Frederick the Happy
The Old Fritz was an Epicurean.
Posted Aug 24, 2019
"Religion is the idol of the mob; it adores everything it does not understand." —Frederick II of Prussia, capturing the essence of the Enlightenment
The reputation of many historical German figures has suffered from the adoration they received from the prophets of a base and brutal ideology of the 20th Century. Frederick’s memory probably suffered the most. The task of historians—and the psychologists who study their work—is to look through the dust thrown up by latter-day romantic and nationalistic ideologues.
Ideologies distort and oversimplify a person’s legacy, and so do folklore and psychometrics. Few Germans will know more about Frederick than that he was a King in Prussia, that he won battles against an overwhelming coalition of adversaries, and that he was probably a homosexual.
A vague sense prevails that he was a heroic figure, which is due mostly to some daring victories, such as the one achieved with the oblique order of battle (Krueger, 2016) at Leuthen in 1757 against a superior Austrian force. Some people may also be aware that he introduced the potato to his domain, which effectively ended the cycle of recurring famine.
Frederick’s artistic side is not unknown, and many have visited his summer palace of Sanssouci ("Without Worry") in Potsdam. Yet, Prussian militarism is a better-known watchword, and when we mention it, we breathe a collective sigh of relief that it is a thing of the past. But to hold Frederick responsible for the attitudes of the Second Empire or the deeds of the Third Reich would be foolish, and yet, the association is there, and associations are the stuff of mind.
For all who wish to learn more about the complex and intriguing figure of Frederick the Great, I recommend Tim Blanning’s (2016) excellent biography. It is written in the best British tradition of historical research. The prose is lively, the narrative arc is compelling, and the analysis is fair and objective without being detached.
Readers interested in psychology will find a careful and thoughtful portrayal of a fascinating person who was—like all of us, but perhaps even more so—characterized by some coherent and enduring attitudes and behavioral patterns, but also by deep conflicts between irreconcilable strivings. As an ideographic description and reconstruction, Blanning’s portrayal of Frederick, incidentally, reveals what is missing in contemporary trait psychology, that accountant’s dream and that nightmare of all sensitive students of humanity.
Frederick’s reign fell into the era remembered as the Enlightenment. The project of the intellectuals of the time was to find ways for rationality, or reasonableness, to overcome the absolute dominance of religion and of the monarchs who ruled in its name.
Perhaps Frederick’s deepest conflict was that he insisted on retaining the position of an autocratic ruler while promoting, or at least tolerating, enlightened ideas. His ingenious, if flawed, solution to this dilemma was that he declared himself the first servant of the state. He did not, like Louis XIV of France had done, identify himself with the state.
Another conflict was what to do about religion. Blanning makes a good case for the conclusion that Frederick was a deist and perhaps even an atheist. He regarded Christianity as a collection of archaic superstitions, but he did not attempt to destroy it. Instead, he famously declared that everyone should be allowed to become "beatified" in their own fashion. He opened his domain to religious groups that were persecuted elsewhere, most notably the French Huguenots. The addition of vigorous and enterprising immigrants to his domain was good for the state; religion did not matter, and Frederick protected religious minority groups from encroachment by larger groups.
He even wrote that he would build mosques in Berlin if Turks were to immigrate in large numbers—an unwittingly prophetic sentiment. In his lifetime, he commissioned the construction of the Pantheon-like St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin for Catholic worship in a largely Protestant town.
A third conflict—out of many more—was between the stark, authoritarian, Prussian ethos established by his father Frederick William I, the "Soldier King," and his recognition that a life exclusively dedicated to the dictates of duty and service is neither desirable nor tolerable.
Here’s where I submit that Frederick was fundamentally an Epicurean. He may not have been a pure Epicurean, for if he had been, he would have resigned as king and returned to Rheinsberg Castle, where he had enjoyed the carefree years of early adulthood before he was called upon to succeed his father.
Not willing to resign, and driven by the wish to outdo his feared, hated, and beloved father at his own game, Frederick became king. His challenge was to reconcile the task of being king with his personal Epicurean outlook on happiness.
