The Royal Road to Enlightenment: Frederick the Great
The sun is going down on a gore-soaked battlefield and there, under a field tent, a king in a uniform riddled with bullet holes plays a flute solo of his own devising into the putrescent air. Few images sum up the promise and devastation of the eighteenth century, its capacity for paradox and tragicomedy, as well as this one of Prussian monarch Frederick the Great, escaping temporarily from omnipresent carnage through the soothing elegance of artistic expression. He was the Enlightened monarch—the patron of Voltaire, Euler, Maupertuis, La Mettrie, and Lagrange—a composer of poems, histories, concerti, and libretti—a religious disbeliever who ran the most tolerant country in Europe. He was also the soldier king whose need to cut a figure on the European stage culminated in two wars that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings. No monarch worked harder for the well-being of his people, and none had a lower opinion of those he ruled. Flute and cannon, plough and verse all mingle together in the impenetrable figure of the “magnificent enigma,” of Frederick the Great.
He was born on January 24, 1712, into a Prussia that had yet to figure itself out. His grandfather was the foppiest king in Europe, a palace-building dandy who wrangled the title of King in Prussia out of the Holy Roman Emperor, but not King of Prussia. His father was a roughly spherical militarist who collected tall soldiers and ran his country like a regiment. Prussia’s sand-fouled soil, manic political borders, and dour Calvinism all combined to make it the “state Europe could forget.” It was the place you could rent some troops from in a pinch, the place you reluctantly traveled through to get to Russia. Even Poland, which wasn’t a country anymore by the end of the century, was considered a greater player on the European stage than swampy, industry-poor Prussia.
Frederick would change all of that, but not before being twisted and broken by personal horrors. He was a sensitive child in a court that considered nothing so enjoyable as smoking tobacco and drinking tokay in a dingy room to the point of passing out, or, for real sophistication, harassing a few bedraggled boars to death out in the forest. He and his sister Wilhelmina loved music and verse, fine clothes, and all things French. He played the flute and she the lute, and his father disapproved of all of it. He berated and physically beat his son for his “effeminacy,” wielding the cane while pathetically demanding to be loved. Frederick learned to retire into himself, to put on a public face of obedience while privately building up a secret library of his favorite French works, especially his beloved Voltaire, and plotting a way to escape the drudgery of the Prussian court.
The last extreme came when his father announced that Frederick was to marry an intellectually dull but solidly German daughter of his friend, the Duke of Brunswick-Bevern. Frederick had his heart set on a double marriage which would give him an English princess and make his favorite sister the Queen of England. He resolved to flee, first to France and then to London, and enlisted the help of his dearest friend, Hans Hermann von Katte. The plot was easily discovered and Frederick was arrested along with von Katte. The latter received a death sentence, and, in an act of especial cruelty, Frederick’s father ordered that the execution be carried out in front of Frederick’s prison cell.
At just eighteen years of age, the young crown prince had to watch his best friend beheaded, and the body left to fester in the blood-soaked dust. It broke him. The king contemplated execution for Frederick as well, but decided instead to leave him incarcerated for a further three months. When he emerged, Frederick agreed to everything his father demanded. He would marry the insipid German and become the dutiful son. He would study the arts of statesmanship and tactics, as his father laid them out. With the descent of the executioner’s blade, Frederick’s two personae, the dreaming philosopher and the hardened cynic, fused. He would carry that contradiction for the rest of his days, to Europe’s consternation and Prussia’s glory.
Frederick married and, with the freedom from restraint that the marriage brought, proceeded to live life as he saw fit, creating a core of philosophizing free spirits at his Rheinsburg palace. Frederick divided his time between philosophizing, composing, and learning the business of kingship with a liberty and lightness he would never know again. He wrote to his favorite intellectuals, scribbled out reams of poems, mocked religion scandalously, and venerated the classical ideals of the Athenian and Stoic traditions. It was training for the day he would be king, with a nation’s resources to devote to the causes of reason and art, and it could not last.
In 1740, the king died at last, and Frederick assumed the throne just months before the Austrian monarch also passed, leaving his substantial territories to his daughter, Maria Theresa. All of Europe had agreed to respect her right to assume the throne, and none of Europe actually did. The royal corpse was hardly lukewarm before the vultures began to descend, and Frederick was the first among them. His life had been ruined by Austrian scheming, and his father’s reign was a series of promises made and forgotten by the haughty Habsburg family. With a crack army and a full war chest courtesy of his father, Frederick was ready to show the Habsburgs what Prussia could do. He descended on their richest province, Silesia, and claimed it as his own while France worked towards its own ends. And then, having attained what he wanted, he promptly jumped back out of the war, leaving his French allies in the lurch. From that point forward, unreliable vied with brilliant as the word that summed up Frederick in the European consciousness.
Frederick truly defies categorization. For every battle where he took fright and fled ignominiously, there are three where he exposed himself repeatedly to intense danger, bullets whizzing through his clothes and killing his steeds under him. For every expression of deep sentiment and duty, there are a dozen cynical utterances of total despair at humanity’s capacity for self-enlightenment. Contradiction aside, Frederick easily won this first war, put his new province in his pocket, and proceeded to recreate Athens in the middle of the Prussian swampland. He built Sanssouci, a palace atop a terraced vineyard that was to be his retreat from the world, where he and his philosopher friends would gather and discuss with complete freedom the things of the mind. He invited Voltaire (who would return the favor by attempting to defraud the state hosting him and destabilize its nascent academic life) and La Mettrie (who died from a paté). They were two of the most infamous religious critics of their time, the latter an avowed atheist who wrote Man, a Machine, the most explicit European text at the time in establishing the purely mechanical nature of human beings. The King even wrote his own tracts about the tangled history of religion and superstition, including an operatic libretto, Montezuma, that was set to music by Graun, about the excesses of Catholicism and organized religion generally, which is still performed very occasionally.
