Lessons From The Greeks On Fraternities

In the spirit of Mark Yuray’s observations concerning Männerbünden, I’m going to explore details of certain Männerbünden of particular interest: the Greeks. More precisely, I mean college fraternities. Speaking as a fraternity man myself, I have identified a number of requirements and fixtures of fraternity life which recur in historical accounts of ancient Männerbünden, as well. Indeed, my personal experience of how an actual Männerbund operates helped break my belief in liberal models of society. These requirements can, in turn, inform the building of strong Männerbünden for the purpose of weathering the storm of leftism.

First, some distinctions: by fraternity I mean an association of men enrolled as an undergraduate at a college or university, having a Greek-letter name, a ritual, and no other necessary characteristics. This is to distinguish fraternities from sororities and other Greek-letter organization, like honors or service fraternities without the same level of commitment involved. Furthermore, membership in a fraternity officially extends beyond a brother’s time in college—I, for instance, am still a member of my fraternity despite no longer being an undergraduate. However, my personal experience is primarily on the chapter-level, so I will restrict my remarks to this case.

There are several specific requirements for a fraternity to be worthy of the name, and the first such requirement is a name. The fraternity’s name, of course consisting of Greek letters, distinguishes it and its members from other fraternities and other organizations. However chummy the brothers of Zeta Psi and of Phi Kappa Theta may be, they remain distinct at least on the basis of their membership in different fraternities. Discrimination and exclusivity are basic to fraternity identity.

Second, a fraternity chooses its own prospective members, who then choose whether or not to join, and initiates them through a Ritual. This Ritual is typically secret, though some organizations have made their Rituals public. I’ll have more to say about the Ritual in a moment, but the fact that fraternity membership is self-selecting is of paramount importance. Fraternities choose their members for the express purpose of forming a Männerbund. Men with contempt for the fraternity or who seek to undermine it as a rule do not join.

Third, there must be a set of bylaws and a set of elected officials. The bylaws are public and stipulate how fraternity members should behave and how fraternity business is to be conducted. The precise scope of the bylaws is not set in stone: there may be rules prohibiting a brother from consuming alcohol or requiring that they attend certain events or anything in between. The elected officials handle the day-to-day business of the fraternity, particularly specialized tasks like dealing with money or arranging events with other organizations. The offices are organized in a hierarchy, typically with a president at the top, advised by a small council.

Finally, the fraternity must have a House or other territory where its members can live. The House can be an actual house, or it can be a collection of dorm rooms, but some sleeping quarters are required, as is a public space where brothers can interact with each other. As a Männerbund, a fraternity must facilitate the ordinary interactions among men: they have to be able to spend time together and even live together under the auspices of the fraternity.

Of all these features, the Ritual is the most fundamental. The Ritual is a ceremony of initiation in which the esoteric principles of the fraternity are communicated to a new member and through which the new member is consecrated as a brother of the fraternity. The Ritual is sacred. Initiation into the fraternity involves a great deal of trust on the part of the current members, for they are imparting hallowed knowledge to the new brother.

The Ritual is absolutely foundational to the fraternity: without a Ritual, a “fraternity” is simply a bunch of guys who hang out together. The Ritual sanctifies the fraternity, raising it above ordinary friendships and associations. The Ritual is what binds the men of the fraternity together, especially after graduation, and what has allowed fraternities to spread across the country while retaining their identity. Two men from completely different states, completely different colleges and backgrounds, can share knowledge of the same Ritual, and that shared knowledge binds them together as brothers.

Moderns often consider the charges in Athens against men like Socrates, Euripides, or Anaxagoras that they denied the gods of the city to be quaint or even laughable. But if ancient polities were anything like modern fraternities, I can guarantee that these were very serious and grave matters. If someone were to run around today decrying my fraternity’s Ritual and mocking its values, I and every one of my brothers would be totally enraged. To deny the gods was to undermine the Männerbund of the ancient city, indeed to deny that it had any legitimacy at all. This constituted a betrayal of the most sacred trust: atheism was and is the worst form of treason.

