Tribute to Philip Lockhart
Philip N. Lockhart—Mentor, Sibyl, Pastor
by Edward A. Phillips ’67
April 1, 2011
Philip N. Lockhart
Phil Lockhart and I both arrived at Dickinson College in the fall of 1963. I came from four years of good secondary Latin in suburban Philadelphia and intended to take only a single class in Latin at Dickinson—primarily because I had a modest American Classical League scholarship requiring me to do so. I thought I was headed into law or maybe the ministry. But my high school Latin teacher had recommended I meet a certain brilliant young classicist who was heading from the University of Pennsylvania to Carlisle.
So I signed up, as required, for Latin 61: Literature of the Republic, which invoked the image of the tyrannus in Sallust, Catullus and Cicero—and, oh, so much more! A course with Phil Lockhart, I state with only slight exaggeration, was nothing less than a course in the world; every class session revealed bridges between classical culture and the history of later—especially, but not only, European and American—intellectual experience. After several weeks of the required Latin 61, I knew I could not stop at just one course with this “brilliant young classicist” and indeed proceeded to take at least one every semester of my four years. I never ceased to be amazed by the mind that drank so deeply and broadly from the world’s philosophic, religious, historical and literary traditions.
In a 1969 piece for The Dickinson Alumnus, Phil wrote: “The magic is all in the texts and the inspiration comes from the words. Then as now, if the teacher will only keep his mouth shut and defer to Vergil and Euripides, he has it made.” True, but I imagine most of his students have been grateful for the Sibylline magic that flowed specifically from Phil’s mind into his own words and then into our humanistic studies and accomplishments, such as they might be. For many of us, Phil was like Vergil’s Sybil, unlocking the vast treasures and hidden mysteries of classical culture. We were regularly astounded by the daily brilliance of his classroom discourse—the almost oracular brevity, gravity and concinnity of his perceptions.
Here are some of the memories that I expect will ring true for many others as well:
The open door
You could scarcely walk past Phil’s office door at a crucial crossroads by the staircase in Denny Hall’s second floor (in those olden days) without being enticed into his office. The door never seemed to be closed. I can’t imagine when he had time for class preparation and grading, for he seemed to be in constant conversation with colleagues or students or families of students or almost anyone who walked by. If you did catch his eye, you would invariably be drawn into conversation about your plans for the day, your friendships, your extracurricular activities, your romantic relationships—whatever was new. Like the good herdsmen of Vergil’s Eclogues, Phil always wanted to know that his lambs and kids were thriving. And his cultivation of their happiness was like that of the most industrious of husbandmen in the same poet’s Georgics.
The curious, boyish, twinkling smile
His face would light up with child-like and genuine pleasure—whether he’d just encountered a new idea, some new insight into an ancient text or a new fact about one of his current or former students. He took such pleasure in even the most mundane events and developments in their lives. I remember coming back for reunions and frequently finding him in position at the circular staircase in the Holland Union Building, cheerfully looking for old friends to pass by. I remember standing for a long time just waiting to get close!
His blackboard scribbles
He drew charming and memorable, if not always decipherable, diagrams. Every day in a Greek course on the Phaedo, e.g., he would persistently try to have us envision the invisible. I still occasionally consult the splendid semesterlong sequence of sketches illustrating processes of being and nonbeing, birth and death, structures of hell, conceptions of the soul—the universe encapsulated within wavy line and circles.
Like Athena guiding the youthful Telemachus toward maturity, Phil always had sage advice about disciplines to investigate, careers to pursue, precipices to avoid. Not all of us, of course, were as receptive and promising as Telemachus. I, for one, resisted Phil’s counsel to pursue classics toward a graduate degree and applied to schools of religion instead. Then, when the only two schools I had applied to rejected me, he ushered me into his office, uncharacteristically closed the door, and together we plotted my appeal. The plan involved my use of his office and phone to make an impromptu call to Martin Marty, the University of Chicago church historian, whom I’d met when he spoke at Dickinson the previous year. The tactic succeeded in no small part because of Phil’s prudent guidance and unwavering encouragement.
But that was not the extent of his mentoring for me and for many others I suspect. Two years later, while I was still intently engaged in a graduate program in theology and literature, Phil called with an offer I couldn’t refuse and which I have never regretted taking. Dickinson needed a yearlong replacement for him, while he would be on sabbatical at Ohio State, and I was his man. I imagine he thought a year of resubmersion in Latin and Greek might lead me back into the fold, and he was eventually right. Although my doctorate is in religion, I’ve taught Classics at Grinnell College for 36 years, always seeking to model my teaching on his matchless precedent and, of course, never coming close. But once a Lockhart protégé, always a Lockhart protégé! And I’m far from the only one Phil continued to foster long after graduation. I remember many a classics professional meeting, when Phil would be working the lobbies and hallways, singing the charms and credentials of his former students to any schools with a position to fill.
Philip Lockhart was a humble man whose brilliance continues to humble the many who have tried to match his excellence. In the immediate context of a familiar passage from the Georgics Phil so loved, Vergil notes that vine shoots can be planted in shallow ditches, but a tree needs to be dug deeper, down deep into the earth, and the poet offers the grandest of the oak species as example. Throughout the Georgics, nature’s enormous power, variety and beauty intersect with the human capacity for hard work and endurance. That is also the intersection that Phil’s teaching represents for so many of his students and colleagues. This oak tree (aesculus)—its roots extending downward as deeply as its crown rises into the sky and its tremendous canopy providing a security and a refreshment that will outlast the generations—seems to be an excellent metaphor for Phil and his legacy:
altior ac penitus terrae defigitur arbos,
aesculus in primis, quae quantum vertice ad auras
aetherias tantum radice in Tartara tendit.
ergo non hiemes illam, non flabra neque imbres
convellunt: immota manet multosque nepotes,
multa virum volvens durando saecula vincit,
tum fortis late ramos et bracchia tendens
huc illuc media ipsa ingentem sustinet umbram. Georgics 2.290–97
A tree is [i.e., needs to be] planted deeper and down far into the ground,
the Italian oak especially, whose root stretches downward into Tartarus
as far as its top reaches upward towards Heaven’s breezes.
Therefore, not winter’s stormy weather, not windy blasts,
nor flooding rains uproot it: it stands unmoved; it survives and sees
many generations and their descendants roll past as it endures;
and finally, stretching wide its sturdy limbs and branches,
this way and that, in the middle the oak holds up its massive shade.
I know that all Phil’s former students trust that this massive shade continues to provide comfort and strength for Betty, his cherished wife and constant colleague, and for his beloved children, son Bruce, daughter Betsy, and son-in-law Jeff. I remember many occasions on which, with that familiar, twinkling smile, he would gleefully rehearse their many adventures and accomplishments.
Edward A. Phillips ’67 is a professor of classics at Grinnell College.