“It’s a Desire to Dig Deeper:” Joseph Richard (A22) on Studying Syriac

November 19, 2021 | By Les Poling

Johnnie senior Joseph Richard (A22), leader of the college’s Syriac study group

The St. John’s College academic Program is famously rigorous. As noted in the New York Times, throughout their four years, every Johnnie participates in lively, seminar-style discussion in each class as they make their way through foundational works of philosophy, literature, political science, psychology, history, religion, economics, math, chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, music, language, and more.

And yet, despite the encompassing nature of the existing curriculum, St. John’s has a thriving study group culture, with students meeting outside of class to discuss everything from Latin to Jorge Luis Borges. For Johnnie senior Joseph Richard (A22), leader of the college’s Syriac study group, that culture represents “the desire to dig deeper into the possibilities of human thought”—and it’s something that has allowed him to dive into a subject of intellectual passion while concurrently studying the Program.

Syriac, Richard says, is widely considered one of the great languages of the ancient world. Originally a dialect of Aramaic spoken in the city of Edessa—now Urfa, bordering Turkey and Syria—Syriac began primarily as a language of trade and diplomacy; along with Greek, “it was one of the two big languages you would speak in the ancient Mediterranean over the course of several centuries,” he explains.

Then, during the advent and spread of Christianity, Syriac became the lingua franca of liturgical theology and poetry: “Basically, it becomes the worshipping language of the majority of Christians to the east of the Byzantine Empire,” Richard notes. At its apex, Syriac was a global language stretching from Palestine to China, and it remains in liturgical use in the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and various Catholic churches of Syriac patrimony.

Richard initially began studying the language during his junior year of high school, captivated by “the great poet of the Syriac language,” St. Ephrem the Syrian. “I came across a collection of his poetry, his Hymns on Faith—a wonderful little collection of beautiful hymns,” he recalls. He wanted to read Ephrem’s hymns in the original language, but while his family, Arab Christians, came from the same region, he had no background in Syriac. “So I took it upon myself, around the end of my senior year in high school, to start properly learning.”

Richard first started the Syriac study group when he arrived at St. John’s; however, that group read translations of Hymns on Faith instead of works in the actual language, and the onset of COVID-19 disrupted most extracurricular activity at the college. Upon the full return to on-campus learning this fall, he decided to restart the study group, this time with an emphasis on learning the basics of the language.

“It’s something I’m very passionate about and something I wanted to share with the [college] community,” he says. “Eastern Christianity isn’t represented on the Program, but this is something even farther out. Certain authors on the Program mention major Eastern Christian philosophers—Pseudo-Dionysius [is referenced by] Aquinas—but St. Ephrem, for example, is nowhere. So it’s a question of bringing something on the periphery into the spotlight.”

The Syriac study group, usually comprised of Richard and five to six other Johnnies, meets in the library on Tuesdays, typically for an hour or more. After beginning with the fundamentals of the Syriac alphabet—“it’s a lot like the Arabic alphabet, it’s right to left and cursive, so it takes a lot of getting used to”—Richard is now leading the group through a collection of Syriac children’s books, as well as bits and pieces of Program works that have been translated to Syriac; the prologue of the Gospel of John, for example. During the spring, he plans to lead the group in reading St. Ephrem: a neat return to the text that inspired Richard’s passion in the first place.

Overall, it’s a commitment of both time and energy, neither of which necessarily exist in excess for St. John’s students. So the question remains: Why devote so much of oneself to an intellectual endeavor that isn’t requisite? And why Syriac in particular?

“Learning any language is a lot of work and a lot of time, and it’s a language very few [in the study group] have any experience with,” Richard acknowledges. “But on the other hand, there’s this drive to learn something quite foreign, something that’s very much on the absolute periphery of our cultural awareness.”

Many people, he explains, may have some basic awareness of contemporary Syrian Christians—and yet, he says, there may be “a desire to see how people from a very different cultural milieu understood this religion and understood that philosophy; understood and engaged with currents such as Neoplatonism.”

Plus, he continues, the study of Syriac intersects with the Program more than one might think. Many of the thinkers and texts on the St. John’s reading list raise profound questions about human existence, philosophy, theology, and much more. For instance: Can tenets of theology or philosophy be adequately expressed in language? How do speech and silence complement each other in a given text, hymn, oration, or simple conversation? What constitutes poetry? What is the divine? While Syriac doesn’t examine such questions explicitly, due to the fact that most Syriac literature exists in verse instead of prose, “we’re certainly seeing the questions we tackle [on the Program] pursued in a very different idiom,” Richard suggests.

“It’s interesting to see how you might engage with a general human question from a completely different angle,” he muses. “I think by studying Syriac, you develop an eye for a different way of approaching these questions.”

For Richard, the beauty and mystery of Syriac—and the lure of profound, perhaps unanswerable questions—are intellectual subjects he intends to pursue further. Following his graduation from St. John’s in spring 2022, he plans to study Syriac in graduate school. Almost all existing Syriac texts remain in manuscript form, he says; ripe for the kind of keen, lively scholarship that many Program books have inspired for centuries.

In that way, Richard concludes, the study group is “a helpful bridge between what I’m doing now and what I plan to be doing for the rest of my life.”