Frederick the Great: A Stoic on the Throne?
by Kevin Kennedy
‘Oh you, Marcus Aurelius,
my exemplar and my hero. . .
Frederick II. (“the Great”)’
Marcus Aurelius’ most prominent 18th century admirer was the Prussian king Frederick the Second, also known as “Frederick the Great” (reigned 1740-1786). To this day, when popular philosophy writers want to show the significance of Stoicism, they often mention that how it influenced Frederick the Great. Frederick did indeed hold the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher (reigned 161-180) in high regard. For example, he had many statues of Marcus placed throughout his summer residence, Sanssouci (“Without Care”). This magnificent complex, consisting of a baroque park and rococo palaces, reveals much about Frederick’s personality; and visitors to Sanssouci encounter Aurelius at almost every turn. His busts stand near the major entrances to the park, in the king’s study and overlooking his grave. But how did Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy influence Frederick and his policies as king? Was Frederick the Great a “Stoic on the Throne”?
Frederick’s interest in philosophy began when he was a young man. His mother, Sophie Dorothy of Hannover (a daughter of George I. of England and Hannover), encouraged her son’s intellectual and artistic proclivities. Under the tutelage of his French Huguenot governors, young Frederick devoured novels and discovered his talent for playing the traverse flute. In time, he also developed a passion for Enlightenment philosophy. Works by thinkers like Pierre Bayle, Christian Thomasius, Christian Wolff and above all Voltaire became his constant companions.
But Frederick’s father, Frederick William I (reigned 1713-1740), viewed such pursuits with disdain. Frederick William was a mercurial tyrant, given to fits of violent rage followed by tearful remorse. A pious Calvinist who nevertheless indulged in notorious beer-banquets known as “tobacco collegia,” Frederick William devoted his reign to turning his poor and backward kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia into a “formidable power.” The key to state security, he believed, was to build up a mighty army supported by a ruthlessly efficient bureaucracy. This “Soldier-King” viewed art, literature and music as a waste of time at best and a temptation to sin at worst. Determined to make a man out of his “effeminate chap” of a son, Frederick William subjected him to merciless humiliations and beatings.
By the time he was 18, Frederick could take no more. He planned to flee to the court of his uncle, George II of England, hoping to take along with him his closest companion, a 26-year-old cavalry officer named Hans-Hermann von Katte. But the attempt failed. Frederick and Katte were arrested, Katte was sentenced to death by beheading and Frederick was forced to witness the execution. Frederick’s ensuing fortress confinement only ended after he reluctantly agreed to marry Elizabeth of Brunswick. As soon as his father died, Frederick sent his wife into a kind of social exile. (The marriage remained without children; Frederick was succeeded by his nephew.) Considering everything Frederick had suffered by the time he became king at age 28, it is no wonder that he would find Stoicism, a philosophy of viewing hardship as an opportunity to develop inner strengths, a persuasive way of viewing the world.
When Frederick assumed the throne in May 1740, many hoped that he would usher in a new period of peace, prosperity and happiness. One of these was Voltaire, who had begun to correspond with Frederick four years earlier. (Voltaire had also assisted Frederick with the publication of his anonymous book, Anti-Machiavelli, in which Frederick argued that a prince should not be motivated by base power interests, but by a deep concern for the well-being of his subjects.) At the beginning of their friendship, Voltaire declared that a prince like Frederick, who had devoted himself to the study of philosophy, could lead his people “back into the Golden Age.” The first weeks and months of Frederick’s reign seemed to confirm such hopes. Frederick opened the granaries (substantially reducing the price of bread), abolished most forms of torture and censorship, and built a royal opera house open to all. Moreover, he began a series of judicial reforms that would culminate in the General Law Code, a kind of constitution that went a remarkable distance toward establishing equality before the law in Brandenburg-Prussia.
At the same time, however, Frederick also increased the size of the army. In December 1740, he attacked Austria without warning and seized its richest province, Silesia (now mostly southwestern Poland). Prussia and Austria would fight a series of three wars over this territory. Frederick would emerge victorious, but only after having driven his kingdom to the brink of destruction. The war destroyed large swathes of Prussia and cost the lives of several hundred thousand soldiers. In 1772, Frederick also initiated the first partition of Poland between Prussia, Austria and Russia (after the third partition in 1795, Poland would cease to exist as a state). Even at the time, critics described Polish partition as the crime of the century. But once more Frederick had made progress toward his goal of increasing the size and population of his kingdom. Through his reforms, the Silesian Wars and the first partition of Poland, Frederick elevated Brandenburg-Prussia to the status of a European Great Power. He also left behind a controversial legacy still being debated today.
