Encounter with a thinker king

Friedrich II. Von Prussia (1712-86) is one of the most extraordinary political figures of the last three hundred years. When he ascended the throne of Brandenburg-Prussia in 1740, in the course of his life he transformed a poor and somewhat backward state on the edge of the Germanic world into a major European power, primarily through his military genius and the tremendous power of his intelligence. At the same time, his political reforms and his sponsorship of high culture made Prussia the figurehead of the absolutism of the Enlightenment. He sought out the leading figures of the French Enlightenment, maintained correspondence with them for many years and once received Voltaire for a longer stay at Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam. (However, it is said that closeness didn’t improve their relationship.) In addition, he was also a prolific writer. His complete works (30 volumes, all in French) cover many genres, from the history of his time to political and philosophical essays on a variety of subjects and even poetry (he also composed music and was an accomplished flautist).

In his republic, Plato argued that the political ills of mankind could only be cured if philosophers became kings or royal philosophers. A brief overview of the intervening centuries offers few candidates for this implausible combination – although this is enough to suggest that it is not just a human impossibility. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius immediately invades; The meditations, his personal reflections on stoic ethics, continue to be widely read. Hardly remembered, but more fascinating, is the figure of Emperor Julian the Apostate, whose extravagant esoteric quasi-theological polemics in the 4th century AD could not turn the emerging Christianity. Like Friedrich, these two men took time out from practically continuous military campaigns to register their thoughts with their own time or posterity.

While Marcus’ reflections were not intended for publication, Frederick shares with Julian a public purpose and largely rhetorical style. At the same time, both men reveal a real love for philosophy. As a teenager, Friedrich could call himself “le philosophe”. In the long poem “To My Soul” (“À Mon Esprit”) “[asserts] This philosophy has steadfastly guided my steps and changed my life ”, he tries to get the two different components of his personality under control. The great drama in Friedrich’s life is clearly the inner tension between the philosopher and the king. This tension is particularly evident in Friedrich’s boldness, which sometimes leads to recklessness when he expresses his opinion in his writings without taking into account the possible political complications. This is especially true of his frequent statements about religion. It reflects his strict Lutheran upbringing, but more directly the effects of the anti-clericalism of the French Enlightenment. He crushes few words about the superstitions and evil practices of the Catholic Church. As people get older, this attitude seems to expand into hostility towards Christianity in general. Friedrich was fully aware that a king who wrote for the public was taking great risks by exposing himself to misunderstanding and criticism, but he was ready to accept those risks. (Of course he wasn’t worried about elections). One could also assume that the naturally combative side of his character has found an important paragraph on the printed page; Some of his polemical writings are remarkably brutal.

However, one has to be careful assuming that Friedrich was unable to write subtly and cautiously. This edition inevitably confronts his most famous work to date, the so-called Anti-Machiavel of 1740. This long essay was the result of conversations with Voltaire, who initiated the publication (in Holland). During this process Friedrich learned that with the death of his father Friedrich I he was now the King of Prussia. With this development, Friedrich tried to stop the publication of the work; but Voltaire told him it was too late. It must be understood that Friedrich was twenty-eight years old at the time and that he did not have the best relationships with his father. It’s not exactly clear why he tried (not very hard) to suppress its publication. In any case, he was determined to break with the old Prussian regime. In December 1740, when he was barely in the saddle of the monarchy, he launched Prussia in a war against Austria, the consequences of which would drain his energy and military acumen for the coming decades. It played a role in what the Prussians would call the iron cubes a century later. Repeated dice rolls brought Prussia to the brink of disaster in some places, but Frederick’s military and diplomatic skills at the end of the day (the alliance with England during the Seven Years War was crucial) cemented Prussia’s place in the new European order .

Friedrich seems to repeatedly give Machiavelli a pass, emphasizing the less harmless political environment of his time, in which the greater fragility of the regimes created the need for ruthless action against domestic opponents – in contrast, absolutist Prussia with its large standing army was a model political stability!

It is an enduring mystery and paradox that Frederick’s attack on Machiavellian power politics was to be followed in such a short time by his unprovoked invasion of Austria-Silesia, which prompted an opportunistic response to the death of Emperor Charles VI. And there seems to be confusion about his successor by a woman, Maria Theresa. Friedrich himself did not even try to give a haughty justification for this step; at one point he simply declares that he wanted to make a name for himself. But this rich agricultural province was an important addendum to Prussia’s power and thrust it into the center of the Holy Roman Empire, which would supplant it as an advocate of German national identity in the next century.

It is certainly tempting to read the Anti-Machiavel as a youthful jeu d’esprit. When Friedrich says, for example: “We must not abuse deceit and sagacity. They are like spices that, if used too often in a casserole, spoil the taste and in the end lose the piquancy that a palate used to them can no longer taste, ”is the feeling that Machiavelli would undoubtedly not contradict. Friedrich seems to repeatedly give Machiavelli a pass, emphasizing the less harmless political environment of his time, in which the greater fragility of the regimes created the need for ruthless action against domestic opponents – in contrast, absolutist Prussia with its large standing army was a model political stability! But perhaps the most amusing passage in the entire work comes when he discusses the great founders of the great state in Chapter 6 of Prince Machiavelli’s account. He says there:

It seems to me … that Machiavelli was rash to place Moses next to Romulus, Cyrus and Theseus. Moses was either inspired or not. If it wasn’t him, which we have no reason to believe, then we must consider him a simple deceiver. Moses also looked at things from a human perspective, so unskillfully that he led the Jewish people for forty years along a path that they could easily have covered in six weeks …

Be that as it may, it cannot be doubted that much of his criticism of Machiavelli has been well received and meant seriously. Friedrich always regarded himself as a “virtuous” prince in the pre-Machiavellian sense of the word, that is, in the spirit of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This is indeed a key to understanding Friedrich’s thought, which may have been neglected in the rush to anoint him as an Enlightenment child. From a young age, Friedrich was influenced by classical literature, history and philosophy. For example, in an important “Letter on Education” he states that “the many men produced by the Greek and Roman Republic predisposed me to the discipline of the ancient world, and I am convinced that we should follow their methods with which we would create a nation with more virtue and morality than our present peoples. “Later in the same work,“ we note with regret, ”he says,“ that the study of Greek and Latin is no longer as popular as it used to be. It is as if these worthy Germans have lost their taste for the profound erudition they once possessed and are now trying to gain reputation and status with the least possible effort. You have taken as an example a neighboring nation that is content with just being pleasant and that is becoming more and more superficial. “This rather sharp blow against the French of his time clearly shows the limits of Friedrich’s embrace of the Enlightenment. In fact, his play “Examining the Essay on Prejudice” is nothing more than a frontal attack on one of the central ideas of the Enlightenment.

The title of the collection examined is a bit misleading. It leads us to expect stricter philosophical works, less political and moral writings that are actually given to us. One might wish that Ari Lifschitz’s otherwise admirable introduction could have given a better sense of the overall scope and apparent variety of Frederick’s oeuvre. As for Friedrich’s actual philosophical inclinations, he was clearly against the materialism of radical Enlightenment thinkers like d’Holbach. In his youth he was very fond of the neo-Aristotelian philosopher Christian Wolff and put him back on a chair at the University of Halle, from which his father had once thrown him out, although Voltaire Friedrich seems to have pissed off the man in the end. Friedrich’s own mature philosophical inclinations seem ancient, but more epicurean than stoic or academic.

For a look at the disrespectful, not to say bizarre side of Frederick, nothing is better than the (recently restored) “Dialogue of the Dead between Madame de Pompadour and the Virgin Mary”.

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