It is also utter nonsense to conceive of “separation of Ritual and fraternity.” Without the Ritual there is no fraternity, and the fraternity specifically appoints officials to conduct Ritual ceremonies. It is therefore just as inconceivable to speak of “separation of Church and state” in a political Männerbund. The Church and the state are not antagonistic and rival powers as our post-Reformation historians would have it, but rather they are mutually reinforcing institutions: the Church sanctifies the state, and the state supports and protects the Church.

Turning to politics within a fraternity, there are three levels of division and unity, three levels that determine what the fraternity does and how it goes about it: the chapter as a whole, cliques within the chapter, and individuals. The chapter has its Ritual and its bylaws which define it and details its members’ responsibilities, but it also has a personality all its own. Men tend to choose men who are somewhat like themselves to join their fraternity, and this process produces similarities among the brothers in terms of worldview and personality. Institutional inertia is a tempting term to use, but it isn’t quite accurate because a chapter can change quite dramatically in the space of as little as two years. Still, at any given time the chapter does have a definite group character.

Within the chapter, however, there are a number of smaller units that we can term cliques. These are simply groups of six to a dozen men, sometimes more, who spend relatively more time together and so tend to think similarly on various matters. These cliques are often built upon share interests and backgrounds, and they can even constitute voting blocs. Having a number of cliques is quite healthy for a chapter simply because human interaction and attachment are limited commodities and people can’t spread their concern and comradery equally even within the chapter. But more than one fraternity has found itself torn apart by conflict between cliques.

Writers in antiquity waxed most eloquent on the dangers of what stasis, factional conflict. Ancient polities were divided into cliques or factions just as modern fraternities are, and when those cliques came into, not just conflict but violent conflict, then as now it often spelled the doom of the state. What made factional conflict so deadly was not simply that it undermined the ability of the polity to act collectively in the face of common threats, but also that it was driven by passions intense enough to override the sacred bond of the community. Men who hate their brothers so much as to want to kill them will freely engage in extreme atrocities.

Even with the powerful influences of group character and cliques, the significance of individual personalities is difficult to overstate. Two different people with radically different personalities occupying the same position will bring very different approaches to their tasks. Often, this is quite healthy, warding off stagnation and potentially improving services. When an individual becomes disruptive, however, is usually when his approach to certain matters is at odds with the rest of the chapter but he still commands a certain amount of respect from the brothers. His vice is pride, refusal to work with his brothers or to moderate his position on matters where reasonable people disagree.

The very nature of a fraternity is exclusive, distinguishing between members and outsiders, but within the chapter there is generally a large measure of formal equality. No brother is officially more important or valued than any other, but this does not mean that there is no hierarchy. Age and experience are the primary bases for the fraternity’s informal hierarchy, but particularly impressive young members also command respect. Proved competence is the main criterion for respect, and brothers who cannot contribute constructively to the chapter are scorned.

Modern fraternities were designed as Männerbünden, albeit restricted in scope, limited to men who have traveled away from home to attend college but still require a band of comrades. According to socio-biological metrics, fraternities have proven quite successful, expanding in numbers and spreading across the country. Fraternity life varies tremendously from campus to campus and chapter to chapter, and I haven’t even touched on the national organizations. Boorishness abounds, and more gentlemanly chapters are increasingly in the pocket of leftist campus movements, but fraternities can serve as a model for our own Männerbünden.

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14 Comments

  1. That’s a great article. Thanks. My fraternity, which is probably typical, had a pledge book in which initiates (pledges) would study the fraternity history and ideals of manly conduct. These were traditional Christian and pagan, such as courage, integrity, self control, etc. Yes, fraternities have paralleled the downward spiral of our culture but as long as the core beliefs are kept out of reach of college administrators and political commissars they can survive.

    1. Same here, my fraternity had a pledge book/guide where we had to memorize certain facts and learn the history of the organization. After we were all initiated we learned the fraternity’s handshake which we would use by greeting about a fellow brother.

