Voices and Ideas

From the Secretary: Friendship, Morality, and Literature

“This Society was founded by a few friends. . . .It was ingrafted

on the stock of friendshipin the soil of virtue, enriched by Literature.”

                                               — 1779 induction greeting to initiates



The three stars on the Phi Beta Kappa key represent our core values of friendship, morality, and literature. There is great depth to the choice of these three values, which dates to our founding in 1776, and they carry a powerful message for our 21st-century world. 

“Literature,” in the 18th century, represented not just essays and novels, but learning in its broadest sense — scholarship, or “love of learning.” “Morality” represented both the integrity that members aspired to in their private lives and their goal to have a positive impact on their world that, like ours, was very much in turmoil and transition. “Friendship” could appear to be the thinnest of the three, but that is far from the truth. It represents a deep personal and intellectual engagement with others. 

This kind of engagement has never been more important yet never more difficult. At the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last May, philosopher Martha Nussbaum (past winner of the Society’s Sidney Hook Memorial Award) put it this way: “[D]emocracy needs to learn from, and practice, philosophical dialogue, a way of conversing — and differing — about important issues that substitutes respect for arrogance, and patient probing for overconfident boasting.” As Judge Learned Hand said, “[T]he spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.” Both are ΦBK members. 

Personal connection and intellectual engagement are the roots of Phi Beta Kappa. This is why well over a thousand new members gathered all across the country this fall at the inaugural Key Connections programs. This is why I urge you all to become involved in your local ΦBK association and the national work of Phi Beta Kappa as we seek to invest our personal and communal lives with the indelible values that animate this ancient fellowship.

Frederick M. Lawrence

Secretary and CEO

(Posted on 10/3/2017 )