Philodemic Society

The Philodemic Society is a student debating society at Georgetown University. It was founded in 1830 by Father James Ryder, S.J. The Philodemic is among the oldest such societies in the United States,[4] and is the oldest secular student organization at Georgetown.[5] The society's motto, "Eloquentiam Libertati Devinctam" reminds its members that they are pursuing Eloquence in Defense of Liberty.[6]

Philodemic Society of Georgetown University
The Crest of the Philodemic Society of Georgetown University
FormationSeptember 25, 1830[1]
TypeDebating society
Legal statusActive
HeadquartersHealy Hall

Debates are held weekly on Thursdays at 8 p.m. in the Philodemic Room in Healy Hall.[4] In recent years, the Philodemic has taken a more active role in engaging other prominent debating societies on the Eastern seaboard.[7] The Philodemic maintains several intercollegiate friendships, most notably with the Demosthenian Literary Society of the University of Georgia, the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at the University of Virginia.


In 1830, students under the leadership of Father James A. Ryder, S.J., later elevated to university president, founded the Philodemic Society. The only other student group at that time was a religious group, the Sodality of Our Lady. The society's first debate was on the topic of "Napoleon Bonaparte or General Washington: Which was the better man?"[8] Though a secular society, the Philodemic often recognized Georgetown's Catholic traditions, and beginning in 1841, added an official commemoration of the Jesuit landing at St. Mary's City, Maryland, to their calendar.[9]

Several other groups were founded in its shadow. Founded in 1839 as Georgetown's second debate society, the Philonomosian Debating Society became the second largest debating society around 1912–1913 when demand for membership in both the Philonomosian and Philodemic Societies could not accommodate both lower and upper classmen. After this point in time, both Societies became exclusively upperclassmen and membership was capped at 40. This Society held its own special cup called the Philonomosian cup and debated regularly like the Philodemic until it was disbanded in 1935. In 1912 the White Debating Society was founded in honor of Supreme Court Justice Edward Douglass White Jr., a former Philodemician. This society functioned as one of the junior debate societies on campus whose purpose was to train underclassmen that would be recruited by the more senior societies on campus. The strength of this society lay in its concentration of extemporaneous speaking. The Gaston Debating Society was founded in 1913 as Georgetown's second junior debate society for underclassmen. The motto of this society was, "advancing ourselves in love of knowledge and truth, and to make progress in eloquence".[10][11] In recent years, membership has generally fluctuated between 60 and 90 members throughout the year, as roughly 20–30 members are inducted during the academic year and roughly the same number of senior members graduate each spring.

Since 1881, with the construction of Healy Hall by Paul J. Pelz under the direction of University president Patrick Healy two years prior, the Philodemic has been headquartered in a debating hall on the second floor of Healy, specially designed for the Philodemic. The Philodemic Room is directly adjacent to the president's office and includes a president's chair designed by Pelz himself.[12] In the 1990s, the Philodemic was not permitted to access the room for a number of years, with the room being utilized as a conference room. During this time period, debates were held in other campus venues, and even once in the hallway outside the Philodemic Room. The Society also holds certain special debates, such as the annual humorous Christmas debate, in historic Riggs Library, also in Healy Hall.

Although since its refounding in 1989, the Philodemic no longer participates in competitive intercollegiate policy or parliamentary debate, historically, the Philodemic was a powerhouse of intercollegiate debating. In 1895, the Philodemic journeyed to Boston College to participate with Boston College's Fulton Society in the first ever debating competition between two Catholic schools. The Philodemic's prowess was such that for an 18-year period, from 1921 to 1939, Philodemic teams were undefeated in any intercollegiate competition.[13]

The Society operates a Philodemic Library, and members are encouraged to donate works.[14] With the advent of the digital age, the Society seeks to digitize the 185 years' worth of Philodemic archives and records that currently are kept in the Special Collections Office of Lauinger Library.[15]


In order to become a member of the Philodemic Society, a Georgetown undergraduate student must give three unscripted floor speeches over the course of one semester or four speeches over the course of two or more semesters.[6] Each undergraduate on the Induction List is assigned a mentor from within the Society to familiarize him or her with the traditions, practices and rules of the Philodemic and assist in the preparation of an induction keynote. The Philodemic Society maintains a formal dress code for all their debates. Proper attire for weekly debates is "Western Business Attire." Every Thursday, after the debate, the Society journeys to Martin's Tavern on Wisconsin Avenue to continue the discussion.[16]

The Philodemic Society Room in Healy Hall in 1910

Weekly debatesEdit

Two keynote speeches are given at the start of each debate, one speaker on the affirmation and the other in the negation of a resolution that had been previously selected by the Society at a Business Meeting. The number of keynotes may be doubled for the purposes of inducting new members into the Society. Much of the fall semester contains debates with four keynotes as many new members are inducted into the Society during this part of the year. The keynoters give prepared speeches for the purposes of laying the groundwork for the Debate and outlining the most relevant and pertinent arguments that are meant to be expounded upon by the Society at large during the following floor debate. Once the keynoters have finished making their remarks, the president reads the house rules, and opens the floor to the Debate.[6]

