(Marco Pantaleon shares his stories as a participant in the Free Society Seminar 2018 held in Slovakia last June. Marco is presently a third year student of Political Economy at the University of Asia and the Pacific.)
The Free Society Seminar is an annual gathering of students from various countries including the United States, Great Britain, and Slovakia to learn and discuss the principles of a free society. Slovak students, who hosted and participated in the seminar, represented the educational institution of what its students fondly called the “Kolegium” — a building that houses one of the premier Slovak educational institutions: Kolegium Anton Neuwirth. This year, I was lucky enough to have applied through the Universitas Foundation which secured my slot as one of the 16 participants of the 9-day program.
Sheltered in what was humbly referred to as the Chateau, we lived and learned in what was a monument of a structure. It was a grand place to learn, discuss, and live with fellow students — only fitting for the grand manner in which the seminar was conducted. The idea, according to Martin Luteran, the founding rector of KAN, was that students and professors would not only learn and interact with one another in the classroom but also lived together under one roof so as to learn more from one another more intimately, just as it was in his days in Oxford.
The seminar was divided into two segments; the first held in the outskirts of Bratislava, Ivanka Pri Dunaji and the second leg in a quaint little town in the center of Slovakia named Banska Stiavnica. There were more or less three seminars each day that revolved around various themes of political philosophy. We tackled the great classics of Aristotle and Plato, who best represented the classical view of politics and juxtaposed them with modern political philosophy, as represented by Hobbes, Descartes, and Machiavelli. We were in great hands too. The professors who flew in from Washington D.C. all carried with them not only a strong command for the subject but a mastery of them. We had Dr. Robert Royal, the president of Faith and Reason institute, who made sure the seminar started and ended in the best ways possible — a toast and a short speech. We had Bill Saunders of the Harvard Law School who taught the various ways in which students can approach key issues in human rights from strategic legal standpoints. We also had the pleasure of learning from Joseph Wood who chose the life of contemplation after having served the Bush administration, among his many other accomplishments, and provided a clear framework from which the students more easily grasped more complex ideas of political philosophy. Father Derek Cross, apart from serving as the seminar’s spiritual guide, offering daily mass, lectured on International Relations and its competing theories. The lessons were enlightening.
It was the first time the Seminar accepted two Filipinos this year. While Bino flew in two weeks earlier to fulfill his internship duties at the Kolegium, I arrived in the afternoon of July 29. It was in the opening night where we met the participants of vastly different backgrounds. After a three-course dinner, we were asked to introduce ourselves over a toast. It was from there that a slightly awkward group of students grew strong bonds with each other over the course of nine days. Bino and I learned a lot of things from the participants. From the students of Oxford and Great Britain, we marveled at their rich use of the english language and their wit; From the Americans we learned the economy and clarity with which they expressed themselves; And from the Slovaks, we shared in our learning of the strengths and weaknesses of bilinguality, a trait shared between the Slovaks and the Filipinos. We were all eager to learn with an open mind. While we debated and clashed on certain topics, what enriched the discussions were the openness to learn new things and draw valuable lessons from the great tradition of the past.
It was hard not to grow fond of everyone who attended. Not only were we treated to great dinners in different restaurants, we were shown the sites and history of Slovakia which gave way to plenty time for bonding. In Banska Stiavnica, for example, we explored the town’s rich mining history at the heart of Slovakia. In the Bratislava, we explored the country’s rich Austro-Hungarian past as well as intimate stories from communist Slovakia, whose fragments were still very much apparent in the Bratislava cityscape. And in Ivanka Pri Dunaji, it was not uncommon for us to take a swim at a nearby lake or take an afternoon stroll.
Michael Novak Night
If there is any one person whom the seminar can be attributed to, then it would be to Michael Novak. The story goes that Michael Novak, along with Rocco Buttiglione and Josef Seifert met at the luncheon meeting in Interlaken, Switzerland in 1991. Inspired by the fresh publication of the encyclical Centisimuss Annus, they conceived of a seminar that would bridge the growing cultural and intellectual gap between continents, especially among Catholics. Thus, they arranged the first Free Society Seminar that comprised of Central and Eastern European as well as 10 American students and held it at the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1992 and 1993.
It was only fitting then that one night was attributed to the late Michael Novak and his contributions to the Free Society Seminar. Father Derek Cross, Dr. Robert Royal, and Martin Luteran all shared stories of his life. They narrated his intellectual heritage and his dream for a prosperous Slovak society, himself coming from a Slovak-American heritage. We drank his favorite drink too as we laughed at all the intimate stories about the late great Catholic Philosopher.
Principles of a Free Society
In the end, the seminar provided its participants with a fresh perspective from which we can properly understand the principles of a free society. Not only were we taught what it was, but also how it is nourished by protecting its tenets and preserving the spiritual dimension of society.
A great professor and friend who in the past few years was introduced to the millenials and their entitlement quite cynically once told me that, “…what the millenials do in fact have an absolute entitlement to — the classical tradition — they seem to be turning their backs on…”. This seminar was a reminder of this timely statement. If we are apt to seek the truth, then there is little of it to be found in the postmodern world we live in now. We need to seek and recover the roots of what made our civilization great; we need to rediscover the great tradition of the classical liberal arts.
I am excited to bring home what I’ve learned from the seminar to the Philippines. It is an experience I will hold close to me as I continue with my studies. In my classes, in conversations, and in debates, I am ready to defend the Christian spirit of a truly free and prosperous society. I earnestly hope more Filipinos can attend the Free Society Seminar and that a seminar be replicated here in the Philippines for the benefit of a bold and empowered Filipino youth.
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