professional associations or any other group.” Humility, he adds, is one other thing a fraternity is supposed to teach a young neophyte, beginning with the initiation period and lasting the rest of his life—to be humble enough to know that there are things you can learn from all your brothers, and things you can teach them in turn.
“This ‘chosen people’ syndrome among fraternities needs to be corrected,” de Villa says. “If fraternities forget their historical context, they will soon destroy one another. They will be so preoccupied with competing with one another that they will reach the point where the only thing they have in common is that they are all wrong.”
Not all is lost, however. There are still fraternities that remember their purpose. Oddly enough, certain college-specific fraternities such as the Beta Epsilon fare a little better perhaps due to their commitment to a particular craft, a throwback to the guilds of old. “A medical fraternity is unique compared to undergraduate fraternities,” Socrates adds. “It is a homogenous mixture of students as far as academic, extra-curricular and professional interests are concerned. What you look forward to in a medical fraternity is a college experience among brothers who are striving for the same goal to become the best physicians they can be.”
Consunji also recommends that the fraternities be managed well, a task that ought to be done by the university administration and the faculty advisers of each fraternity. “Young men have a lot of energy [that] the University can harness,” he says. “As of now, [they] are not being managed at all, which is why you have cases such as Mendez and Sigma Rho.”
De Villa believes that peace between fraternities is possible. More than possible, even. In his college days, he recalls regular get-togethers with friends from different fraternities—and De Villa himself an UPSCAn—in order to talk and play poker. These friends, even those members of fraternities that were constantly at each others’ throats, called each and everyone in that gathering ‘brod.’ He also remembers an inter-fraternity group in the 1970s called Tanglaw, founded by Clarence Agarao who became a human rights lawyer and was killed several years ago. Fraternity members of Tanglaw were Pi Omicron, Pi Rhoxie [sic], Upsilon Sigma Phi, Beta Sigma, Sigma Rho, Kappa Epsilon, and Alpha Phi Omega—a remarkable thing considering that some of these fraternities, such as Upsilon and Beta Sigma, were warring with each other back then.
Decades later, the spirit of Tanglaw continues in the UP Barkadahan, a golf group consisting of alumni of different UP fraternities who regularly hold tournaments and who address one another as “brod,” no matter what fraternity he came from. The UP Barkadahan is proof that the spirit of brotherhood can outlive the members’ life inside the University.
“[True brotherhood] can happen,” De Villa says. “I have actually seen it happen.”
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McLoughlin, Emmit. Introduction. A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (1970). By Arthur Edward Waite. New York: Wing Books (xxxiii, xxxiv).
Nuwer, Hank. Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Dinking. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana Univ Press, 1999.