Why We Read Eastern Classics

Fall 2017 | By David McDonald (SF95) for The College


The Eastern Classics master’s program of the St. John’s Graduate Institute (GI) began in the fall of 1994 on the Santa Fe campus, after several years of preparation.

Some of the initial impetus had come from St. John’s alumni who asked the Board of Visitors and Governors that the college make some approach to books of the East. Coinciding with this interest among alumni, the faculty had been engaged in conversation and study of Eastern texts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“How could we not be interested in what the human mind does when it has leisure and letters and it’s free from political persecution—what fundamental questions arise for it … and what form do they take, particularly if they’ve not been touched by Greece, or by Jerusalem,” says tutor James Carey (Class of 1965), during whose deanship the early development of the Eastern Classics (EC) program occurred. “So the idea of looking at the thought of ancient India and ancient China was immensely appealing....”

The new Eastern Classics program, then, was to be not only a study of a set of books for their own sake, but also a way of gaining insight into the human mind. “My thought was, would we find that the same fundamental questions arose in the East that arose in the West,” Carey says. “If so, did they get the same answers as those proposed in the West, or did they get different answers? Or were there important questions for thinkers in India or in China that never arose in the West? Getting clarity about these matters struck a number of us on the faculty as a worthy project, and one very much in the spirit of St. John’s.”

Tutor and former GI director Krishnan Venkatesh explains that we should not expect “that the East starts from the same philosophical starting points as we do.” To read and discuss texts from traditions so much different from those we study in the St. John’s undergraduate program and in the GI Liberal Arts degree program is to philosophize from a significantly different set of presuppositions, but still informed by the same central aspects of the human experience. Doing so therefore presents an opportunity to cultivate deep questioning with regard to first principles. Venkatesh adds that Eastern texts are an important part of the Western philosophic conversation: “The assimilation of Eastern texts into the West, from the 18th century on, is part of modernity.” Philosophers Hume, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger were acutely aware of Eastern writings and were in conversation with them through their own works.

In considering how to take up Eastern texts in the St. John’s classroom, it became clear the Graduate Institute was the appropriate avenue for doing so; the undergraduate program was already very full, and in any case the addition there of a few texts from the East might have seemed mere tokenism. Some among the faculty had objected that these Eastern texts were not great books, while others felt that the best way to assay their depth and greatness was to read them.

So the Eastern Classics curriculum began to take shape. One prominent aspect of the program is the study of either classical Chinese or Sanskrit. In a 1989 faculty seminar on the Bhagavad Gita, the tutors involved discovered that the same Sanskrit word was being rendered as “grace” by one translator, and as “force” by another. From this, it became clear that we had to study the languages of these traditions, so as not to rely entirely on translators. Tutor Bruce Perry joined the faculty in 1990 and brought knowledge of Sanskrit, while tutor Ralph Swentzell had already been studying Chinese—he would go on to teach the very first Chinese class in the new program, and had developed computer software to aid in learning Chinese characters. Soon there were faculty study groups devoted to both of these languages.

Venkatesh points out that the addition of Chinese to the EC program was very important in that it gave the college a chance to study a non-Indo-European language. Language tutorials in both the undergraduate program and the EC program understand themselves as not being primarily for the sake of achieving mastery in a particular language, but rather for the sake of gaining insight into language itself, and its relation to thought. On this score, studying classical Chinese is a way of deepening the college’s philosophical inquiry into language as such, by working with a language entirely outside the Indo-European lineage.

In the fall of 1992, a pilot program called the “Institute for the Study of Eastern Classics at St. John’s College” began in Santa Fe. It was overseen by Carey, who served as its director, or “archon.” The new institute was hosted at St. John’s, Santa Fe, and operated under the auspices of the Graduate Institute, but was funded by donor gifts and foundation grants, rather than by the college. At that time, Nancy Buchenauer was the director of the Graduate Institute in Santa Fe, and Stephen Van Luchene was dean. John Agresto, the Santa Fe president, was involved in raising money to start the program, as was Carey.

