Greek European Culture

Education, Europe - West, Plato

Remembering Reiner Schurmann

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House

I knew Schurmann the author, but I didn’t know Schurmann the teacher. Reading a work about Parmenides and Plato by V. Adluri, a student of Schurmann’s, I was surprised by the prologue, which I copy here. I believe that no teacher can have a better honour than this, to generate into the heart of his student such a loving memory. I wish all teachers and students were granted such a bliss.

Reiner SchurmannWhen I came to the New School for Social Research, I came to study under Prof. Reiner Schurmann. My undergraduate mentor, Prof. Joan Stambaugh, was unambiguous in her advice: he was one of the best teachers available. So I began my graduate studies, bright-eyed and bookish, having studied books as mainstream as Plato’s Dialogues and as esoteric (for an undergraduate, 15 years ago) as Heidegger’s very late works. I was registered for Prof. Schurmann’s lectures on medieval philosophy. I was armed with the books, ta biblia, but quite unaware that these would be inadequate to any future biography of mine. Although publicly Prof. Schurmann was name-tagged the “Heidegger man,” (a classic case of missing the forest for the trees), what he taught me had nothing to do with bibliographic Wege.

When I first saw him in class, I was shocked. He was frail, emaciated even, but robust in his speech and brilliant in his eyes. He was awesome in a daemonic way, and although easy to respect, few could truly love him. Although I took copious notes, no philosophical questions occurred to me. I dutifully read all the recommended books, and submitted shamelessly clever papers. Yet I sat uneasily in class, fearing the time when the retrovirus would defeat so great a man. He incarnated all the tele of a graduate student: he was an accomplished teacher, an admired scholar, and a respected thinker. He seemed invincible, yet I knew this virus very well. It had already deleted many of the best men I knew.

It is hard to say which came first: my love for him or the fearful knowledge of his ever-present mortality. But both seemed somehow to feed on each other. When I saw him in his office and later outside campus, we never talked about “ideas.” And when I went back to Plato’s dialogues, the comfort food for philosophers, their epistemological pretenses deconstructed themselves. I began to see Socrates the man, condemned to die as Reiner was, and I could no longer believe in the seriousness of the “theory of forms.” The everlasting landscape of the topos noetos, with its immortal, perfect forms, now mocked all men, especially the one I loved. Within the deadly isolation of the epidemic, my subculture learned the lesson of survival learned long ago by the children of Israel: believe in your community. My community was metaphorically and actually the community of mortals.

The Platonic dialogues, I learnt through my association with Reiner, do not “immortalize” Socrates; they preserve the ephemeral – his mortal face. By etching the immortal forms onto Socrates’ perishable body, Plato accuses the forms of their impotence and their irrelevance. Yet, tragically, he also proves their indispensability. Scholars now debate whether Socrates was a character in Plato’s dialogue and whether he was just a mouth-piece for the younger man’s philosophy. To them, I say: no more accurate, more moving, more personal and more complete a biography was ever written. Is it historically accurate? Or is the dialogue mere fiction? I try to show in my work that history and true accounts only produce bibliographies – biography requires preserving the individual, the lover, the mortal, and the singular. The body of this dissertation will not mention Reiner’s name on every page, but it is his biography in this fundamental sense. Of course, he would have written it better, but I claim with a certain pride that no “historian” could have done a better job. The life and loss of each one of us is neither as bas(e)ic as a fact nor as capricious as fiction. …


  1. James

    Thank you for your Blog about Reiner Schurmann. I didn’t know anything about him or the philosophical work that occupied much his life.


    When I was reading the final paragraph in your commentary I was particularly stroke again by the notion of mans (tragic) upward seduction towards the eternally unchangeable immutable realm of the ideas or the Gods. Historically I never been able to discern critically how widespread this notion about the realm of the ideas actually was in Greek culture as a whole or at what decisive juncture the ideas become a more tenable or believable part of the cultured Greeks’ general education rather then the mythic beliefs that surrounded the Olympian Gods. I think that perhaps in many important ways we can begin to see this critical difference, a difference that is even more visibly apparent today, between the fundamental notions of the logos and mythos. Likewise in Plato’s dialogue, Parmenides, the One exists only as a unity of the many, and the Many only exists only as a manifold of units. In this dialogue Plato seems to (unlike his early dialogues) concede some type of reciprocity between the universal or the ideas and the particular, meaning the empirical, given datum of what’s apparent as reality before us in the world as it is, namely that which can’t be dissolved back into concepts. However it’s in this connection that I agree that with your or Parmenides statement that we must return to our pluralistic mortal cosmos, where the singular can only be returned to momentarily, or more exactly as something that can no longer be anything “more” then it is. However this “more” that demands nothing more that what it actually is can only be experienced in the sense of a relationship not just between the “mortal” things that give the world it’s sense of unity, but also in terms of what can be, precisely “no more” and this is the essence of what we should perhaps mean by something being temporal. Yet, in order to fully understand not the concept of what something means in a temporal state or how it relates to “things in time”, which is the way many people relate to many temporal things, including their own mortality, it’s important I think to see “temporality ‘ in the original sense of how things pass, are more simply as their passing in this world of which we are a small part, and this relationship doesn’t relate us to time but to those things that can be “no more” because they are complete in-themselves. Paradoxically to know something can be “no more” is also to know that it is more then what can be its temporal moment.


    I think that perhaps Reiner Schurmann sensed something of this lost along the pathway in western thought with all the talk about ideas and form, ultimately we have perhaps lost the feel for what life really is through our readiness to know it without knowing.



  2. J

    The work you are citing from is now in print. Just thought you might like to let your readers know the reference: Parmenides, Plato and Mortal Philosophy: Return From Transcendence (Continuum Studies in Ancient Philosophy)