The scene was tense in the antiquated library as one man paced back and forth, his three-piece suit neatly pressed and accented by a polished golden badge. His distinguished voice echoed in the faces of the equally dapper audience as they shouted out in encouragement, “huzzah!”
To many, such a scene conjures images of a fantasy novel, or some fabled secret society of bygone centuries, but it happens every week in the Georgetown Philodemic Society Library in Healy Hall. Founded in 1830, with the motto “in pursuit of eloquence in defense of liberty,” the Philodemic Society is Georgetown’s oldest and longest-running student organization and one of the oldest college debate clubs in the country.
Earlier that night, the society’s president, Nicholas Iacono (COL ’12) was greeted by applause from a standing audience before quickly getting down to the business of laying out the rules of the debate. Four keynote speakers, two affirmative, and two negative, provided the groundwork for the evening’s proceedings, which that night focused on the resolution, “globalization is a force of good.”
Each keynote speaker laid out arguments either for or against the resolution. After their prepared speeches, the floor was opened for members and non-members alike to speak. In turn, dozens of audience members took the floor to state their opinions, each making passionate arguments, citing examples from their own personal experiences, and delivered with engaging rhetorical skills.
As the evening wore on, however, it became clear that although the speakers were passionate, the debate was more about the ritual than the resolution at hand. Speakers competed to outdo one another in theatrical displays of wisdom. Several times, the room erupted into laughter, as the best speakers were able to balance the grace of their speech with an equally riveting diss to their competition, or wry self-deprecating one-liner.
Though the competition was intense, the speakers remained respectful of one another, and of the ritual of the debate itself. After the debate, several speakers asked to be critiqued by their peers.
“We really try to foster a community that’s open and supportive of each other, which I really think makes the Philodemic a special place for students,” Chancellor Allison Wagner (SFS ’11) said.
While the Philodemic Society may seem to many a room of politicians, each eager to preach their own points, they are actually remarkably open toward, and even encouraging of new participants. Many of the presenters at Thursday night’s debate, including keynote speakers Evan Monod (COL ’14) and Greg Miller (SFS ’14), were freshmen.
In order to be inducted as a full member, a student must give three speeches in one semester, or four speeches in any number of semesters.
“One of the things that we are most proud of about our induction process is that as soon as a person meets that requirement, they are given a mentor in the Society who is a liaison to answer their questions,” Iacono said. “It can be an intimidating process, so we certainly don’t want to exasperate that, and we want to have that point of connection and friendship from the beginning.”
The camaraderie and friendship of the Society became evident after the debate, as members extended thanks and congratulations to one another. The stakes are high, with each of the nine debates of the spring semester aimed at determining which four students will speak at the famous Merrick Debate.
Vice President Samuel Dulik (SFS ’13) explained that members earn points based on the quality of their speeches during debates. The four members with the most points get the opportunity to be keynote speakers at the Merrick Debate.
“The debate in and of itself is a very opulent affair, and it is definitely the high point of our year,” Dulik said. “We have judges who have included military leaders, U.S. Senators, and members of the Supreme Court who come and judge the best speakers in the Society.”
To an outsider, many of the Philodemic Society’s practices may seem odd. Members wear the Society’s traditional pins on their jacket lapels, knock on their chairs rather than applauding fellow speakers, shout “huzzah!” as a form of encouragement, and they address each other by formal titles, including “Chancellor” and “Amanuensis,” even though many of them have been friends for years.
The customs can come off as a pretentious attempt at formality, but they are the original formal procedures for a Philodemic debate, which date back to the early 19th century.
“In terms of debate societies in the United States, we are in the top 5 [oldest],” Dulik said. “The Philodemic Room was actually part of the original floor plans of Healy Hall, because the Philodemic Society was founded in 1830 and Healy was constructed in the 1880s.”
For many Philodemicians, the Society’s history and traditions are just as important as the debates themselves.
“We recognize how deep our roots really go into the history of Georgetown University,” Iacono said. “That’s one of the things that’s most important to us.”
Like many of Georgetown’s most historic organizations, the Philodemic Society maintains a strong connection with its alumni. Each spring, the Society’s secretary issues a newsletter that is distributed to a network of alumni around the world. Various alumni who are passing through campus and wanting to relive their time in the Society will frequent weekly debates.
“They play an important role in reminding us of history as well as enriching our debates when they are here,“ Wagner said.
The club’s close ties with its former members has allowed it to host several notable alumni.
“I recall receiving an email from a gentleman who was president in the 1950s, so we invited him to our Hamilton Debate,” Iacono said. “He was just so excited, his heart was so warmed that we were still going strong and keeping the tradition alive, it made us feel really special.”
It seems impossible to erase the enchanting and intellectually stimulating nature of the ritual of the debate.
“We have people who couldn’t even pronounce the name of the organization, didn’t even know what it was about, and thought it was all these people in suits, like a cult or something,” Dulik said. “But you just come and you fall in love with it because it’s so incredible and engaging.”
While the average Georgetown student may expect the society’s meetings to be full of know-it-alls who love to sermonize, the debate on Thursday relied more on the charisma and passion of the speakers.
Each speaker drew from his or her own background and expertise, whether that was in economics, art, history, politics, or religion, to construct a thoughtful argument.
“There very well may be a perception that it’s a room full of people who all want to be lawyers or politicians when they grow up, or that they are all government majors, but you have an incredible diversity of people,” Dulik said. “That creates a very welcoming environment and really enriches our debates with a diversity of perspectives.”
The diversity of its members was evident in the debate. Some speakers mentioned their experiences living in Asia, or growing up in the suburbs of New England. Richard Rinaldi (MSB ’12) spoke about how he was forced to cut his study abroad experience in Egypt short a few weeks before.
“A lot of the convictions that I had before I was a member, and the convictions that I have now are very different,” Iacono said. “They change a lot when you are forced to put an opinion out there and examine it in the light of all those other differing opinions, and I think that’s an important thing for any member of the University community.”
Indeed, to Wagner and many of the Society’s 55 members, debate is an almost necessary extension of the classroom experience.
Without the pressure of grades or the judgment of professors, students are freer to speak openly. The debates center around classic Georgetown curricula like philosophy, economics, and comparative politics, and allow students to sharpen their verbal argument skills.
“I have learned more in those four walls [of the Philodemic Room] than I have in the four walls of the classrooms at Georgetown,” Wagner said. “With that banter, it takes education to a new level. In seminar classrooms even, you can’t get that same diversity of opinion or people that you can in the Philodemic Room.”