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Encountering a Philosopher-King

Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) is one of the most extraordinary political figures of the last three hundred years. Succeeding to the throne of Brandenburg-Prussia in 1740, in the course of his lifetime he transformed a poor and somewhat backward state on the fringes of the Germanic world into a major European power, largely through his military genius and the formidable power of his intelligence and will. At the same time, his political reforms and sponsorship of high culture made Prussia the poster child of Enlightenment absolutism. He sought out the leading figures of the French Enlightenment, maintained a correspondence with them for many years, and at one point hosted Voltaire for an extended stay at the Sans Souci palace in Potsdam. (It is said, however, that proximity did not improve their relationship.) On top of all this, he was also a prolific author. His complete works (thirty volumes, all written in French) cover many genres, from the history of his times to political and philosophical essays on a great range of subjects and even poetry (he also composed music and was an accomplished flautist).

In his Republic, Plato famously argued that humanity’s political ills would only be cured if philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers. A quick survey of the intervening centuries offers up few candidates for this implausible combination—though enough to suggest it is not simply a human impossibility. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius comes immediately to mind; the Meditations, his personal ruminations on Stoic ethics, continues to be widely read. Barely remembered, but more intriguing, is the figure of the emperor Julian the Apostate, whose flamboyantly esoteric quasi-theological polemics failed to turn the rising tide of Christianity in the fourth century AD. Like Frederick, both of these men took time out from virtually continuous military campaigning to register their thoughts with their own time or posterity.

While Marcus’ musings were not meant for publication, Frederick shares with Julian a public purpose and a broadly rhetorical style. At the same time, both men betray a genuine love of philosophy itself. As a teenager, Frederick could refer to himself as “le philosophe.” In the long poem “To My Soul” (“À Mon Esprit”), he “[asserts] unflinchingly that philosophy has guided my steps and reshaped my life,” as he tries to come to grips with the two disparate components of his personality. Clearly, the great drama of Frederick’s life is the inner tension between philosopher and king. This tension is apparent above all in Frederick’s boldness, sometimes amounting to recklessness, in speaking his mind in his writings without too much regard for the possible political complications of his doing so. This is particularly true of his frequent statements about religion. Reflecting his strict Lutheran upbringing, but more directly the impact of the anti-clericalism of the French Enlightenment, he minces few words about the superstitions and evil practices of the Catholic Church. As he grows older, this attitude seems to broaden into hostility toward Christianity in general. Frederick was perfectly aware that a king writing for the public was taking large risks by exposing himself to misunderstanding and criticism, but he was willing to accept those risks. (Of course, he didn’t worry about elections). One might also suspect that the naturally combative side of his character found an important outlet on the printed page; some of his polemical writings are remarkably brutal.

One needs to be cautious, however, in assuming that Frederick was incapable of writing with subtlety and reserve. This issue inevitably presents itself in confronting what remains his best known work, the so-called Anti-Machiavel of 1740. This long essay emerged from discussions with Voltaire, who arranged for its publication (in Holland). While this process was in train, Frederick learned that with the passing of his father Frederick I, he was now the King of Prussia. With this development, Frederick made an effort to stop the appearance of the work; but Voltaire told him it was too late. It needs to be understood that Frederick was then twenty-eight years old, and also that he had not been on the best terms with his father. It is not clear exactly 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 barely in the saddle of the monarchy, he launched Prussia on a war against Austria whose consequences would consume his energies and military acumen for decades to come. It was a roll of what the Prussians of a century later would call the iron dice. Repeated rolls of that dice brought the Prussia of his day at some points to the brink of catastrophe, but Frederick’s military and diplomatic skills at the end of the day (the alliance with England during the Seven Years War was critical) succeeded in cementing Prussia’s place in the new European order.

Frederick seems repeatedly to give Machiavelli a pass by stressing the less benign political environment of his day, where the greater fragility of regimes created a need for ruthless measures against domestic adversaries—by contrast, absolutist Prussia, with its large standing army, was a model of political stability!

It is an enduring puzzle and paradox that Frederick’s full-throated assault on Machiavellian power politics should have been followed in such short order by his unprovoked invasion of Austrian Silesia, which appears to have been an opportunistic reaction to the death of the Emperor Charles VI and confusion regarding his succession by a woman, Maria Theresa. Frederick himself never even attempted to give a high-minded justification for this step; at one point, he simply declares that he was out 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 in the next century it would supplant as a champion of German national identity.

It is certainly tempting to read the Anti-Machiavel as a youthful jeu d’esprit. When Frederick says, for example, “We must not misuse guile and acuteness; they are like spices which, if too much used in a casserole, spoil the flavor, and which in the end lose that piquancy that a palate accustomed to them can no longer taste,” the sentiment is no doubt one Machiavelli would not disagree with. Frederick seems repeatedly to give Machiavelli a pass by stressing the less benign political environment of his day, where the greater fragility of regimes created a need for ruthless measures against domestic adversaries—by contrast, absolutist Prussia, with its large standing army, was a model of political stability! But perhaps the most amusing passage in the entire work occurs when he discusses Machiavelli’s account of the great founders of states in chapter 6 of the Prince. He says there:

It seems to me…that it was ill-considered of Machiavelli to place Moses alongside Romulus, Cyrus, and Theseus. Either Moses was inspired or he was not. If he was not, which we have no reason to suppose, we must regard him as a simple impostor….Moses was, moreover, looking at things from a human perspective, so little skillful that he led the Jewish people for forty years along a path that they could easily have covered in six weeks….

However this may be, it cannot be doubted that much of his critique of Machiavelli is well taken and seriously meant. Frederick always regarded himself as a “virtuous” prince in the pre-Machiavellian sense of the word, which is to say, in the spirit of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This is, indeed, a key to understanding Frederick’s thought, one that has perhaps been neglected in the rush to anoint him as a child of the Enlightenment. Frederick was steeped in classical literature, history, and philosophy from an early age. In an important “Letter on Education,” for example, he states that “the many men produced by the Greek and Roman republics have predisposed me in favour of the discipline of the ancient world, and I am persuaded that if we were to follow their methods we would create a nation possessed of more virtue and morality than are our present peoples.” Later in the same work, “we note with regret,” he says, “that the study of Greek and Latin is not as popular as it was formerly. It is as though these worthy Germans have lost their taste for the profound erudition they formerly possessed, and now aim to acquire reputation and status at the least possible expense; they have taken as their example a neighboring nation, one that is content with being merely agreeable, and will become ever more superficial.” This rather sharp knock on the French of his day shows clearly the limits of Frederick’s embrace of the Enlightenment. Indeed, his piece “Examination of the Essay on Prejudice” is nothing other than a frontal assault on one of the Enlightenment’s central received ideas.

The title of the collection under review is somewhat misleading. It leads us to expect more strictly philosophical works, fewer of the political and moral sorts of writings we are actually given. One might wish that Ari Lifschitz’ otherwise admirable introduction had provided a better sense of the overall scope and evident variety of Frederick’s oeuvre. As for Frederick’s philosophical leanings proper, he was clearly opposed to the materialism of radical Enlightenment thinkers such as d’Holbach. In his younger days he was much taken with the neo-Aristotelian philosopher Christian Wolff, and restored him to a chair at the University of Halle from which his father had once had him ejected, though Voltaire seems eventually to have soured Frederick on the man. Frederick’s own mature philosophical leanings appear to have been ancient, but Epicurean more than Stoic or Academic.

Finally, for a glimpse of the irreverent, not to say scurrilous side of Frederick, nothing serves better than the (recently recovered) “Dialogue of the Dead between Madame de Pompadour and the Virgin Mary.”

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