Peter Forsskål - Thoughts on Civil Liberty

On April 7 an event dedicated to the Swedish-Finnish 18th century philosopher and disciple of Carl Linnaeus, Peter Forsskål, was held at the Residence of the Ambassador of Sweden. In front of a 125 people audience, a panel of four contributed from different angles on Forsskål’s life, achievements and his book, Thoughts on Civil Liberty.

Hosted by the Ambassador of Sweden H.E. Ms Nicola Clase and the Ambassador of Finland H.E. Mr Pekka Huhtaniemi the discussion and subsequent reception attracted a diverse audience of lawyers, journalists, academics, researchers, botanists, librarians, zoologists and diplomats. Some guests had even travelled all the way from Finland. A fitting audience for a man like Forsskål, renowned naturalist, orientalist, botanist, philosopher and advocate of progress through increasing scientific knowledge. The evening’s discussion focused on the content of Tankar om borgerliga friheten (Thoughts on Civil Liberty), the 1759 pamphlet containing the intellectual basis for the world’s first freedom of information legislation; The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act 1766. The content of the pamphlet was made accessible for non-swedish speakers in 2009 through the first-ever English translation, Thoughts on Civil Liberty.

Following introductions by the Ambassadors of Sweden and Finland, members of the panel contributed with reflections from their different perspectives. Mr Silvester Mazzarella, translator of Peter Forsskål’s diaries from his travels to Egypt and Yemen 1761-63, spoke of the expedition and read extracts from the diaries.

Dr David J. Shaw gave an insight into the fascinating story of how Forsskål tried to get his controversial thesis published in 1759. On the matter of how Carl Linnaeus, Rector of Uppsala University, was supposed to gather all copies of the contentious pamphlet after it had been published and banned, Shaw pointed out that he wasn’t sure how hard Linnaeus actually tried, implying that Linnaeus might not have wanted to stop the spreading of the work of his disciple. At the time, only 79 out of 500 printed copies were found and destroyed. According to Shaw, banning the book might have had the unforeseen effect of preserving many copies of the 1759 edition to this day.  

Ms Helena Jäderblom, Justice of the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court and part of the group of experts which revised an earlier translation of Thoughts on Civil Liberty, reflected on the fact that Forsskål didn’t live to see the adoption of the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act in 1766. Furthermore, Jäderblom gave insights into the development of Swedish legislation on freedom of expression, for example informing the audience that the legislation since its adoption was abolished at one point and was later under threat of being removed from the Constitution.

Mr David Goldberg, co-ordinator of the Peter Forsskål project and moderator of the discussion, celebrated the fact that for the first time people from different backgrounds and with different interests in Forsskål’s achievements had been gathered. At one point during the evening, David Goldberg revealed the intriguing fact that in 2011, with state of affairs in the Middle East at the top of the international agenda, Thoughts on Civil Liberty is being translated into Arabic. He also reflected on what Forsskål might have achieved had he not died at the early age of 31. The interested audience was given an opportunity to ask questions to the members of the panel before people moving on to refreshments.