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Voltaire’s Philosopher Becomes King: May 31, 1740

This week's "This Week in History" continues a story about Prince Fritz that we began last August, which you may read here.

Reconciled at last with his father, Fritz had to attend to his duties as crown prince. One of these duties was to marry. The match Friedrich Wilhelm chose for his son was the Princess Elizabeta of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, the niece of the Habsburg empress. Fritz was not happy with this marriage; but to please his father, he went along with it. The couple were married in 1733 and, three years later, went to live at an estate called Rheinsberg.

Prince “Fritz,” who became the “Philosopher King,” Friedrich II

Fritz spent some of the happiest years of his life at Rheinsberg. There, friends visited him; he was entertained each day by musical concerts and plays (often by Voltaire), and he enjoyed conversation in French (the only language spoken at Rheinsberg) and French cooking. He became an avid buyer of books (for which he ran up great debts), studied “philosophy,” conducted experiments in physics and chemistry, and continued his attempts at composing good French verse.


Fritz at this time began writing letters to Voltaire; the two men’s correspondence would continue for 42 years. The crown prince’s letters showed the deepest respect for Voltaire, while the French philosophe came to honor Fédéric (as Fritz signed his letters) for his keen mind. Voltaire had great hopes that when Fédéric became king, he would be the wisest of rulers — the first true “philosopher king.”

While at Rheinsberg, Fritz wrote a book in which he presented his ideas of how a king should rule. Called The Anti-Machiavelli, the crown prince’s book rejected the Italian Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli’s notion that a ruler should do everything possible, even immoral deeds, to obtain and keep power. Rather, said The Anti-Machiavelli, a ruler should think of himself not as the master, but as the first servant of those over whom he rules. He should act toward them with “works of kindness, justice, and clemency.” This work enthused Voltaire, who had it published without revealing that its author was the crown prince of Prussia.

King Friedrich Wilhelm I, about 1733

Fritz did not have to wait long after the publication of his book to test his theories of kingship. Over the years, the king’s disease had grown worse; and in May 1740, Friedrich Wilhelm I lay dying. Tortured by excruciating pain, he had met with his son, discussing his ideas on peace and war with him. Never be too quick to enter a war, the king advised Fritz, for no one can be sure how it will turn out. Friedrich Wilhelm died in great pain on May 31, at the age of 51. Shortly before he passed away, the king spoke to those standing around him of Fritz. “Am I not happy to have such a son to leave behind me?” he said.

This son took the oath of office at Berlin and then was crowned at Königsberg in East Prussia. He was now no longer just Fritz, the rebellious son of the king; he was the reigning king — King Friedrich II of Prussia. Unlike his father, King Friedrich remained a lover of all things French, a philosopher, poet, and musician; but he would soon prove how very much like his father he was. The stern, unbending spirit of Friedrich Wilhelm I lived on in his son.

Not Just A Philosopher…

… or a king — Friedrich II of Prussia was also a composer. Here is a recording of some his flute concertos.

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