‘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).

This maxim was formulated by the lawyer 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 chose to engrave these words above the entrance to the auditorium at the end of the 19th century 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 the eternal law of all societies’) from 1794. From the context it is easier to understand Thomas Thorild’s thinking:

"Just as true sense, true honour and true happiness have no greater obstacles than false sense, false honour and false happiness, true freedom has no greater enemy in the world than false freedom. False freedom which first makes people giddy with delight; then, when they find they have been deceived, mad with despair, casting them into enslavement. From this we see that the greatest issue for general happiness is: the question of what is right.
[...]
True freedom, which God has instituted for all beings, is to follow one’s (true) nature; and since man’s nature is to seek happiness, which can only be won through good, man’s inherent and true freedom is the right to do all the good he can; from which it follows that each man’s virtue is the measure of his freedom. For a right to also do all the evil one could, would be a right to do wrong, which is unthinkable."

About Thomas Thorild

Thomas Thorild 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 Gustav III. Thorild himself claimed that the thesis was ‘thrown together’ in a few hours. The auditorium in Gustavianum, which seated 400 people, was full, and Thorild lived up to all expectations. He responded to criticism from a total of fourteen opponents. 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 that afternoon as a mark of his favour.