Frederick the Great and Voltaire

 

On August 8, 1736, the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick wrote a letter to Voltaire, who was then a famous philosopher and a highly favored intellectual among the elite societies of Europe. In the letter, Frederick introduced himself and also asked him to send some of his works. This first letter marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship. It did not take long for Voltaire to notice the young Prince’s genius and talent. Although they shared many common interests, these two men were both inevitable egomaniacs who maintained an extremely tense relationship throughout their lives. Despite the fact that these conflicts often led to fiery disputes, these correspondences never stopped until Voltaire’s death in 1778.

In the early correspondences, Frederick, as a curious and intellectual young Prince, sought the approval and advice of Voltaire. In late 1739, Frederick sent him a political essay that he had been writing for a while. Voltaire enjoyed this work so much that he had it anonymously published in Netherlands. It was published with the name “Anti-Machiavel”.  In his work, Frederick refuted the thoughts and ideas presented in Niccolo Machiavelli’s political thesis, “the Prince”. 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. The ideals and concepts of the Enlightenment can clearly be seen in this work of the young Prince. At first, Frederick was worried that it would have hurt the name of his dynasty if the anonymity was uncovered. That was because he had heavily criticized some of the contemporary figures, some of whom were one of the most influential people in Europe, in the essay.

Short after the publication, in 1740, Frederick succeeded to the throne of the Kingdom of Prussia upon the death of his father. In the summer of the same year, Frederick and Voltaire met in person for the first time during the King’s visit to his possessions in the Lower Rhine. Voltaire, during that time, was living in the region of Lorraine as he had recently escaped from prison in France, in which he was held for his criticisms of the Catholic Church. After this meeting, Voltaire visited Berlin near the end of the same year upon Frederick’s invitation. This visit took place in more favorable conditions yet was shorter as Frederick soon marched off to Silesia with his army and started the First Silesian War. In 1743, Voltaire was approached by the French Government to negotiate peace talks between Prussia and Austria through French intermediacy.

Despite having a good relationship and productive dialogues, Voltaire’s effect on Frederick gradually diminished. The newly crowned King started to develop a more despotic policy and his world view changed accordingly. Frederick carried the values of Enlightenment throughout his entire life. He was a patron of arts and sciences, a guarantor of religious and sexual freedom, a servant of the state. Yet, despite his criticisms against the archetype of the despot Kings, Frederick became the very thing he resented in his Crown Prince years: a despotic monarch. His reign is seen as a distinct example of the concept of Enlightened Absolutism. And through this absolutism, Frederick grew out of Voltaire sphere of influence and this led to tensions between the mentor and the student later in his reign.

 

 

In 1750, when Voltaire moved in to Frederick’s Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, the palace became a center of intellectuals in Europe. Philosophers, artists, musicians, scientists all around the continent passed through the dinner parties of Frederick. His openness towards all sorts of opinions attracted the attention of the high class society of Europe quite fast. And Voltaire was a never-changing member of these parties and a close friend of the King. Things changed, however, as Voltaire, with his sharp tongue, started criticizing the acts and policies of the statesmen appointed by Frederick. In 1752, the tensions between them led to a breaking point when Voltaire felt too uncomfortable in the Palace and asked for permission to leave. Frederick refused at first, yet agreed to give the permission after a short time. Voltaire, some time after leaving, was detained by Frederick’s agents in Frankfurt. All these events drastically worsened their relationship. Voltaire talked quite negatively about his stay in Prussia in his memoirs.

The correspondences stopped until several years later, when Frederick found himself in war against all of Europe in the Seven Years War in 1759. He found himself in a deep state of depression and thus started writing to his old mentor and friend again. It is observed that at some point in their correspondences from that point that they reconciled to the degree of their relationship before the breaking point in 1752. They became close again towards the late 1770’s. In 1778, the correspondences came to a bitter end as Voltaire died of illness on 30 May. Frederick went on to live another 8 years as a grumpy old men with increasingly despotic and harsh behaviors.

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