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Information on the next First Things Intellectual Retreat can be found here.

Video recordings of two lectures delivered during the 2015 First Things Intellectual Retreat in New York City can be found below.

. . . .

First Things
is pleased to invite our readers to come to New York City for a memorable weekend of thought-provoking seminars and lectures on the concept of freedom. Join us as we study preassigned readings from classic Western Civilization texts in small-group seminars limited to 15 participants per group, with discussion facilitated by faculty members from Northeast Catholic College.

Who should attend? There are no prerequisites or expertise required to participate; there are no grades or exams (although you will receive a certificate of attendance from First Things). If you enjoy reading First Things, or discussing the kind of ideas found in its pages—print or web—then this event is for you. Each seminar section is limited to 15 participants per section and is led by a faculty member. Participants will explore substantial texts and questions of great significance through a dialogue that is animated by a spirit of friendship and a common purpose.

This will be a rare opportunity to get together with like-minded individuals to talk about big, timeless ideas and how they inform our understanding of the issues that have occupied our culture in recent years.

The reading curriculum, drawn from classic texts in the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish traditions, will touch on major themes according to the classical understanding of freedom and its relationship with truth, religion, the public interest, and other important concepts (see syllabus below). Participants will:

  • Develop a strong understanding of the classical view of freedom—particularly the classical relationship between freedom and truth—as an alternative to the modern understanding of freedom as license.
  • Examine the question of freedom from literary, theological and political perspectives with attention to the relationship between freedom and human happiness (informed by understandings of law, sin, and grace) and the relationship between freedom and tradition.
  • Develop the ideas necessary to speak confidently about freedom in the contemporary public square, using concrete examples and respected sources from the Western tradition.


The First Things Intellectual Retreat will be held from Friday evening, August 7 to Sunday morning August 9, 2015 at New York University’s Kimmel Center for University Life, overlooking historic Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan (Map).

Friday, August 7, 2015
6:00 pm Cocktail Reception
7:00 pm Dinner & Lecture: “The Truth Shall Set You Free” presented by Robert L. Wilken

Saturday, August 8, 2015
8:15 am Breakfast
9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Seminar discussions - 15 participants per group
Lunch buffet & scheduled breaks throughout the day
6:00 pm Cocktail Reception
7:00 pm Dinner & Lecture: “Renewing a Culture of Freedom” presented by R. R. Reno

Sunday, August 9, 2015
Coda: Musical breakfast
9:00 am Continental breakfast buffet (optional)
9:35 am - 10:05 am Pre-concert lecture: “Sounding Freedom” presented by George Harne
President, Northeast Catholic College; PhD Musicology, Princeton
10:20 am - 10:50 am Piano trio performance by Faculty of the Manhattan String Orchestra
Please refer to music program below

11:00 am End of the 2015 Intellectual Retreat

Syllabus - All Participants

Saturday: The Paradox of Freedom - Happiness, Human Nature, Politics, and Religion

Reading materials will be emailed to participants upon registration, with a bound copy to follow by mail. All participants will attend all seminars through the course of the day, in the following order:

1st Seminar: “The Paradox of Freedom and Human Happiness”

Dostoevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor” excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov

In the first seminar, devoted to Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” (from The Brothers Karamazov), participants will take up the Inquisitor’s claim that human freedom was a divine error and that human happiness requires that the burden of freedom be transferred to the few.

2nd Seminar: “Human Nature at the Intersection of Freedom, Law, Sin, and Grace”

Saint Augustine, Book 8 of The Confessions

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia q. 83, a. 1

Martin Luther, First Disputation Against the Antinomians, pp. 33-39

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, pp. 99-109

(Participants are also encouraged to read R.R. Reno’s “Loving the Law,” First Things, January 2012 available here)

In the second seminar, participants will discuss texts by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Soloveitchik as they explore the relation between law, grace, and free will. In addition to considering these topics as theological concepts, participants will also consider how they intersect existentially within the human hearts of Christians and Jews animated by their respective traditions.

3rd Seminar: “Freedom, Democracy, and Determinism”

Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part IV, chapters 6-8

Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History, “The Extravagant Estimates of Freedom in the Progressive View of History” (V. II. pp. 79-85)

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, “Religion in a Free Society” (I.3, pp. 14-23)

Tocqueville, Niebuhr, and Heschel join the conversation in the third seminar as participants shift their focus to the political realm. If Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor believed that freedom must be traded for happiness, does the logic of democracy require that freedom be traded for equality? Furthermore, how do the loss of a transcendent horizon, a materialist view of human nature, and an exaggerated belief in progress facilitate the loss of political freedom?

4th Seminar: “Contesting Freedom(s) in our Contemporary Context”

George Weigel, “A Better Concept of Freedom,” First Things, March 2002

In the fourth and final seminar, participants will conclude their conversation by considering both the reigning concepts of freedom in our own age and George Weigel’s account of their origins in his “Tale of Two Monks.” By bringing into focus the fundamental relationship between freedom and truth (and when this bond was broken), participants will be better prepared to articulate the foundational principles that can provide the basis for cultural, political, and religious renewal.

Sunday: Coda - Musical breakfast

Lecture: “Sounding Freedom”
presented by Dr. George Harne - President, Northeast Catholic College
From Pythagoras to our own age, musical performance, composition, and theory have been influenced by our ideas about nature, tradition, and freedom. In turn, these musical practices illustrate the ways in which law—when rooted in nature—can lead to occasions of grace as well as the ways in which resistance to misguided laws can be a sign of contradiction in a culture that has lost its way.

Piano trio performance by Faculty of the Manhattan String Orchestra
Gabriel Fauré - Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 13
Allegro Molto

Gagik Hovunts - Duo for Violin & Cello, Op. 13
Con brio

Felix Mendelssohn - Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 49
Molto Allegro Agitato