Jonathan Sinnreich on Philosophy, Whitman, and Lifelong Learning
August 10, 2020 | By Les Poling
In 1964, Jonathan Sinnreich (A68) found out about St. John’s College the same way many of his classmates did: via the cover of the Saturday Review. In the early 1960s, the Review published a story on the still relatively young St. John’s Program, complete with interviews and a photo spread; it quickly became an admissions tool sent to prospective students across the country, including Sinnreich. “I read the article, and it had a list of the Great Books—and I said, ‘that’s for me,’” he remembers.
The Review cover got Sinnreich’s attention; then the academic dean at his small military high school gave the college his blessing. With that, Sinnreich decided to attend St. John’s—the first step in a journey of lifelong learning that includes post-retirement doctoral philosophy studies at Stony Brook University.
From the moment he stepped on campus in Annapolis, Sinnreich says, “I loved going to St. John’s.” The four years of intellectual discovery he embarked on helped shape his attitude towards reading, learning, and life itself—he says his time at the college “radically” changed his life. As one hallmark of his experience, he recounts a particularly stirring discussion on Tolstoy’s War and Peace with legendary tutor Jacob Klein in the first seminar of his senior year.
“The opening questions at seminars were usually some kind of deeply metaphysical, technical thing,” Sinnreich recalls. But when the class gathered to begin discussing Tolstoy’s iconic work, Klein merely looked around the room before asking: “What is War and Peace about?” The Johnnies in the room were dumbfounded. Then they started offering answers: Tolstoy’s theory of history, an analysis of the decline of Russia’s aristocratic class. “And Klein just looks at us and says, ‘you know you’re all wrong,’” Sinnreich recalls. “‘It’s about Natasha.’”
“It just deflated all of the pretension in the room,” he adds. “Coming from Klein, the great Platonist, it brought us so quickly to what that book was really about. It was a typical standout moment [from St. John’s].”
Towards the end of undergrad, Sinnreich developed an interest in law school—not initially with the intention of becoming a lawyer, but in order to dive deeper into political philosophy. “The people who really made this country politically were the lawyers,” he notes. “Madison was a lawyer, Jefferson was a lawyer. The Federalist Papers were written by lawyers.” Eventually, a law career beckoned—but he never stopped pursuing an examined life. He made it his goal to keep reading “Great Books” that weren’t a part of the St. John’s reading list: Ulysses, Proust’s entire catalogue, Henry James, most of the Thomas Mann novels—a good deal of the typical European “canon,” but also staples of Eastern philosophy and Zen thought. “I could never read crap,” he admits.
But curiously, Sinnreich didn’t read a great deal of philosophy following his time at St. John’s. Perhaps that’s part of what inspired him to return to the academic world; that, and the convenience of auditing classes at a university minutes away. “I live about two miles away from Stony Brook University, and like many state universities they offer a senior auditing program,” he explains. One day in 2015, browsing the catalog of Stony Brook courses, he came across a PhD-level seminar on Plato. He paid the $50 audit fee, got the professor’s permission to audit, completed the reading, and arrived at the seminar table for his first day of class. “It was like: I’m home,” Sinnreich says. “This is what I missed.”
It’s fitting that a Plato seminar inspired Sinnreich to apply for graduate study and begin his philosophy PhD. But unlike St. John’s, Stony Brook has a distinctly “continental philosophy” orientation. The emphasis is on modern European thinkers such as Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault—philosophers Sinnreich had never explored, either at St. John’s or in his reading since. In his mind, it’s a poetic and beneficial addition to his life of learning (even if he still prefers Plato).
“There’s been a tremendous amount of really interesting, good philosophy written in the last 100 years,” he notes. “It surprised me and challenged me.”
In March, Sinnreich passed his requisite history exam—which consisted of short essays on Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and Peirce—with distinction, making him the first Stony Brook student to do so in more than a decade; a feather in his cap, but one he doesn’t necessarily consider important. After all, it’s not the reason he decided to go back to school. But it does mean that all he needs to do to earn his PhD is write a dissertation. For that, he says, he’s going full circle and incorporating many elements of what he studied at St. John’s into an examination of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
“It’s an incredible work,” Sinnreich says. “My theory is that it is a didactic, philosophic poem in the tradition of “De Rerum Natura”—which Whitman read in the years he was beginning work on Leaves of Grass. One of the things I’m doing is tracing the influence of Lucretius and Epicurean philosophy in Whitman.” And the connections to the Program don’t end there, Sinnreich contends. In his view, Whitman saw Leaves of Grass as a later-day Iliad; he suggests that Whitman’s famous “catalogues” of iconic scenes of American life are reminiscent of the engravings on the face of Achilles’ shield. “[Leaves of Grass] was intended to be the epic of the American everyman in the way that the Iliad was the epic of the Hellenic warrior,” he says.
Sinnreich’s dissertation proposal is keeping him busy as he tracks different patterns of thought throughout Whitman’s prose and poetry, situating the great poet’s writing within the contexts of philosophy and the American republic. But eventually, he’ll finish his dissertation and officially earn his doctorate. And on that day, we can only assume he’ll crack open the next Great Book on his reading list.