He made tolerance the central principle of his state and his philosophy and saw, well before any other figures of the Enlightenment did, that intolerance within humanism was something to be anticipated and avoided, lest those without religion become like those with it. “We know the crimes which religious fanaticism has engendered. Let us take care to keep philosophy free of fanaticism; it should be characterized by moderation,” he wrote to Voltaire, and his country was one where Jesuit, atheist, Jew, and Lutheran all had a place so long as they obeyed the laws and made themselves useful.
In the meantime, there was a new culture to build. The Academy of Berlin was revived, and illustrious names added to its roles, including Maupertuis, Algarotti, Euler, and Lagrange. Frederick built, piece by piece, the best orchestra in Europe, featuring at one time CPE Bach, the virtuosic Benda clan, the flautist Johann Quantz, and the composer Carl Heinrich Graun. Frederick’s opera, likewise grown from nothing, was also one of the greatest in Europe, offering new compositions performed by continent-class performers every winter, while at Sanssouci itself the King regularly gave concerts of his own and Quantz’s flute concerti. Science, art, philosophy, tolerance, and reasonable laws all converged for that one shining moment before all of Europe decided they’d had quite enough of this Frederick upstart and elected to unite their forces to utterly crush him.
Here in the United States, we know the Seven Years’ War as the French-Indian War which gained Canada for Britain and made necessary the taxes that would provide the justification of revolution a decade later. In Europe they were, quite explicitly, the smash Frederick wars; Austria, France, Sweden, and Russia all agreed to forget their previous grievances and unite to destroy Prussia’s power for good. Only Britain lent aid to the besieged monarch, seeing no profit in the strengthening of the Franco-Russo-Austro hands.
By all reckoning, Frederick should have been crushed, and quickly. But he simply refused to be. While the allies were gathering up their resources, he sprung, re-establishing his lines and rounding on army after army, effecting lightning marches unheard of in Europe to deal with the French and the Austrians, facing off against forces twice his number and regularly winning thanks to his well-drilled cavalry and often revolutionary sense of tactics. He made disastrous mistakes, and was nearly knocked from the game entirely on several occasions, but always bounded back, reformed his army, and staved off defeat another year. For seven long years the marshy provinces of Prussia managed to basically hold off all of Europe, until finally the Russian tsarina quite obligingly died and her son, a Frederick the Great fanatic, came to the throne and pulled his country’s forces out of the war. Frederick, his Eastern front secure, dealt a few more blows to the Austrian forces until peace was at last sued for, and in 1763 Frederick was re-established as ruler of Silesia, and Prussia as the unconquerable rock of Europe.
It had cost much blood. Besides the nearly 200,000 soldiers who had died, the French, Russian, and Croat pillaging and raping of the countryside had destroyed hundreds of towns and as many as another 300,000 lives. Frederick, the flute-playing philosopher who loved peace and reason, stood at the end of the war with a broken if proud nation, possessed by the question of whether it was all morally justifiable. Was it?
Frederick was resolved to make sure that it was. He rose at three o’clock every morning and set to work, ordering the rebuilding of villages, the recodifying of the laws along modern principles, the draining of marshes, the promotion of industry, and the development of a merit-based bureaucracy, all to make good the hurt he had inflicted on his land during his first heady months as monarch. Seven years of strain and death and emergency had taken their toll; he was physically wrecked and could not see the good of the world through the bloodshed. How could he witness the raped women and burning farms of East Prussia, and still hold onto the hope of man’s basic goodness? And yet, he didn’t abandon humankind. He pushed every reserve of energy he had into finding ways to help his people. He gave them good food and what he hoped were good laws, let them think as they would so long as they lived in accord with their neighbors, all while himself experiencing each day a diminution of life’s joys.
The loss of his teeth meant that he could no longer play flute, the death of his friends that he no longer had somebody to confide his fears and self-doubts to, and his family were merely waiting around to see him at last gone. In his letters, we see a man in constant pain, aware of his faults, trying to take solace in the philosophy of the Stoics and in leaving behind something that would allow people to treat each other equitably and justly at last. He died in his chair, alone save for his two greyhounds, which are buried next to him today on a hill near some grapevines, without worries.
Frederick the Great has been my constant companion for the better part of a decade now. Since 2007, Geoff Schaeffer and I have, twice a week, every week, written time-spanning adventures with Frederick at the helm in our webcomic Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy Breaching Time and Space. In that time, I’ve gotten to read a few Frederick books, and they are all, on the whole, quite good, though most are focused on the military side of his career rather than the intellectual. For the philosopher and writer, I like Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters by Giles MacDonogh. Robert Asprey’s Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma is another one that does justice to all the different aspects of Frederick. Nancy Mitford and Thomas Carlyle are also fun if you’re in the hero worship-y mood. In German, the classics are Franz Kugler’s Geschichte Friedrichs des Grossen from 1842, and Reinhold Koser’s four-volume biography of the same title, completed in 1912. More recently, Johannes Kunisch’s Friedrich der Grosse: Der Koenig und seine Zeit (2004) is a neat book putting Frederick in his eighteenth-century context while at the same time showing how much he anticipated of modernity.