Obituary: Philip Butler

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The Independent Online
Why Philip Butler opted to teach French rather than Classics is not clear; he was an excellent candidate for either. Professor of French first at the University of Wales, Cardiff, from 1966 until 1970, he moved subsequently to Wisconsin University, Madison.

His Cardiff connection began in 1947. By 1950, in a tenured post, he had begun to make himself a specialist in 17th-century French literature. By 1955 he had completed a doctoral thesis which in modified form was published four years later as Classicisme et baroque dans l'oeuvre de Racine, and placed him, one distinguished reviewer wrote, "among the foremost critics of Racine".

The book was controversial and sometimes hard-hitting in its insistence upon the social, political and wider cultural background to the plays, and impressive in its erudition. Butler argued that both "baroque" and "classicisme" were cultural forms of taste, sensibility and thought inseparable from certain specific historical societies: Racine's tragedies were anti- aristocratic, anti-Christian, anti-baroque.

Born in London shortly before the First World War, Philip Butler was taken almost immediately by his mother to Switzerland, where they settled in the ancient city of Lausanne. He was to spend virtually the whole inter-war period there. His academic record was from the start outstanding, as he moved brilliantly through College Classique, Gymnase Classique and Baccalaureat to the University of Lausanne. An exceptional result in the licence (French, Greek, Latin, Ancient History) in 1935 opened the way for him to pursue postgraduate studies.

He chose to specialise in Greek, under the direction of the great Andre Bonnard, and spent a year in Paris at the Sorbonne and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes before submitting a preliminary thesis on "Religious Experience in the Iliad" which earned him the title of Laureat de l'Universite de Lausanne.

Butler was still working on his main doctoral thesis while supporting himself with teaching jobs when the Second World War came. Returning to Britain, called up in 1940, posted as an NCO to the Intelligence Corps, he was caught up in a variety of activities which took him to the Middle East and eventually, during the Italian campaign, saw him parachuted behind the German lines to work with the partisans.

When the war ended, he had a crucial choice to make. He opted to stay in Britain rather than pursue his career in Lausanne but, unfamiliar with the British education system, with a certain diffidence.

At Cardiff he won great respect among the students for his dedication and scholarship. They valued his formal lectures, but were particularly appreciative of the fortnightly evening seminars which he and his wife, Elena, held at their home, Philip listening to their free-ranging discussion, Elena warmly dispensing hospitality.

When the Chair in French fell vacant in 1966, Butler was obviously a strong candidate for the post. He also had the support of Eugene Vinaver, the eminent figure in French studies who had given his thesis and the resulting book enthusiastic approval.

Butler took the post, but not as an innovator; he sought rather to defend and develop the traditional honours degree, to produce specialists thoroughly versed in French culture from its beginnings. British students he considered lacking in commitment, needing to be urged on to greater effort. He was a demanding teacher but never discourteous or lacking in compassion.

In those days "the Chair" meant Headship of the department, membership of Senate and possible involvement in a host of other committees. Butler found many aspects of the job irksome, and did his best to avoid them as unhelpful to scholarship. It may well be that the frustration thus engendered weighed heavily in his decision after only four years in post to accept the chance to succeed Vinaver as Visiting Professor at Wisconsin University and then to accept a permanent appointment there, from which he retired in 1981.

The Madison campus with its 40,000 students had a friendly atmosphere, where he and his wife were made welcome and for the first few years at least Butler's work was almost exclusively with postgraduate students, whose energy and enthusiasm he found stimulating. Later, when the US economy dipped a little, he was unpleasantly surprised to have to teach some beginners' classes.

When Philip Butler retired, he and Elena moved to Siena and when she died in 1984 he returned to London, to live within the proverbial stone's throw from the place of his birth. Significantly, during this last part of his life his thoughts turned again to Greek and he took up and revised the 1937 thesis on the Iliad which was finely published in a limited edition by the Hillside Press in 1987.

Philip Frank Butler, French scholar: born London 1 May 1913; Professor of French, University of Wales, Cardiff 1966-73; Professor of French, Wisconsin University, Madison 1972-81; married Elena D'Ancona (died 1984); died London 20 June 1997.

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