But how do Frederick’s aggressive actions fit with his admiration for Marcus Aurelius? The answer lies in the fact that Frederick’s interest in Stoicism only began long after he had come to power. In letters to his favourite sister, Wilhelmine of Bayreuth-Ansbach, for example, he described his first encounter with the Meditations: They were “a little Stoic” for his taste! In later correspondence, he assured her that there was no danger he was becoming a Stoic. “This is a morality for statues and lifeless beings”, he wrote. Marcus Aurelius treated people as though they were “lifeless beings with no sensitivities.” At the time, Epicurus was more to his liking.
In truth, Frederick’s first ancient role models were not philosophers at all but warriors. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were the men he most wanted to emulate. As anyone who studies the life and times of Frederick the Great will soon recognize, the most powerful motivation of his behaviour was not the desire to achieve wisdom but to win military glory. “Of all the goods life has to offer”, he wrote, “is fame by far the greatest; long after the body has become dust, the great name lives on.” And the quickest path to fame was through a victorious war. Upon marching into Silesia, Frederick even equated his action with Julius Caesar’s exploits, declaring that he had “crossed the Rubicon”.
Marcus Aurelius only became an exemplar for Frederick after his lust for fame had brought him to the brink of annihilation in the Third Silesian War (the European theatre of the Seven Years War, 1756-1763). At the battle of Kunersdorf on August 12, 1759, Frederick suffered the greatest calamity of his military career. Within the course of a day, a combined Austrian-Russian force decimated Frederick’s army and left him contemplating suicide. “Our loss is very large,” he wrote to one of his generals, “of the 48,000 soldiers I had before the battle, there are only 3,000 left. They’re all in flight, and I am no longer in command of my men . . . I can’t survive the downfall of my state. Goodbye for ever.” Fortunately for Frederick, however, his enemies failed to follow up on their victory and crush him once and for all. (Frederick himself spoke of a “miracle.”) He then replenished his army and re-joined the fight. Finally, the death of his most dangerous enemy, Elizabeth of Russia, in January 1762, caused the anti-Prussian alliance to unravel and allowed Frederick to triumph.
The path to victory had been full of hardship, but in the depths of his despair Frederick had discovered Stoic resolve. In July 1762, for instance, he confided to his court reader that he was “ashamed” of his current military campaign, and he was struggling to adopt a Stoic attitude toward his difficult situation. “It’s not the turn of events I hoped for . . . I can only find rest with the greatest difficulty. So far Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics have the upper hand, but often nature becomes more powerful and causes philosophy to be silent.”
But Stoicism also had another, more political use for Frederick the Great. It allowed him to portray himself as a Stoic hero bravely withstanding the onslaught of fate, while avoiding the question of his own responsibility for his predicament. In a letter to the philosopher Marquis D’Argens, he wrote: “You see what sort of progress I’m making; certainly every other would also have become, like myself, a second Marcus Aurelius, if he had, through the course of seven military campaigns, been cast about as a ball by fortune and served his more powerful enemies as an object of derision”. There is no question that Frederick survived the darkest days of the war with an astonishing will to prevail. Surrounded by his foes, with most of his soldiers dead, captured or deserted, and not enough food or ammunition for the rest, every objective consideration dictated that Frederick sue for peace. But he refused. It was this, his iron determination to overcome apparently insurmountable odds, that guided him to victory and earned him the name “Frederick the Great.” This supplied a dangerous legacy for Germany, though, for when the nation later found itself in hopeless military situations, Frederick was often held high as a reminder that victory was always possible, if the only the national will remained unbroken.
