Members of the Society gathered last Sunday to celebrate the Philodemic’s 183rd birthday. The Society’s librarian and historian, Mr. Gregory Miller, delivered a fascinating account of the Society’s early years. He recounted the debates of the Philodemic’s first year and noted that early Philodemecians were obsessed with “great men”. In its first meeting, the Society debated whether Napoleon Bonaparte or General Washington was the greater man. Washington was the predictable winner in this contest, this being a Society which uses eloquence to defend liberty.
However, the early Society did not always vote on the side of liberty. Ninety percent of our original members were Southerners who negated the resolution “Should the slaves be liberated?” Thankfully, today’s diverse Philodemic has left this early prejudice behind, but it was not an easy process.
Like Georgetown as a whole, the Society went through much turmoil in the years leading up the Civil War. In 1833 and 1850, students broke into open rebellion against the faculty’s strict disciplinary measures. The Philodemic instigated the 1850 rebellion when the First Prefect refused permission to meet after hours. The ensuing chaos ended with the temporary expulsion of more than half of the student body.
As the nation moved closer to war, the Society chose debates which reflect the deteriorating politics of the era. In 1859, the Philodemic affirmed “Should the South now secede?” though the next year we negated “Whether the Union will be dissolved in the case of the election of Lincoln as President”. After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, parents removed their children from the college and in 1861, with only three of its members still on campus, the Society voted to temporarily adjourn.
The Philodemic Society emerged from the war battered, and took years to regain its membership and stature, but we have remained and today continue to speak eloquently in defense of liberty. Mr. Miller closed the enjoyable gathering with a quote from Fr. Edward Bunn S.J. who delivered an address to the Society in the 1950s.
“Among the disciplines you undergo in the training of your schooldays, one of the most valuable is the exercise of the arts of eloquence and of debate. The painstaking investigation and sifting of fact and truth, the ordered marshalling of clear thought and logical argument, the poise and confidence engendered in the keen give-and-take of forensic competition—these are the assets which will stand you in good stead through life, in any chosen vocation or profession.”
With that, we opened a bottle of sparkling cider and toasted the Philodemic, George Washington, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and of course, Poland’s Liberty. Huzzah!