Fightin’ words: Philodemic Society

February 17, 2011

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.”

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Comments 11

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    The fact that the Philodemic passes for a diverse group at Georgetown actually makes me feel a little sick. At a school of rich kids, this group seems to me to epitomize privilege within Georgetown. I understand that their old rituals may seem quaint and make some people feel nostalgia for a time they never actually experienced, and that’s fine. However, don’t twist the word “diversity” to your purposes simply because it’s a nice buzzword. It takes a lot more having traveled a little and lived in Connecticut to make a diverse group.

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    To be fair, I think the article makes it pretty clear that they were referring to a diversity of opinions and viewpoints, not necessarily the diversity of the members of the Society.

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    Dear Excuse Me,
    I’m not sure if you go/went to Georgetown or have ever been to a Philodemic meeting but your comments definitely do not reflect my experience. I met incredible people from all over the world and different socio-economic backgrounds both at Georgetown and in the Philodemic. Though the Philodemic’s traditions may seem stuffy to you and do attract a certain crowd, those of us who have participated in it in recent years have worked hard, and I think successfully, to make it a more diverse place. As a member of the Philodemic I learned a great deal, had a lot of fun and made a pretty diverse group of – what I hope will be – lifelong friends. Those same opportunities are available to anyone who wishes to join. The main reason I felt compelled to respond to your comments are that I don’t want any current students to feel like the Philodemic isn’t open to them if its something they are interested in. I don’t want to get into an internet debate so instead I’d invite you to stop by a meeting, see what its like and actually meet some members (I wont be there since I’ve graduated but I’m sure they won’t mind). If its relevant to the debate you might even express your opinion from the floor (it would hardly be the first time the Philodemic itself has been criticized at a Philodemic debate).

    James Unger
    Class of 2008

    PS I transferred to Georgetown from a Community College in California and the only time I’ve ever been to Connecticut was a stop at a gas station on a Chinatown bus from New York City to Boston…so we aren’t all from Connecticut.

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    The whole idea of diversity as a virtue implies an epistemological belief that local knowledge or, its proxy, identity is a more efficient and just path to knowledge than reason alone.

    Sometimes I think that’s true, but when I don’t it’s difficult for me to use identity-arguments because I think they’re tacky. But hey, Excuse Me, I’ll respond to your criticism using your own value system because I think I’ll best make my point to you that way.

    I’m a poor Marxist from the West Coast who almost went to screenwriting school (I’m sure you think Philodemic is artless too), and I go to Philodemic every week. If a hand-me-down blazer is the entrance fee to Georgetown’s most consistently engaging and intellectually stimulating organization on campus, count me as not snob enough to look down on the dress code, or the formalities.

    You should come. We’re gonna have a good month.

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    hey man, you philodem people don’t have to convince everyone that what you do is worthy, man. i know the people reading this and want to respond in comments are in the society, and that’s cool man. but you don’t have to convince people of anything man.

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    Dear Excuse Me,

    There is a word for what you are doing: stereotyping.

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    To the first comment in this thread:

    My name is Nick Iacono and I’m very proud to say that I am the President of the Philodemic Society, and I would like to first thank Matt for this very well written article, it really meant a lot to our members.

    To this idea that the Society “seems to epitomize privilege within Georgetown”. Comments like that are always very funny for me to hear. I’ve never been to Connecticut and I doubt I’d fall into the “privileged” category. I was born and raised in a modest neighborhood on Staten Island, NY in an attached town house not all that much bigger than the Henle I live in right now. It’s a place that brings to mind Jersey Shore wannabees than it does the prep school upper crust that I think you’re likening us to. My mother worked as a bookkeeper for a local business every day of her life to put me through Catholic school even after suffering a stroke at age 40 that left her with longterm side effects and a 10 year old boy to raise by herself. I love this school and can honestly say that I’m able to attend it without being able to pay for a single semester on my own. My tuition is paid almost entirely by grants and financial aid.

    My intention wasn’t to soapbox with some sob story about how poor I am, but the vast majority of Philodemic members don’t fit the stereotypical box you’ve created for us. Your comment, like so many others like it that I’ve seen and heard reveal one thing and one thing only. You know nothing about us, nothing about what we value, and nothing about what we do.

