Symposium Abstracts

Frederick the Great and the Republic of Letters

A Symposium

Jesus College, Oxford, 13-14 July 2012

Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786) was recognised among his contemporaries as ‚ÄėFrederick the Great‚Äô, a reputation he himself helped to shape. The tercentenary of his birth was marked in Germany by a range of conferences, exhibitions and publications, notably in Potsdam and Berlin. This symposium represented the major event in the United Kingdom. It analysed the role Frederick played within the European ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô by means of his philosophical works, historiographical writings, and poetry, and by his contribution to the arts as a patron and practitioner. The conference was organised by Thomas Biskup (University of Hull) and Katrin Kohl (University of Oxford) in association with the Stiftung Preu√üische Schl√∂sser und G√§rten Berlin-Brandenburg (Potsdam) and the Voltaire Foundation (Oxford).

Although the timing of the symposium was prompted by the tercentenary, the conference was motivated more fundamentally by current interest in the 18th century as an interdisciplinary field with productive tensions. In his Opening Statement, Thomas Biskup remarked that the relationship of Frederick to the world of literature and science has often been considered through a fascination with the supposed dichotomy of ‚Äėpower‚Äô and ‚Äėintellect‚Äô (Geist und Macht), and a concern with the ‚Äėself-contradictory‚Äô personality of the Prussian king. One aim of the conference was to question these perceptions by building on recent scholarship. Biskup detected the emergence of a new image of Frederick II, which situates him in the context of European politics and culture. Meanwhile new perspectives on the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô are being opened up by investigating it in term of a transnational communication network. Frederick carved out a particular role for himself as a roi philosophe who was an active player in the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô. This brought its own tensions as the discourse of equality and free debate often masked stark hierarchies, while the Prussian print culture was characterized by exclusivity and limitations rather than open discussion in a wider ‚Äėpublic sphere‚Äô. In discussing Frederick‚Äôs work and impact, it is therefore necessary to attend to the mechanisms of knowledge production and literary debate.

Realm of discourse

An introductory paper by Katrin Kohl (Oxford) on Frederick and the Republic of Letters highlighted that the way in which we conceive the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô is central to our conception of Frederick the Great. Examining the concept as a spatial metaphor that evokes a timeless context, Kohl demonstrated its varied deployment in specific textual situations. Consequently, she argued against understanding the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô as a stable concept, as Pascale Casanova has recently appropriated it (1999/2004), and rather highlighted its role for the rhetorical construction of identity. Through eight examples drawn from Frederick‚Äôs essays and letters, Kohl showed that as prince and king, Frederick drew on this metaphor in its conventional form, which gained meaning from the classical tradition. The protean quality of the topos ‚Äď signalling differentiation between learning and practical life, but also serving to articulate connections between the world of learning and the political sphere ‚Äď suggests that Frederick‚Äôs view of the relationship between these spheres was ever-changing and responsive to context. Kohl pointed out that the tradition in which the topos was embedded enabled him to develop a rhetorical identity that was capable of sustaining a role as ruler and philosophe simultaneously and interactively.

In his paper How should we read the works of a king? Frederick as self-promoter, Andreas Peńćar (Halle) argued that Frederick‚Äôs texts should not be read as confessions or autobiographical reflections, but as political speech acts as defined by Quentin Skinner. The texts are part of the political positioning of an author who was always aware of his position as prince or king. Thus Peńćar sought to move away from psychological questions regarding the extent to which Frederick‚Äôs works complement or contradict his character; rather, Peńćar was concerned with words as deeds. Paradoxically, he argued, Frederick presents himself in his writings not as a king but in terms of three different roles: philosopher, historian and patriot. The authorial personae of philosophe and historian enabled Frederick to criticize his forebears and historicise his own place, somewhat grandiosely, within the dynasty. The projection of his learning and certain political convictions which he would later appear to break should not be regarded as attributes of a personality that ‚Äėchanged‚Äô over time. They are better understood as consequences of different speech acts that were conceived for different audiences in different contexts.

