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Henrik Gabriel Porthan

Born 8 November, 1739, Viitasaari. Died 16 March, 1804, Turku.

Master of Philosophy 1760, Royal Academy of Turku

Docent of Rhetoric (Latin), 1762
Library Amanuensis,1764
Acting Professor, 1776, and full Professor of Rhetoric and Verse (Roman Verse), 1777–1804
Rector, 1786–87 and 1798–99, Royal Academy of Turku

Knight of the Nordstjärneorden (Swedish Order of the Polar Star), 1799
Kanslianeuvos (honorary title given to senior civil servants), 1802

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Written by Lauri Lönnström
Translated by John Calton

Philosopher and teacher

Henrik Gabriel Porthan enrolled in the Royal Academy of Turku in 1754. He graduated in 1760 with a dissertation on natural theology. Natural theology and enlightenment atheism was a topic of enduring interest to him and he ruminated on the possibility that the Bible might be considered to be a historical source.

With his appointment as professor of Rhetoric in 1776, Porthan was given extensive teaching duties. He held that the task of a university teacher was above all else to be a source of inspiration and to mould the students into well-balanced, sensible and civilised beings.

Central to teaching was to instil in students a critical outlook and Porthan fought tirelessly against lazy prejudice and loose generalisations. He did not restrict his teaching to Latin, the varsity lingua franca, but chose to use other vernacular languages.

Porthan was influential in respect of a number of academic disciplines. He lectured on philosophy, education, theology, archaeology, history, languages and aesthetics. He paid particular attention to literature, researching Finnish poetry and the Finnish language’s relations with other Finno-Ugric languages.

In 1779 Porthan made his only significant study trip, to the University of Göttingen in Hanover, where he was able to imbibe the more liberal enlightenment ideas. When he returned to Finland he focused his energies on historical research. He set about drafting a general outline of Finnish history, but the project was interrupted and he got no further than the middle ages.

In 1782, whilst travelling in Sweden, he decided he would publish Paulus Juusten’s Piispain kronika (‘Bishops’ chronicle’) with a commentary. The publication grew into Porthan’s most extensive work, dealing with 56 theses. It was published between 1784 and 1800. In the commentary he presented his understanding of Finnish prehistory and Finland’s place in Russian history. According to Porthan, the Finns were descended from a single place but had later formed a diaspora.

All the while this study was going on, Porthan delved into the geography of Finland. He began by correcting those parts of the Swedish account of Finland’s geography, but ended up completely rewriting the account. This became the country’s first reliable overview of Finnish geography.

Porthan saw himself as a force for change within the University, an institution to which he, as a bachelor, devoted his entire life. According to hearsay, he was infatuated with his cousin Kristina Margareta Jusleen, whom he got to know from her step-uncle Pehr Jusleen.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.​
Image: Wikimedia Commons.​


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