‘To think freely is great, but to think rightly is greater’

Engraved in golden letters above the entrance to the Grand Auditorium of the University Main Building in Uppsala you find the words ‘To think freely is great, but to think rightly is greater’ (In Swedish Tänka fritt är stort men tänka rätt är större).

The words were uttered by the jurist Thomas Thorild who studied at Uppsala University in the 18th century. He was a controversial thinker who provoked debate in his time.

What Thomas Thorild actually meant has been discussed from time to time to this day. The fact that Uppsala University at the end of the 19th century chose to engrave these words above the entrance to the auditorium has been criticised by many, since the words can come across as repressive.

The following quote is from Thomas Thorild’s publication ‘Rätt, eller alla samhällens eviga lag’ (‘Justice, or all societies’ eternal law’) from 1794. From the context it is easier to understand Thomas Thorild’s thought process:

Just as true sense, true honour and true happiness do not have any greater obstacles than false sense, false honour and false happiness; true freedom does not have any greater obstacle in the world than false freedom. False freedom which first makes people giddy with delight; then, when they find they have been deceived, delirious with despair, casting them into enslavement. From this we see that the greatest issue for general happiness is: the issue of the right.
True freedom, which God has forged for all beings, is to follow one’s (true) nature; and since man’s nature is to seek happiness, which only can be won through good, man’s inherent and true freedom is the right to do all that is good that she can; hence follows that each man’s virtue is the measure of his freedom. For one right, to also do all the evil one could, would be a right to do unright, which cannot be thought.

About Thomas Thorild

Thomas Thorild was registered at Gothenburg’s nation (Uppsala’s student clubs are called ‘nations’) in 1787 to study for a doctorate in law. Less than a year later in the morning of Easter Eve 1788, the remarkable public defence of Thomas Thorild’s doctoral thesis took place – in the presence of King Gustaf III. The auditorium in Gustavianum, which seats 400 people, was full, and Thorild lived up to all expectations. He answered all the criticism from a total of fourteen opponents: the two regulars, three that the king had appointed and another nine extras. None of them managed to catch Thorild off balance. With his quick, sharp and ironic tongue he answered them all, and the amused king visited Thorild in his student room in the afternoon to show him his support.

The thesis was according to Thorild himself ‘thrown together’ in a few hours. It dealt with Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, a publication on political theory which came out 40 years earlier and almost immediately became one of the most influential political works of its time. Montesquieu meant that government and law must be adapted to the climate of every country, and that there are three forms of government that may be suitable: republic, monarchy and despotism. Thorild, however, was strongly critical of the Frenchman’s conclusions. He meant that only one form of government could be right, and that even though the climate is an important factor, it cannot determine how a country should be governed. To Montesquieu, freedom was the same as abiding by the law, while Thorild meant that laws could be tyrannical and put freedom above law-abidance.