    2. I also want to add we also had a song book. I searched for it on ebay, found a copy, but lost the bid. It was an old book which I hope found its way to an actual member.

  2. ConantheContrarian March 14, 2016 at 10:09 am

    When I was young and in college, I heard about Rituals, which seemed to consist of various forms of hazing, including drunkenness. There seemed to be a lack of solemnity in the Greek Houses then, and it was not very attractive to many men at that time in the 20th century. Have things changed for the better?

  3. My 90 year old father was in a fraternity. He formed lifelong friendships with his brothers. Even now, as his mind has left him due to alzheimer’s, he can still recognize and name his old fraternity brothers.

  4. Have a look at Freemasonry as a model as well. It’s a fraternity for adults, but accepts college-aged men, and it’s meant to be an explicitly philosophical organization — a philosophical fraternity, even. Freemasonry, but Freemasonry hardened to leftist capture, is probably exactly what you’re thinking of here.

    1. In fact, if there were more of us and so many of us weren’t Catholics, I’d say Freemasonry itself is ripe for capture. Most Lodges are full of old guys who just want to hang out, and would love to see thing faces because they worry their fraternity is dying.

      1. D’oh, I meant to say “fresh faces”.

      2. I’d probably “brown nose” for an invite to my local Freemason group but I’m a Catholic, so that’s a no go for me, unfortunately. My mother encouraged me to look into Knight of Columbus but my chapter parish doesn’t seem too active and appealing.

    2. Kaiser Dishelm March 14, 2016 at 7:00 pm

      I’ve been asked once to consider joining up with the Masons. My Grandfather was a mason (although not too active during his last years), so I had some interest. I’m Christian, though not Catholic, but arrived at the same conclusion that it’s heretical.

      That being said, there are probably some lessons to learn from them. Maybe get some sweet rings and aprons.

  5. Some notes of mine on German college fraternities, which are unusually right-wing (especially for Germany):

    Burschenschaften were mentioned in the German wiki article on Mannerbund. This article seems largely accurate for an overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burschenschaft

    Important points for Mannerbund:

    As opposed to American college fraternities, the Burschenschaften are political in purpose and extremely right-wing. The main division is between the Burschenschaften who support the revolutions of 1848 and are otherwise German nationalists, and the Burschenschaften who don’t support the revolutions and prefer a return to pre-Napoleonic Germany i.e. monarchists. There are apolitical Burschenschaften but they are not the interesting ones. I really do mean that, by the looks of it, there are reactionary monarchist college fraternities that are well-known all across Germany and Austria.

    Burschenschaften require several years of active service (during and/or immediately after university studies) followed by lifelong involvement as an “Old Sir.”

    Recruits who wish to join spend 6 months preparing for their exam/test before they can become a member, assuming they pass the Mensur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_fencing

    To join each recruit has to fight four matches of the academic fencing sport. Members still typically sustain head and body wounds which have to be ignored to finish the fight. From what I understood this served as an excellent entry barrier to leftists and other soft-heads.

    Chapters of the Burschenschaften are independent but communicate using several general umbrella organizations. They typically name themselves using the name of their location as well as names from Greek, Roman and Germanic lore i.e. “Olympia,” “Germania,” “Alemmania,” “Siegfried,” etc.

    1. ConantheContrarian March 16, 2016 at 11:30 am

      I like this idea. A German whom I know told me of the Burgundians at his university. What a cool name for a fraternity. Somehow we need to recruit some college students into this type of fraternity: Right-wing, traditionalist, restorationist.

    2. Thank you, Mark, that’s fascinating! Fighting is definitely an initiation requirement few men’s groups should do without, and I’d be very interested to read their entry exams.

  6. I found this a great read, thank you. There’s occasionally talk about founding some new religion in neoreaction, which has a certain vainglorious charm. Still, to my mind more humble ritual and secular order, like you describe here, seem far more hopeful and exciting because they seem so concrete and possible.

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