The Philodemic room is divided in two—with the negation and affirmation sitting on opposite sides of the room. The president calls on speakers, alternating speakers between those speaking on behalf of the affirmation and those speaking on the side of the negation. Floor speeches are relatively short—under three minutes—and are meant to be an unprepared address that anyone in attendance may give at a moments notice. Little or no preparation is intended for these speeches as members and non-members alike are encouraged to use these opportunities to hone their speech giving skills and quick thinking abilities by giving on-the-fly, pertinent and sometimes, dramatic speeches.

Preference is given to Society members in order of seniority. At the President's discretion, he or she may call for a non-members' speaking time during which the President will only call on non-member undergraduate speakers. This is usually when non-member undergraduates attain their three or four speeches. After several rounds of floor speeches that last for about one hour, the keynoters are invited back to give their closing remarks. Once they are finished, the President divides the room, and the keynoters physically count the people that are standing on their side of the room. Abstentions stand in the middle between to the two sides.

The Philodemic Society Room is located on the second floor of Healy Hall.

The Hamilton Homecoming DebateEdit

Every year, early in the fall semester, the Philodemic holds the annual Hamilton Homecoming Debate that invites alumni of the Society to return to campus and relive their days as undergraduates in the Society. The event is cherished by members both graduated and undergraduate as it gives them a chance to reconnect with old friends and see how the Society has progressed as an organization since leaving campus. It also represents an important opportunity for members of the Society to network with and learn from graduated peers who can offer their invaluable insights, opinions and experience of life after college.

The Dean Gordon DebateEdit

The Dean Gordon Debate stands out among debates as one night where the members of the Society collectively agree to forgo the normal rules of formality, poise and decency usually expected at Debates. Held in April each year, this debate reveals a side of the Philodemic usually seen only outside the austerity of the Philodemic Room.

Instead of the usual serious resolution, the member of the Society decide on a resolution that is aimed at fostering a downright silly debate of witty remarks, ironic stories and hilarious banter made up of nonsense puns and whimsical comments. The goal is to get the most laughs as humanly possible. Members will constantly attempt to outdo each other all in the hopes to impress the audience with his or her clever speech and slick wordplay. It is an altogether lighthearted and humorous affair that is staple of life in the Philodemic.

The Dean Gordon Debate is named after an Philodemician and Georgetown Alum, Richard Gordon, who, as associate and assistant dean of the law school, was instrumental in the refounding of the Philodemic in the 1990s. Dean Gordon, who died in 2004, was a former President of the Philodemic and the Merrick Medal winner in 1950.[17]

The Richard T. Merrick DebateEdit

Inaugurated in 1874, the Merrick Debate is the Society's most prestigious event of the year. The resolution is discussed and decided by the Society at length months beforehand to ensure that the debate is both relevant to the world today, and has deep roots in the western philosophical tradition on which the Society was founded. The Merrick Debate is the crowning end of the Philodemic season and is held every year in April.

The Society had held 144 Merrick Debates since the debate's inception. It is named after the noted 19th century lawyer Richard T. Merrick, who endowed the award and medal in 1874. The Merrick Debate generally occurs at midday; in the past, debates were often held in Georgetown's historic Gaston Hall, but are now generally held in the Philodemic Room or Riggs Library. On the evening of the debate, the Society holds a black tie celebration at a venue in Washington; in recent years, the Society has held the gala at locations including the National Press Club and the City Tavern Club.

Unlike the weekly debates in which there are two keynoters that are selected by seniority, the four Merrick keynoters are selected by the Society during a competitive spring season of debate. At the conclusion of spring Merrick debates, the Society votes on the best speakers of the night and the speakers who get the most votes are awarded Merrick points based on how many votes they received. The members with the top four most points at the end of the season become the four members that give keynotes at the Merrick Debate. Being selected to keynote the Merrick Debate is among the most impressive achievements one can attain within the Society.

The actual debate is judged by guest judges. These judges have ranged from politicians, civil rights leaders, famous journalists, to prominent religious and military leaders. Among the judges in recent years have been E.J. Dionne, Patrick J. Conroy, Dan Lungren, Chai Feldblum, Thomas L. Ambro, Joseph Lhota[18] and Albert Wynn. At the conclusion of the debate, the judges chose the keynoter they believe best demonstrated "Eloquence in Defense of Liberty" and award him or her the Merrick Medal. This is considered a particularly prestigious honor as this medal is the only decoration a Georgetown student may wear during graduation that is not awarded at graduation. Altogether, the Merrick Debate represents the finest example of what the Philodemic is as a debate society and it is an event well worth attending.

