"My God, how they talked!"
Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

The debate and literary societies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Think of it, if you will, as a cross between a fairly tame fraternity and a Model UN club. Except cooler.


The Dialectic Society was founded in 1795, the first year of UNC's operation, as a literary society in the same vein as Princeton's Whig-Cliosophics and Columbia's Philodemics. Such organizations were a primary means of socialization between students at the time, as extracurricular activities were few (particularly in Chapel Hill, a city essentially built around the university). With the higher education system of 18th-century America more focused on memorization and recitation than expressing original ideas, these groups were also critical fora for students to employ their rhetoric and debate skills. After all, if you were rich enough to attend a university back then, you were probably going into a career where public speaking was pretty important. To regulate debate, these societies often had to institute fairly strict rules to keep everybody in order.

In the case of the Dialectic Society, their rules were a bit too strict; a few years after their founding, a set of rogue students broke off to create a rival debate society. After going through a few name changes (including, amusingly, the Cornflower Society), they settled on the Philanthropic Society as their moniker. The inherent differences between the two Societies were even apparent in their mottos; whereas the Dialectic Society's motto was "Virtus et Scientia", the Philanthropic Societies' motto was "Virtus, Libertas, et Scientia".

And so began a rivalry that would last for a century and a half. Members of competing societies engaged in duels; snuck into the skylights of each other's halls (and, in at least one case, fell through them in the middle of a meeting); and raced each other on horseback to meet incoming freshmen and explain why their society was inherently good and the others' was evil. After this last incident, both societies came to a compromise on who could join which Society. Those hailing from west of Orange County (where Chapel Hill is located) would be "Dis", those east of Orange County would be "Phis", and those from Chapel Hill itself or out-of-state would be able to choose, a tradition that more or less lasts to this day.

The Societies were able to cooperate in other ways, too, which made a lasting impact on the University of North Carolina as a whole. Like any good literary society, they used funds and donations to amass large, independent libraries. When they donated these to the University in the late 19th century, it became the backbone of the University's school library. The roots of UNC's yearbook, student government, honor code, and even school colors also came from the Dialectics and Philanthropics. The Dialectics' traditional color (for their hall, graduation cords, etc.) was a light blue, and the Philanthropics' was white; when the University decided to field one of those new-fangled foot-ball teams in the late 1800s and needed to create official school colors, why not just borrow those of the largest student organizations at the time? So they did, and created the outfit that you see Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm wearing today.

Unfortunately, the introduction of athletics was to prove to be a major hazard to the Di and Phi. Along with the insurgence of fraternities (and later, sororities), students found that they had things they would rather do than debate. The combined membership of the Societies fell from virtually the entire university in 1880 to as little as one member in the middle of the 20th century. He managed to bring folks in, who decided to essentially merge the Societies into a Joint Senate (now called the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies), but interest remained fluctuating throughout the academically turbulent 60s and 70s. It picked up soon after, though, and the Societies began a period of slow regrowth through the present day, where they now have about 40 active members.

Alumni members of "Di-Phi" created the "Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies Foundation", a non-profit group which works with current Di-Phi members to sustain interest and maintain the Societies' portrait collection, one of the largest private collections in the Southeast.

Di-Phi today

In the Preamble to the Joint Senate Constitution, it is stated that

WE, the members of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, in order to promote the ideals of our Societies; namely
to stimulate and advance interest in parliamentary discussion,
to encourage public speaking, culture, and the arts,
to facilitate a free interchange of ideas,
to encourage rational thought,
to promote the welfare of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and to promote the study of the history of this University,
do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Joint Senate of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies.

But mostly we just sit around and debate.

Debates are held every Monday at 7:30 PM that school is in session, in the middle of Di-Phi's weekly meetings in the Dialectic Chamber (at UNC's New East Hall). Debates are conducted roughly in the style of parliamentary debate; two speakers argue for and two others against a particular resolution, take questions, and then allow speakers from the floor to come up and give their own two cents. After that, the Societies vote on which side they wish to take for all posterity... or until the debate comes up again. Meetings also entail organizational business and something called PPMA, where people can again come to the front, but can talk about anything they want for 5 minutes as long as it's within bounds of decency. Some people just talk about their lives or rant about something they hate, but others try to teach the attendees something, give memorials to personal idols (andor friends), take questions for the entire five minutes, or even sing. (One group of enterprising young Senators--the term used to refer to Society members--tried to spread out the lyrics of "Alice's Restaurant" over four separate speeches until the Chair got wise and shot them down.)

The debates themselves run the gamut of pretty much anything possible, from the political (RESOLVED: The US should withdraw from the United Nations) to the silly (RESOLVED: Mario could so take Link); from the philosophical (RESOLVED: It is better to be merciful than just) to current events (RESOLVED: Saddam Hussein should have been executed). Special debates include the Bicentennial Debate, where four Senators debate a resolution that the Dialectic or Philanthropic Societies debated 200 years ago, and the balloon debate. The Societies also hold informal social events, called Greats (Great Movie Night, Great Poker, Great Graveyard Poetry, held in the actual Di-Phi cemetery on UNC's campus, etc.), an annual debate for Student Body President elections, and other such things. Di-Phi, by the way, has no relation whatsoever to speed debate and its constituent organizations, where people compete to see how quickly they can read from a piece of paper. No offense, of course.


The officers of Di-Phi include the President, President Pro Tempore, Critic, Clerk, Sergent-at-Arms, and Historian. The individual Societies (which still exist, though as little more than formalities) also have their own officers.


Famous alumni of Di-Phi mostly date back to the 19th century, when the Societies were at their highest point of membership. Former DIs and Phis include President James K. Polk, Vice President Rufus de Vane King, Sen. Thomas Clingman and Elisha Mitchell (both avid mountainclimbers and the namesakes of Mount Mitchell and Clingman's Dome), and a slew of North Carolina Governors, including Civil War and Reconstruction-era Governor Zebulon Vance. 20th century Di-Phi alumni are harder to find, but include Senator Sam Ervin, who led the Senate Watergate hearings, and, of course, author Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe, actually, had an interesting time in Di-Phi.

He had a tendency to be picked upon, and two sophomores in the Dialectic Society told him (when he was preparing to petition to join the Dis) that the best way to impress his peers was to write as pompous, grandiloquent, and arrogant a speech as possible. Those who have read Thomas Wolfe know that his style tends to this extreme already, and when he gave his speech, culminating in the phrase "...and when my fair portrait from these walls doth hang", he was almost laughed out of the room before being accepted anyway. His portrait, the largest one in the Dialectic Chamber, now hangs on the north wall.

Personal Perspective

I recognize that such an organization as the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies may not seem to be of any interest at all to probably 90% of the audience of Everything2. But, speaking as both an E2er and a member of Di-Phi, I feel obligated to note that this is no fraternity, no Southern good old boys' organization. Members of Di-Phi span the political, socio-economic and racial gamut, from Catholics to atheists, with moral relativists and all sorts of combinations of the previous. At the heart of Di-Phi isn't a wish to meet people and get ahead in life--there are much more efficient ways to do that elsewhere--but the same principles that I believe guide this site: a desire to spread and gain as much information as possible, while learning how to better communicate with our fellow human beings.

For more information on the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, go to http://www.unc.edu/di_phi.

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