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.
When 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.