Intercollegiate DebateEdit

In recent years, the Philodemic has attempted to resuscitate its long tradition of intercollegiate debate with the Annual East Coast Conference of Collegiate Literary Debate Societies, held in conjunction with a historical celebration known as Kai Yai Yai. The competition, which is usually known simply as "Kai Yai Yai", is held at the beginning of October and has in recent years included the Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania, the American Whig–Cliosophic Society of Princeton University, the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Demosthenian Literary Society of The University of Georgia in Athens.[19] The Philodemic has historically participated in the Winchester Cup, an annual competition with the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society of the University of Virginia, and the Columbia Cup, a debate with the Enosinian Society of The George Washington University before they became defunct in 2010.

Notable PhilodemiciansEdit

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia was a member of the Philodemic Society during the 1950s

Honorary PhilodemiciansEdit

Starting in 1831, the members of the Philodemic Society began electing honorary members and the electee would have to confirm his desire to become a member. "At that time and for years afterward it was considered a mark of especial distinction to be elected an honorary member of the society and some of the foremost men in public life at the national capital were so honored."[21] Honorary members include George Washington Parke Custis, William Gaston, Ulysses S. Grant, James Hoban, Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Robert McClelland, Franklin Pierce, William Winston Seaton, John Hughes and Zachary Taylor.

See alsoEdit


Other historic collegiate literary societies


  1. ^ Membership generally fluctuates from roughly 60 members at the beginning of each academic year to roughly 90 at the end.[2][3]


  1. ^ Shea, John Gilmary (1891). Memorial of the First Centenary of Georgetown College, D.C.: Comprising a History of Georgetown College. New York: P.F. Collier. p. 92.
  2. ^ Desnick, Michael; Green, Emma; Rendleman, Daniel; Joshua, Donovan. "The History of the Philodemic Society, 1830–2011" (PDF). The Philodemic Society. Retrieved April 30, 2015.
  3. ^ "Philodemic Membership List". The Philodemic Society. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  4. ^ a b Swayne, Matthew L. (2012). America's Haunted Universities: Ghosts That Roam Hallowed Halls. Llewellyn Worldwide. ISBN 978-0738730806.
  5. ^ Curran, Robert Emmett (1993). The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University, 1789–1889. Georgetown University Press. pp. 200–202. ISBN 0878404856.
  6. ^ a b c Decker, Matthew (February 17, 2011). "Fightin' words: Philodemic Society". The Georgetown Voice. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  7. ^ Durkin, Joseph (1990). Swift Potomac's lovely daughter: two centuries at Georgetown through students' eyes. Georgetown University Press. pp. 130–132. ISBN 0878405011.
  8. ^ Blackney, Tyler (October 4, 2005). "Philodemic Society Marks Founding". The Hoya. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
  9. ^ King, Julia A. (2012). Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland. University of Tennessee Press. pp. 68–72. ISBN 978-1572338883.
  10. ^ "Georgetown Special Collections: University Archive". Universities Libraries Special Collections. October 6, 2004. Archived from the original on August 8, 2007. Retrieved September 11, 2007.
  11. ^ "Special Collections at Georgetown: A Brief History". Georgetown Universities Libraries Special Collections. November 11, 2000. Archived from the original on August 7, 2007. Retrieved September 11, 2007.
  12. ^ Desnick, Michael; Green, Emma; Rendleman, Daniel; Donovan, Joshua. "The History of the Philodemic Society, 1830–2011" (PDF). The Philodemic Society. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
  13. ^ Desnick, Michael; Green, Emma; Rendleman, Daniel; Donovan, Joshua. "The History of the Philodemic Society, 1830–2011" (PDF). The Philodemic Society. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
  14. ^ Goncharova, Masha (November 23, 2010). "Philodemic Society Unveils Library in Leavey". The Hoya. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  15. ^ "Earliest Proceedings of the Philodemic Society Now Online". Georgetown University Library. May 2, 2012. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  16. ^ Bellmore, Ryan (April 19, 2012). "Saxa Politica: Wax-a nostalgic-a". The Georgetown Voice. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  17. ^ "Dean Gordon Debate". The Philodemic Society. Retrieved March 9, 2015.
  18. ^ "Grand Semi Spring 2015". Philodemic Society. Retrieved August 13, 2015.
  19. ^ Ringwald, Madeleine. "PHILODEMIC WELCOMES GROUPS FROM UGA, UPENN, AND GWU". The Philodemic Society. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
  20. ^ Wise, Carolyn C.; Hauser, Stephanie (2007). The College Buzz Book. Vault Inc. p. 183. ISBN 978-1581314373.
  21. ^ Easby-Smith, James S. (1907). Georgetown University in the District of Columbia 1789–1907: Its Founders, Benefactors, Officers, Instructors and Alumni. New York: Lewis Publishing Company. pp. 264.

External linksEdit