The problem, from a Stoic perspective, is that discussions of Frederick’s own travails tend to ignore the suffering he brought upon others. After all, Frederick himself had begun the Silesian Wars with an unprovoked assault on Austria. The soldiers who fought and died for Frederick were also never asked if they wanted to participate in his quest for glory. After the disaster at Kunersdorf, Frederick even added insult to injury by trying to place the blame on his troops. The battle had been lost, he claimed, because his soldiers were “cowards.” Imagine Marcus Aurelius saying something like that. He refused to accept the truth: his men fled because he had sent them into a murderous barrage without first properly reconnoitering the battlefield. Also largely forgotten in the history books are the other victims of Frederick’s wars: the crippled veterans, the widows and the orphans, most of whom were reduced to begging. No one who had experienced the joyful days of Frederick’s first few months as king could have ever imagined it would one day come to this.
The contradictory nature of Frederick’s rule was not lost on his contemporaries. Voltaire himself reminded Frederick of it: “How much longer will you, you and your fellow office-holders, cover the world with wars? This world which, so you say, you only want to improve?” Frederick failed to receive such criticism in a Stoic spirit. “Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, and Julius Caesar constantly fought wars,” he lamented, “but the philosophers nevertheless give them praise. Why do they then scold the modern rulers, who are here only following the example of the ancients?” One could answer that, with the Enlightenment, war was beginning to lose its nimbus. Not long after Frederick’s death, one of his subjects, a philosophy professor named Immanuel Kant, would write a famous essay on the need for “perpetual peace.”
While it is true that Marcus Aurelius also led troops into battle, he only fought defensive wars. Moreover, Marcus tried to limit the suffering of civilians as much as possible. When the cost of war threatened to bankrupt the Roman Empire, Marcus raised new revenue by auctioning off the artwork and furnishings of his palaces. This measure spared the populace onerous new taxes. Frederick the Great, faced with the same dilemma, chose instead to debase the currency. This measure led to a horrendous inflation, which only increased the sufferings of his already destitute populace. Furthermore, by the 18th century, Marcus was not primarily remembered as a warrior but as a wise and just ruler. As the first sentence of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire shows, the reign of Marcus Aurelius was thought by many to be the happiest moment in the history of humankind. And while it is also the case that other “modern rulers” of Europe, such as Louis XIV of France, Charles XII of Sweden, Joseph of Austria and Catherine of Russia waged war, none of them tried to portray him- or herself as a “second Marcus Aurelius.”
As mentioned above, a bust of Marcus Aurelius still watches over the grave of Frederick the Great. But only from a distance of several metres. Located directly at Frederick’s final resting place are representations of other Roman rulers: Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. While some of these men enacted important reforms, each one of them was a tyrant. Frederick too was no Stoic on the throne, but an absolutist ruler whose chief concern was his own fame. Frederick’s vainglory certainly had some beneficial effects, but it also helped bring about death and destruction on a scale unknown in central Europe since the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).
And yet, in February 1775, Voltaire still hadn’t abandoned all of his hopes for Frederick. The world had largely forgotten Marcus’ military victories, Voltaire told the king, but his Meditations had earned him eternal renown. Frederick, he continued, was now Marc-Aurèle-Julien Frédéric, héros de la guerre et de la philosophie [Marcus-Aurelius-Julius Frederick, hero of warfare and philosophy]”. Voltaire was wrong. For most of the two centuries following his death, Frederick was far more remembered for his battles than for his books. To most of the people who come to Sanssouci today, he is little more than a tourist attraction. Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, is still remembered first and foremost as a philosopher. Frederick the Great appropriated the legacy of Marcus Aurelius for the sole purpose of presenting himself as a wise monarch who placed the happiness of his people above his own well-being. The reality, as we have seen, was somewhat more complicated. If Frederick had set out to lead a virtuous life (in the Stoic sense), the he would have done well to not just quote Marcus’ philosophy but also to practice it. This, perhaps, is the one lesson Frederick the Great still holds for Stoics today.
Kevin Kennedy is a 53-year-old German-American historian, writer, lecturer and commentator. He lives with his Swedish partner and their two children in Potsdam, Germany and Kungsbacka, Sweden. His academic specialty is eighteenth-century Prussian history. He discovered Stoicism some twenty years ago, but it has only become a part of his daily life since the first Stoic Week in 2013. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 For example, in “the Big Messy Tent of Modern Stoicism,” Jules Evans writes: “There have always been people drawn to Stoicism, from Montaigne to Frederick the Great to the novelist Tom Wolfe.”
 “If a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva (a.d. 96) to the death of Marcus Aurelius (a.d. 180). The united reigns of the five emperors of the era are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”