Much of the discussion of the first two papers focussed on the terminology of the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô and the applicability of the concept of ‚Äėspeech acts‚Äô. The problem of translation (linguistic as well as metaphorical) and distance (irony) figured prominently. Ursula Pia Jauch pointed to the importance of different genre traditions and asked to what degree fictitious and clandestine writings could be categorised as speech acts. Kate Tunstall questioned if a king could ever be a citizen of the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô, whereas Katrin Kohl pointed to the early modern usage of ‚Äėrepublic‚Äô as well as to speech acts as a modern articulation of an older tradition of role play, which had long been part of court culture. The first set of questions and comments on Peńćar‚Äôs paper centred on the question whether all of Frederick‚Äôs writings were political speech acts, and led to a debate about the publishing histories of individual works. For example, was Frederick‚Äôs clandestine, sexually explicit poetry a political speech act, or was Frederick here indulging in a literary discourse that had long been a tradition among the learned? If the former, was Frederick fashioning himself as a libertine, and what was the likely political capital of this? The second line of discussion pursued the separation of speech acts from biography: whether words perhaps have greater efficacy if they have substance in the speaker‚Äôs character.

Situating the Enlightenment

Iwan d‚ÄôAprile (Potsdam) opened his paper Frederick and the Berlin Enlightenment with the statement that in contrast to Paris and London, the Berlin Enlightenment was characterized by its proximity to the Prussian state. Though Frederick himself was often distant from the city‚Äôs intellectual life, his institutions had a close relationship with thinkers, the majority of whom were public servants, school teachers, administrators, or clergymen, which in turn often led to a particular form of self-censorship. Pointing to the large number of immigrants among Berlin Aufkl√§rer, D‚ÄôAprile mapped the networks and actors of these two distinct spheres in Berlin before exploring the patterns of communication between these groups through an examination of educational and juridical reforms in the period. He analysed Frederick‚Äôs own role in these discussions while demonstrating how the King‚Äôs image was manipulated within this discourse. In this context, D‚ÄôAprile outlined the strategies through which the Berlin intellectuals used the figure of Frederick for their own ends, arguing that they promoted a broader concept of Enlightenment which encompassed a ‚Äėpublic sphere‚Äô and, increasingly, a popular Enlightenment (Volksaufkl√§rung) that went beyond Frederick‚Äôs socially limited vision of the Enlightenment. Advancing their own cause by idealising the King as a promoter of Aufkl√§rung, these Berlin circles thus ironically rendered the figure of Frederick ever more ‚Äėenlightened‚Äô the less he personally took part in Enlightenment projects.

Ursula Pia Jauch (Zurich) argued in her paper Frederick‚Äôs ‚Äėcercle intime‚Äô: philosophy at court that the concept of Frederick‚Äôs Tafelrunde as depicted in Menzel‚Äôs famous 1850 painting is a fiction, an invention that only ever existed in the imagination. This visual illusion, however, has had wide-ranging consequences as it shaped the way we think of Frederick‚Äôs court. In fact, Frederick‚Äôs cercle intime existed only between 1748 and 1751, and it was formed by some of the most radical thinkers of the time, among them most prominently La Mettrie, Voltaire and Algarotti. In their writings and correspondence, two interrelated topics were discussed most prominently: first, the problem of eros, the Platonic question of love and nature; second ‚Äď and as a consequence ‚Äď the question of homosexual desire. Much of this philosophy was ‚Äėclandestine‚Äô as letters were exchanged confidentially or even written in code, and books were published anonymously, often being products of (equally clandestine) collaborative work. Jauch placed this clandestine philosophy more broadly within Frederick‚Äôs reign and within the wider tradition of philosophical symposia between antiquity and Immanuel Kant.

