Frederick the Great and the Enlightenment

His Intellectual Development as Crown Prince
Frederick was born in Berlin on 24 January 1712. He started to develop a keen interest in philosophy, arts and French literature at a young age despite his father’s attempts to raise him in a more militaristic manner.

As he grew up, Frederick’s reluctance in taking the education his father wanted him to take, caused serious conflicts between the father and son. Until 1736, Frederick was constantly under control of his father and was abused when his father saw necessary. In 1736, his father allowed Frederick to settle in Rheinsberg Palace, where he could freely enjoy his time without interference.

During his stay in Rheinsberg Palace as Crown Prince, Frederick spent his time reading, composing and discussing military arts with his fellow generals. He also started his correspondences with the great mind of French philosophy, Voltaire. In these correspondences, Frederick exhibited his great admiration to Voltaire and shared some of his writings with him. Voltaire was impressed by the ideas of the young Crown Prince, thus started an intellectual friendship between the two, which lasted even after Frederick ascended to the throne and became the King.

Even before his succession, Frederick had compiled an astonishing collection of books in his personal library, which included the writings of the greatest minds of his time such as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, Pierre Bayle and Voltaire.He was not only a curious reader but a writer too.He wrote his perhaps the most famous prose, Anti Machiavel, in his last days in Rheinsberg Palace in 1739.In ‘Anti Machiavel’, Frederick criticized and refuted the thoughts and ideas presented in Niccolo Machiavelli’s political thesis, “the Prince”. In the book, Frederick criticizes the malevolent and egocentric portrayal of an ‘ideal prince’ and instead suggests that an ideal prince should be rational and benevolent towards his subjects.

His Reforms
Frederick succeeded to throne as Frederick II in 1740 after his father’s death. Although he was known to be an intelligent and talented Crown Prince, some high level state officers had doubts about if Frederick’s lifestyle, which was filled with music,literature and philosophical conversations, would fit well as a ruler. However, he proved throughout his reign that, he was a statesman of extraordinary military and political talent.

Frederick began his reign by recalling the most influential German philosopher of the time, Christian Wolff, who was expelled from Prussia by Frederick’s father years ago, to Prussian employment.Frederick made several reforms concerning higher education in Prussia. The Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, which was founded by the great-grandfather of Frederick, became one of the most prominent scientific academies in Europe at the time. Frederick made French language the official language in the academy and encouraged French intellectuals to move to Berlin and join the academy. Members of the academy consisted of important philosophers such as, Immanuel Kant , Voltaire , Johann Heinrich Lambert , Denis Diderot , Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert , Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis and many others.

Frederick, in order to compete with the economic strength of his biggest foes, Austria and France, encouraged domestic trade within Prussian territories and increased the tariffs on imports.He made several land reforms and wanted his farmers to optimally use their fields.Reforms displayed positive outcome in time and made Prussia a highly efficient agricultural country despite the bad condition of soil in most of Prussian territory. These regulations allowed Prussia, a country with very limited resources, to challenge major powers and eventually gain itself a place among them.

Frederick tolerated all religions in his realm, even though Protestantism was the most favoured one. Through religious freedom, he aimed to attract foreign immigrants to his lands.He improved bureaucracy and developed infrastructure in Prussian cities.These reforms he made earned him the title “the Great” by his contemporaries.

The Enlightened Monarch
Although the capital of his kingdom was Berlin, Frederick spent most of his free time in Potsdam. In 1745, he ordered the construction of a palace in Potsdam.He named the palace ” Sanssouci ” which means ” without concerns ” in French. Through Frederick, Sanssouci Palace became the intellectual center of Prussian enlightenment by time. He invited many artists, philosophers and theorists to his court and spent his time conversing with them.

In 1747, Frederick invited Johann Sebastian Bach to his court and played music with him. Bach later dedicated his “The Musical Offering” to Frederick. Bach’s son, Carl Philipp Emanuel later served as a court musician to Frederick.
Voltaire also lived in Sanssouci for 3 years between 1750-1753. He wrote ‘ Micromegas ‘ during his stay in the palace. Voltaire was also one of the main members of intellectual gatherings in Sanssouci. These gatherings involved artists and intellectuals from all around Europe.

Frederick was a perfect example of an enlightened monarch in that, he created an environment of freedom and tolerance and encouraged all sorts of arts and sciences in his realm. His judicial reforms gave every citizen of Prussia equal individual rights without class distinction. Frederick’s improvements in individual rights and free thinking environment made Prussia one of the outstanding countries for the philosophers of the age of Enlightenment. Even though Frederick’s administration was not democratic by any means, his appointments and promotions were based on merit. Frederick did not see ordinary people to be able to comprehend the intrigues of administrative affairs and philosophy. He thought enlightened people like him should govern without the interference of ordinary people, and improve the life quality of ordinary people through reforms.

Immanuel Kant, in his essay “What is Enlightenment?”, states that Frederick’s actions and reforms made the conditions for Enlightenment possible. Kant praises Frederick, for removing obstacles on the way to an enlightened age and also for creating an environment of religious tolerance and freedom of thought.

Today, Frederick is considered an “Enlightened Monarch” because of his efforts in making his kingdom a free place for the philosophers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment era. Frederick himself is considered a “philosopher-king” and one of the important intellectuals of the era.


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