After recruiting work by Carey and others, a total of 21 students enrolled in the new program. Of those, 14 received a certificate of completion in the summer of 1993. With the writing of a master’s essay and additional papers, students who had received this certificate were eventually eligible to be granted an MA in Eastern Classics. Four or five students from the pilot year took this option. Among the students in the pilot program was Paul Cooley (SF92, EC96), who recalls, “I was thrilled when the pilot program in Eastern Classics was offered. I believe there was some concern before the pilot program was approved that the Eastern texts would simply be too difficult for discussion, but I never felt that to be the case before the program began, and our discussions proved lively and enjoyable.”

In its primary elements, the program was very much as it is now. It required three consecutive terms of study—fall, spring, and summer. In the language tutorial, there was study of either Sanskrit or classical Chinese, and extensive translation work. The seminar covered major works of India, China, and Japan, and there were preceptorials in every term, for close reading of selected texts.

At least initially, the summer term was understood as a time for comparative study of Eastern and Western works; as the program developed in practice, the summer was given over entirely to the study of Japanese works. The uniting thread of the program, as Venkatesh describes it, is the encounter of each tradition with philosophical Buddhism, which arises in India amidst the Hindu tradition, then finds its way to China, where it encounters Taoist and Confucian traditions, and then is transmitted, by way of China, to Japan, where it takes new forms. To address this, the summer had to be devoted fully to Japanese readings, and the comparative effort was put aside.

Venkatesh points out that our earliest sense of what ought to be read in the Eastern Classic was modified over the years, as our characteristic practice of not just reading, but rereading revealed just how productive particular books might be for us. For example, in the early years of the Eastern Classics, we read Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Musashi’sBook of Five Rings, but found with experience that these books did not have the same depth for our mode of study as other books, for example the writings of Dogen. One way of seeing such changes is that we moved from a popular Western understanding of what was essential in these traditions, to an understanding grounded in our practice of reading and discussion.

Other texts have remained more or less constant, because of their foundational importance. The Mahabharata and the Upanishads have this place among the Indian texts, while the Analects of Confucius are indispensable for the Chinese tradition and the Japanese. “Trying to understand China and Japan without Confucius is simply inconceivable—like understanding the Hellenic world without Homer,” says Venkatesh, who emphasizes that the thought of the Confucian tradition is tremendously important intrinsically, even apart from its influence in East Asia. Scott Hannan (EC11) adds that “Confucius fits into the St. John’s method by insisting that asking about the elements and purpose of a ritual is as important as practicing the ritual itself.”

After the completion of the pilot program in the 1992-1993 year, Eastern Classics went on hiatus on account of logistical considerations, but the initial experiment seemed a success. It became clear that for Eastern Classics to become a degree program, a formal instructional proposal would need to be made, and be approved by the faculty. So in the following academic year, in November of 1993, such a proposal was discussed by the faculty on both campuses, and was approved. In the fall of 1994, the first degree students were enrolled in the EC program.

Even when the program was at the pilot stage in 1992, the Meem Library had begun to expand its collection to support the new academic effort. Several foundation gifts supported initial purchasing of the needed texts for the pilot year, and once Eastern Classics became a full degree program, additional gifts helped fill out the collection in the ensuing years. Meem Library continues to renew the collection as books wear out through regular use by students. In other ways, the college continues to maintain the strengths needed for the EC program: faculty new to Sanskrit or Chinese audit Eastern Classics language classes in order to be ready to teach them, and study groups help acquaint faculty with Eastern texts they hadn’t previously encountered.

The Eastern Classics enterprise is, at least in part, a way of seeing how the human mind responds to universal problems and universal questions. “It’s such a gift to read these books that contain humanity’s struggles to make sense of itself,” says Sara Klingenstein (EC12). “St. John’s allows these texts to be as challenging and interesting as they are. I cannot express how much that’s done for me.”