“I wanted to write on a Hispanic author, especially a Latin American author. The book is about how to approach life, and how we need some sort of shared experience with the things that we are taking our learning from. He approaches Machu Picchu, and thinks it’s just this thing that he can grab and mine and take some sort of life from—but it turns out the ruins resist him in a particular way, and they have to change him in order for him to be able to take anything. Especially here, with all that we read, we need to be changed by the things that we read as much as we take from them.”
The senior essay is the signature effort of a student’s career at St. John’s College. The essay is a sustained performance in the liberal arts and culmination of the student’s learning. The essay is not a work of specialized research, but the extended pursuit of a difficult question in dialogue with a great author.
In the first semester each senior selects a book, a question, and a faculty advisor. The student and advisor meet periodically in the first semester to discuss the book and define the project. In the first four weeks of the second semester, senior classes are suspended for essay writing. Each completed essay is assigned to a committee of three tutors, who examine the student on the essay in a one-hour, public conversation. Submission of a satisfactory senior essay and completion of the oral are conditions for receiving the degree.
Learn more about the essay writing process and oral examination for seniors, and read about the student who wrote a prize-winning essay on “The Probability Function in Quantum Mechanics: A Formal Cause Beyond Space and Time.”
See senior essay topics for the St. John’s Class of 2019.
Read what students wrote about for their senior essays.
“Despite its vast dramatic territory, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is largely focused on a single character: Wotan, the chief god of oaths and contracts. Without attempting to account for the entire work, I wanted to examine Wotan as Wagner initially presents him. This meant narrowing my essay to the first two operas: Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. I discovered that despite its heavy-handed political allusions, Wagner’s work is ultimately focused on the question of Wotan’s will. What is Wotan’s will? And what does it mean for the will to exist at all? My resulting work was a surprising revelation of both the significance of the will and Wagner’s creative genius. ”
“I wrote about The Lord of the Rings because it’s been a mainstay in my life. I learned how to read from The Hobbit, and have re-read Lord of the Rings every year since. It has helped me through a lot of trying times. In junior year, we learned to separate head and heart, and we have ennui: where everyone is existentially bored. I think fantasy and escapism can be a solution to that. This was a huge culmination of everything I learned here, philosophically.”
“I wrote my senior essay on The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel is one of the hardest philosophers in the Program. He expresses that we have a deep spirit in us that needs to be moved. Once that spirit is moved, our self-consciousness develops. But that self-consciousness must go through stages in order to arrive at what he calls ‘the absolute known’ or ‘the absolute spirit.’ If people do believe that we have this spirit in us, it can move and develop and grow to its fullness. I think I’m getting to fullness. I don’t know if I’m halfway there yet. I’m still young.”
“We begin philosophy with Plato, and we end up with Nietzche and Heidegger, where everything seems to be nihilistic. I return to Plato and articulate the theory in which love can really give birth to someone’s self and to being. I tried to extract some kind of life-affirming philosophy from a program that seems to become increasingly nihilistic as it enters the 20th century. I’ve never had this much time to think about a book. I had a month to formulate all of the thoughts that have circled unconsciously for the past four years. I didn’t realize I had this much to say, but it all spilled out. And now there’s a paper, and it’s really exciting.”
“I wrote my essay on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I was curious about Gulliver’s account of rationality and whether there is a universal standard or if it is relative to particular societies. By analyzing Gulliver’s infatuation with the Houyhnhnms (the ruling race of horses in the final country he visits) and his growing disdain of his own species, I found that it is impossible to rank rational beings because the facets of human rationality and reason are so intricate. I also found that Gulliver’s proclivity for learning languages and his willingness to assimilate into new societies helps him to understand the merits and value of societies different from his own.”
“I discussed getting to know yourself, and the horror of the darkness that lurks inside everyone — being able to accept that and not descend into self-hatred.”
“Why is it necessary to use straight lines in understanding curves? I am examining why the method for mathematically describing a curve using points and straight lines is fundamentally opposed to the conception of a curve as a continuous object. It was inevitable that I was going to write about math. In all my St. John’s math classes, I have been interested in how geometric objects can be measured through ratio. I considered Euclid or Apollonius, but I took Calculus 2 over the summer and the questions raised in junior math were brought up continuously (ha!), so I decided to focus my questions about ratios in geometry by using curves.”
“My senior essay is about the rise and fall of the Athenian empire, inspired by the most recent turn of events in American politics. I decided that the Athenian empire inevitably conquered itself. Though they had met no strong opponents that could do battle with them, they turned on one another and that’s what caused their entire society to collapse. When a city gives in to fear and loathing, that is when things are at their worst and that’s when the situation in the empire is irredeemable. People shouldn’t doubt for a second that we live in an empire, and fear is our greatest enemy.”
“I’ve read it every single year of college, including the year that I took off. Writing the essay was liberating. In the past, on all the other papers I’ve written, I always wished I’d had more time. With this, I finally wrote a paper where I thought, ‘This is where I wanted to end up.’”
“My essay on The Brothers Karamazov focused on some specific irrational actions that Smerdyakov, Ivan, Alyosha, and Dimitri commit. I discussed in detail what motivated these actions if not reason or desire, how these kinds of acts affect our moral judgements (especially the system of judgement that Kant sets up in his second critique), and why Dostoevsky makes the bold decision to have such a deep and cohesive novel dictated by actions devoid of any purpose.”
“I’m writing on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. We read it at the very end of junior year. I got really stuck on food: what Huck eats throughout the novel and how he describes it. It’s a fun thread to follow throughout the Program, from the Lotus-eaters in The Odyssey to Augustine’s pear. In Huck Finn, I was struck by how much he enjoyed the cold meat served to him by the cruel Grangerford family, who are embroiled in a pointless, multi-generational feud. I wanted to know how the kind of food Huck eats speaks to his growth.”
“It’s a novel about the encroaching legal aspect of society amidst the Industrial Revolution of England. It’s a dreary tale about the loss of personal strength and the reliance upon law, especially as large families come to use [law] to crush individuals who are otherwise upstanding members of society. But it has a happy ending, as Dickens is a man of sentimental feelings, and they come out. Good characters get rewarded, bad characters get punished—it’s a fun book.”