The 8 Eastern Philosophers Every Student Should Study

Philosophy majors and minors alike, if they hope to receive a well-rounded look at the diverse perspectives out there, need to look beyond the more familiar “Western” ideologies. Those hailing from the “Eastern” world have held just as much of a global impact over religion, politics, art, science, and more, making them well worth academic inquiry. Far, far more than eight names left their mark on the philosophy and culture of Asia, of course, but anyone just launching their studies might find the following a reasonable start.

  1. Lao Tzu

    The founder of Taoism outlined all the tenets of his globally beloved philosophy in the Tao Te Ching sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. — and some even debate whether or not he was a real or apocryphal individual. In his most influential (to put it mildly) work, he touts the concept of the Tao, an invisible structure which drives all things, and believes enlightenment comes from attaining oneness with the surrounding universe. Harmony with nature as opposed to working against its will forms the crux of this religious and philosophical approach, making it ideal for anyone hoping to reduce stresses in their lives.

  2. Siddhartha Gautama

    Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama probably lived around the 6th or 5th century B.C., but even today his spiritual guidance inspires millions of practitioners globally. He only founded Buddhism, after all. Although details of his life will likely remain disputed for a while yet, the Four Noble Truths Buddha taught stay largely static. The philosophy and faith encourages the pursuit of these principles through as many lifetimes as it takes to finally achieve perfect bliss and knowledge in Nirvana.

  3. Confucius

    In his Analects — and, some theorize, the Five Classics (Spring and Autumn Annals, Classic of Poetry, Classic of Changes, Classic of Rites, and Classic of History) — this 6th and 5th century B.C. thinker promoted ancestor worship, strong filial bonds, and considerate living. Many of the parables and maxims shared in Confucius’ writings espouse humanistic ideologies, placing the well-being of all over the needs of the few. Li, an ethical framework encouraging the populace to behave appropriately, serves as the best introduction to his philosophies for beginners hoping to learn more.

  4. Rumi

    Rumi’s poetry and philosophy regarding Sufi mysticism directly led to the establishment of the Mewlewi Sufi Order, known to most of the “Western” world as the “Whirling Dervishes,” following his passing. During the 13th century, lush lyrical works such as the collections Matnawiye Ma’nawi and Diwan-e Kabir explored spirituality so intensely, so provocatively, much of the Islamic intellectual and creative world at the time found him absolutely inspiring. For him and his followers, faith stood as a deeply personal journey with minimal adherence to a rigid doctrine.

  5. Sun Tzu

    The Art of War sits on the shelves of colonels and CEOs alike because its details of successful psychological strategies hold applications far beyond the battlefield. Although, of course, militaries across Asia — especially those in China, Japan, and Vietnam — used it to dictate the direction of everything from small skirmishes to the revolution against French colonials. Unlike most (but not all!) of the other major “Eastern” philosophers, Sun Tzu’s advice and aphorisms never touched upon spiritual matters, but remained largely planted in terra firma.

  6. Mulla Sadra

    He can’t be credited for launching the 17th century Iranian Renaissance, but scholars generally consider Sadr ad-Din Muhammad Shirazi its most significant contributor. A Shia, he penned a library’s worth of literature pulling from previous Islamic philosophers and scientists and melting them together into one overarching mindset many cite as the direct ancestor of the later existentialist movement. The Transcendent Philosophy of the Four Journeys of the Intellect took nearly a quarter-century to compile, and covers a good chunk of history and Mulla Sadra’s influences, partnered with encyclopedic commentary.

  7. Mao Zedong

    Maoism synthesized Marxist and Leninist philosophies with the unique needs of China and forever altered the course of world history and geopolitics after its namesake initiated the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Through books such as On Guerilla Warfare and On New Democracy (among others), he swayed the citizenry toward communist ideals and instigated the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution which wiped out millennia of academia and art in favor of something very new and very different. Religion and philosophy — particularly those promoted by some of the others listed here — received considerable suppression as the nation’s attentions zoomed in on industrialization and modernization.

  8. Guru Nanak Dev

    Sikhism dates back to roughly 1499, when its founder Guru Nanak Dev — also known as the faith’s first great leader — disappeared for several days and returned with the belief that Hindus and Muslims have it all wrong. From there, he traversed across his native Pakistan and beyond preaching the virtues of worshiping a single deity through honest, simple, and devout actions revolving around humility and ensuring the safety and well-being of others. Although Guru Arjan Dev (the fifth of the first ten gurus) is credited with compiling the Sikh’s sacred text Guru Granth Sahib, the book hews closely to the originating philosophies.