Frederick the Great and Kant

Born in the very core of Prussian culture, in the city of Königsberg, Immanuel Kant’s political and social opinions were heavily influenced by the internationally renowned, benevolent monarch of the Prussian state: Frederick the Second, also known as Frederick the Great for his great achievements in state administration, on the battlefield and in intellectual life. Frederick’s personal fame gained him the attention and appraisal of many of the brightest brains of the age of Enlightenment. Philosophers of the French enlightenment project, in particular, were extremely vocal about their applause for Frederick, whose enlightened absolutism reminded them of the late Sun-King Louis the XIV of their country. However, Frederick was also held in high regard by certain German thinkers living under his reign. One of his most staunch supporters, who later became the very father of the German philosophical thought, was Immanuel Kant.

As an advocate of the Enlightenment ideals of personal freedom and responsibility, Kant argued in his essay on Enlightenment that humans must rid themselves of “gatekeepers” and instead think and act for themselves, applying their own reason on matters both public and private. One should not let priests or state officials think for them. One is and ought to be free to act and responsible for their action. It’s the only way forward for Kant’s ideal society, a world full of free, enlightened and rational citizens.

However, even in such a clear manifestation of modern liberal thought, Kant puts forward obedience to an enlightened father figure as prerequisite. Frederick, a contemporary model of a philosopher-king, was so influential that his image made its way into the political utopia described by the brightest mind Germany had to offer in the 18th century. Frederick the Great’s enlightened, fair reign guarantees the smooth functioning of the social and political mechanism, blocking any possible side effects that radical rationalization could trigger. An absolutism of this enlightened sort, for Kant, was a positive thing since leaders like Frederick would implement social, legal and political decisions for the betterment of the society even if the actual members of that society are against these decisions, whereas a republican democracy risks a rapid shift toward populism with corrupt leaders.

Thus, Kant saw Frederick the Great as a model ruler deserving to be granted power to improve the society’s overall conditions. In this sense, he represents the enlightened absolutist thought of the 18th century. However, it should be noted that Kant refused to grant this position to the ruler without moral obligations. For him, the ruler has severe obligations against the people under his reign. The monarch’s right to rule depends on his fulfillment of his duties against his own people. A monarch failing this duty therefore loses the mandate to rule. This way, Kant theorizes a mutual checks and balances mechanism, albeit a very problematic one. Kant’s political system leaves no room for any ruler who isn’t a once-in-a-century genius and statesman. The severe collapse of the Prussian state apparatus after Frederick’s death, which manifested itself in many rebellions and revolutions of the 19th century, proves that the enlightened absolutism suggested by Kant and many other philosophers of the Enlightenment project requires very strict and unique conditions to be met in order to function properly.

To conclude, Frederick the Great held a crucial position in Kant’s political theory and system. It is very likely that Kant personally admired Frederick and saw him as an ideal monarch. Although Kant’s political philosophy was shared by many thinkers of his time, the flaws in the system showed themselves after Frederick’s death, especially starting with the age of Revolutions triggered by the French Revolution.

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