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    I agree with a few things here other than the egocentric gibberish that has a place though not to critique this … “society”. This is perhaps an oxymoron because a society must reflect on a society and not just sophistry of grammar and rhetoric. A society must reflect on logic and if the intellegenica of Georgetown actually had the time to engage with this “society”, natural ability alone could prevail in a debate with one or all of these members by that member of Georgetown intellegencia staying home and just sleeping.

    I am a member, she’s a member, he’s a member, I am a president, I am a Marxist – it sounds like “I’m a pepper, your a pepper, she’s a pepper, he’s a pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too, be a Pepper drink Dr Pepper”. Since the self exalting importance of being a pepper is of pure rhetoric and grammar, just as the pointless installation of who some of you say you are by a way that repulses and retards reality of any conventional/unconventional society outside of Georgetown.

    There is way too much hype for this society, from a historical prespective you could say death valley was surveyed, named and set on a map by some cowboy, death valley by this fashion was founded in the 19th century perhaps just as the Philodemic society was.

    A survival cyclist might live up to his name of being a Death Valley champ, Death Valley might live up to it’s terrain feature name, the Philodemic Society as an empty room lives up to it’s name with all the wonderful history an antiquated room has to offer, though what my student colleagues express is poor in critique there is a nucleus of truth that actually has them well grounded.

    With the arguments settled … I really think, well if I said what I think I would be in a lot of trouble.

    So let’s test the brilliance of the society and on every Saturday evening have them debate non society members at a bigger forum.

    Until them do keep writing about yourselves and pale activities … comedy central is always looking for writers.

    Steve Verges

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    “Until then”

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    First of all, this feature captures the essence of the Philodemic better than any other campus media piece I’ve read in the past five years. Current members of the Society should be proud to be portrayed in our university community by such excellent work.

    Moreover, during the three years that I was fortunate enough to spend with the Philodemic Society, I befriended some of the most inquisitive, talented, and vivacious members of the Georgetown intelligentsia (this is how the word is spelled) of the time. Though I’ve been gone from Georgetown nearly a year, I suspect that the Philodemic Society remains a lively forum for the exchange of ideas and the practice of rhetoric. Though the Society has its quirks and flaws (as do all organizations), it remains an asset to the University.

    I also witnessed a remarkable diversification of the Philodemic over the course of my undergraduate years. Debates my freshman year tended to draw less than 20 close friends who at first glance appeared quite similar. By my senior year, however, it was normal for over 40 people of numerous ideological, socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds to show up on Thursday nights.

    To those who level at the Philodemic the charges of homogeneity and exclusivity, all I have to say is this: come and see for yourselves! Either you will be pleasantly surprised, or you will discover that it is within your power to change the situation.


    Drew Peterson
    Class of 2010

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    “I also witnessed a remarkable diversification of the Philodemic over the course of my undergraduate years. Debates my freshman year tended to draw less than 20 close friends who at first glance appeared quite similar. By my senior year, however, it was normal for over 40 people of numerous ideological, socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds to show up on Thursday nights.

    To those who level at the Philodemic the charges of homogeneity and exclusivity, all I have to say is this: come and see for yourselves! Either you will be pleasantly surprised, or you will discover that it is within your power to change the situation.”

    Where was this? I want to ask you where this was because last time I checked Georgetown University doesn’t give scholarships to anyone from Washington DC Public Schools fitting the bill of those who are socio-economically challenged and of numerous racial backgrounds. Is a single African American vying with a bunch of meretricious white kids amount to numerous roll calls of diversity, and if so by your standards of valid scholarly effrontery is it fair to ask, “Why are you so out of touch with the reality which one can read on the stats of Georgetown’s yearly graduation books, are you claiming you have a diverse crowd when in NW – NE – SW – SE, Georgetown in repetitive tedium offers no scholarships to DC Public School students?”; here is a philodemic subject: argue if Georgetown University should offer student housing back to the black families who were squeezed out of their homes so non-black students could get local dorms since Georgetown is so diverse and thoughtful.