Though he is brief on the matter, Blanning provides enough detail to allow the conclusion that Frederick was Epicurean not only by temperament but also by studied choice. Like other intellectuals of the era, he was intimately familiar with Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, a Roman poem that set Epicurus’s philosophy to verse (Greenblatt, 2011). Blanning reports that Frederick took a French copy of it with him on his campaigns.
Without providing a compelling explanation, Fleischmann (1965) concludes that “like other Enlightenment figures—notably like Voltaire—Frederick admired the poetry of Lucretius, while rejecting the tenets of Epicureanism” (p. 158).
Evidently, though, Frederick rejected only one tenet of Epicureanism—at least with regard to his own person—which is to stay away from politics, for politics will, in all likelihood, make you unhappy. Then again, even Epicurus allowed that in times of existential crisis, involvement in politics might be unavoidable, if only for the higher goal of preserving long-lasting happiness (Krueger, in press).
With his emphasis on duty and service, Frederick may appear to have been a Stoic rather than an Epicurean. I submit, however, that Frederick merely acted like a Stoic out of necessity, to safeguard his deeper Epicurean sympathies. These sympathies flourished at Sanssouci, his rokoko retreat which belies Stoic austerity.
The two ingredients to happiness Epicurus valued the most are a well-planted garden and a group of friends (Krueger, 2019). At Sanssouci, Frederick had both. Sanssouci Park is today and was then a garden with plentiful fruit and vegetables. The group of friends Frederick cultivated, notably including Voltaire for a time, was a cercle intime, dedicated to the discussions of philosophy and the enjoyment of music. Frederick entertained the cercle as a flautist in the evening.
Frederick was explicit in his Epicureanism. In 1749, at the age of 37, he published a 200-line poem called On Pleasure. Blanning (p. 156) reports that Frederick “begins with a dismissal of the intense but short-lived and dangerous carnal delights offered by prostitutes” (much like Epicurus did) but that he seeks to “combine a hundred different pleasures to create just one.” Frederick "declared that he would,” reports Blanning, “always follow the Epicurean gospel.” Epicurus’s term for this one pleasure is ataraxia, a pleasant, untroubled state of mind. An Epicurean is not obliged to maintain this state at all times but is encouraged to follow its guiding light. Frederick did, and this may be, in no small measure, what made him great.
‘On Pleasure’ seems to not have been Frederick’s only effort to create a poetry of happiness. Hadley (2011) reports that a 1740 poem was ‘recently discovered’ in a Berlin archive. Its title, La Jouissance, might be translated as pleasure, joy, or orgasm, and its lyrics leave no doubt that the latter is part of the happiness equation. “Trembling with excitement,” Frederick recalls his friend’s Algarotti’s “vigorous desire in full measure.” Lust trumps prudential ethics. Using a translation by Giles MacDonogh, Hadley delivers Frederick’s conclusion that
But all joy is finite; in the morning ends the bout.
Fortunate the man whose mind was never the prey
To luxury, or grand airs, one who knows how to say
A moment of climax for a fortunate lover
Is worth so many aeons of star-spangled honour.
Blanning, T. (2016). Frederick the Great: King of Prussia. New York: Random House.
Fleischmann, W. B. (1965). Frederick the Great and Lucretius: Revaluation of a relationship. Comparative Literature Studies, 2, 153-159.
Greenblatt, S. (2011). The swerve: How the world became modern. New York, NY: Norton.
Hadley, K. (2011). Frederick the Great's erotic poem. History Today. https://www.historytoday.com/frederick-greats-erotic-poem
Krueger, J. I. (2016). The art of war, Theban style. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/201611/the-art-war-theban-style
Krueger, J. I. (2019). Garden-variety happiness. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/201906/garden-variety-happiness
Krueger, J. I. (in press). The rehabilitation of Epicurus. Review of ‘Epicurus and the pleasant life: A philosophy of nature’ by Haris Dimitriadis. American Journal of Psychology.