A Catholic priest and a professor of Philosophy — although these two professions seem as diverse as the sun and the moon, they are two ways to describe Dr. Thomas R. Flynn, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Philosophy. After an academic career spanning over four decades across three different continents, Flynn will retire from Emory University at the end of the Spring semester.
Born in 1936, Flynn is a Spokane, Wash. native raised in Helena, Mont. He completed his bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and history and graduated summa cum laude from Carroll College (Mont.) in 1958. In 1962, he graduated summa cum laude from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome with a master’s degree in theology.
In 1970, Flynn completed his doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University (N.Y.). Soon after, he began teaching history at Carroll College, followed by Princeton University (N.J.) and Columbia University. It was nearly 40 years ago when Flynn came to Emory and finally fulfilled his undergraduate dream of teaching philosophy.
As he reminisced about the people and experiences that shaped and influenced his life, Flynn credited his two older brothers, who also studied philosophy and history, for fostering his love for the subjects.
“I read [my brothers’] history books, but what interested me was not the battles and treaties, but the ideas … which moved into philosophy,” Flynn said.
Flynn said that books, in general, have always played a large role in his life, whether he was reading or writing them. Flynn has published seven books over a span of 28 years, including “Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction” (2006) and volumes one (1997) and two (2005) of “Sartre, Foucault, and Historical Reason.” “Existentialism” has been translated into various languages, including Chinese, German and Georgian. Of the various books he has written, he most prizes his latest publication, “Sartre: A Philosophical Biography” (2014), which supported his reputation as the world’s premier authority and expert on French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Flynn has also won multiple awards, including an honorary degree from Carroll College in 2006.
Despite Flynn’s varied philosophical interests, evidenced by the diverse subject matters of his publications, his favorite school of thought is existentialism, a theory that focuses on free will and the human experience. Traversing across a number of subjects such as contemporary French thought, the theory of responsibility and Marxist existentialism, Flynn’s courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels include “Metaphysics and Epistemology” and “Topics in 20th Century Philosophy.”
Flynn is widely recognized as a phenomenal teacher among his friends, colleagues and students. Fuller E. Callaway Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Agnes Scott College (Ga.) and Flynn’s colleague Richard Parry recognized Flynn’s commitment to academia and his students.
“Above and beyond, [Flynn] is an example of a scholar, someone who has devoted his entire life to understanding some quite difficult texts,” Parry said. ”He exemplifies all the qualities that go with that vocation.”
Another friend of Flynn’s and Charles Howard Candler Professor Emeritus at Emory Rudolf A. Makkreel considers Flynn a world expert on French thinkers and played a key role in encouraging the Emory Department of Philosophy to hire him.
“[Flynn] is very easy to approach, and the students love him,” Makkreel said. “He has devoted his life to undergraduates more than anyone else in the department.”
Throughout his decorated career, Flynn has been an American Council of Learned Studies senior research fellow (1984-1985), the chair of the executive board of the North American Sartre Society (1988-1991) and a member of the board of directors of the American Philosophical Association (1989-1992).
Although he has accumulated these titles, he said his greatest accomplishment was becoming valedictorian of his graduate school class at Gregorian. To him, this achievement symbolized his determination to carve out a place for himself in the field of academia and solidified him as a scholar of religion and philosophy.
Flynn has not just limited himself to academia, however. He has been a Roman Catholic priest for 28 years, and celebrates the Mass for Mother Teresa’s nuns at the Missionaries of Charity Gift of Grace House hospice in Atlanta for women suffering from AIDS-related complications.
“When you look at these women … think about how much longer they have to live,” Flynn said. “It’s not at all clear. The nuns who take care of them are very, very positive-thinking people … [There] is something you learn from people who give themselves for other people.”
Flynn has also journeyed from Kashmir, India to the Baltic Sea to Brazil. He has attended and spoken at various sessions of the International Philosophical Seminar over the last 27 years, a group of intellectuals and philosophers who hail from various nations worldwide, including Japan, England and Italy. The seminar meets every summer in Northern Italy, where they spend 12 days discussing works from the minds of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, among other noteworthy names.
Having spent countless years in the service of teaching, Flynn advised students interested in studying philosophy in college or graduate school to accept the impossibility of knowing everything.
“One thing you should know is that there is a lot to learn [about philosophy], and that you don’t know it all,” Flynn said.
Flynn said he will miss his colleagues and students the most once he retires from Emory, an institution which he believes has deep roots and meaningful values. He claimed that his students keep him grounded and on his toes.
“I have always respected [my students] and felt at home with them,” Flynn said.
After retirement, Flynn plans to spend a year researching at Emory. He also aims to add to his lengthy repertoire with a book based on his upcoming research, in addition to travelling with his friends and revisiting his Montana roots. He also said that he would like his legacy at Emory to include recognition of his hard work and his dedication to helping his students become worldly model citizens.
Speaking about his legacy at Emory and how he would like to be remembered, Flynn said “I would want them to recognize that I did my best and gave whatever I could to my students.”
Sporting an infectious smile after a moment of reflection, Flynn advised Emory students to find gratification within the self and instill a sense of groundedness in one’s demeanor and attitude. Although he recognized the importance of self-gratification, he also emphasized the value of humility. He confidently denies having any regrets during his life.
“You want to have a certain sense of fairness for people,” Flynn said. “You want to have a sense of being able to forgive people [and], above all, yourself, which does not come easy. This may sound like I am preaching now, [but] you have got to be humble and that, in academia or anywhere, is not an easy thing.”