Much of the discussion of these two papers concerned the position of La Mettrie in the philosophical landscape of Berlin-Potsdam. He had been absent from D‚ÄôAprile‚Äôs model as he was part of the court Enlightenment but not a constituent of the city‚Äôs philosophical circles. According to Jauch, La Mettrie was not a contributor to the Berlin Enlightenment because he would not have recognised ‚ÄėBerlin philosophy‚Äô as such, since in his view, the Prussian capital was not a space of true freedom of thought. Jauch seemed to agree with La Mettrie when putting forward the contentious claim that despite Frederick‚Äôs generous policy of granting asylum to the most controversial thinkers of the age, their arrival at Potsdam usually led to their disappearance from the public sphere, as well as from historical memory. This interpretation of the Berlin Enlightenment invited debate on whether publishing conditions in the Prussian city really were more restrictive than elsewhere, such as in Paris, for example.


Kirill Abrosimov‚Äôs paper Negotiating the rules of conduct in the republic of princes and philosophers: the example of Friedrich Melchior Grimm focused on Grimm‚Äôs Correspondance litt√©raire and foregrounded a special form of communication between royalty and the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô. Modern scholarship has paid little attention to Grimm‚Äôs relationship to Frederick although it was one of the most enduring of the King‚Äôs links to the philosophical milieu of Paris. Grimms‚Äô journal, containing news of the Paris scene, was specifically aimed at, and limited to, an exclusive readership of royalty and the high aristocracy. Abrosimov identified two phases of the relations between Frederick and Grimm: the period 1763-66, during which Grimm attempted to recruit King of Prussia as a subscriber to the Correspondance litt√©raire, and the years from 1769 to Frederick‚Äôs death, an era that began with Grimm‚Äôs visit to Sanssouci. As Russia‚Äôs Catherine the Great rose to a position of pre-eminence, and as Frederick sought to compete with the French on the European political stage, Grimm‚Äôs role flourished, and he became Frederick‚Äôs cultural ambassador in Paris among a network of philosophers. The case of Grimm serves as an example of Frederick‚Äôs involvement in the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô, but more generally illuminates the general rules of conduct which regulated the communication between philosophes and European princes. Frederick, argued Abrosimov, can be regarded as representative of a contemporary role-model ‚Äď the enlightened prince ‚Äď in part because of his interaction with men such as Grimm.¬†

In his paper Atlantic Frederick: cultural transfer between the Anglophone world and Friderician Prussia, Thomas Biskup (Hull) challenged the notion of Frederick as an exclusively Francophile monarch, and reassessed the King‚Äôs place in the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô by considering his response to British literature and philosophy ‚Äď including Pope, Swift, Locke and Shaftesbury. The paper examined the scholarly genealogies drafted by Voltaire and Algarotti, who to a large extent mediated Frederick‚Äôs reception of ‚ÄėEnglish‚Äô (employed as a term that encompassed British) letters and thought. It then turned to English architecture, especially Palladianism, and Frederick‚Äôs ambition to develop Prussia into a commercial nation through participation in overseas trade. Finally, Biskup explored the itinerary of Atlantic Republicanism through Enlightenment Europe. He thus placed Frederick‚Äôs appropriation of Anglophone thought in the context not simply of eclectic taste, but of the King‚Äôs pragmatic attempts to transform Prussia into a civilised nation alongside the role models of Britain, France and Italy.

The first half of the discussion considered the consequences of Frederick‚Äôs alliance with the Parisian philosophical party. It was pointed out that Frederick‚Äôs engagement with this group in the 1760s and 1770s could have been considered risky, although Frederick never acknowledged this. Rather, he wished to confirm his position on the European stage through a co-ordinated effort to integrate foreign policy and philosophical interaction. It was then pointed out that Frederick‚Äôs subscription to Grimm‚Äôs journal coincided with his increased production of philosophical texts between 1769 and 1770, which should be seen in the context of new developments elsewhere in the ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô (Voltaire‚Äôs correspondence with Catherine II). The second half of the discussion turned to the filters through which Frederick perceived Britain and America ‚Äď which texts had Frederick read, and to what extent were his views of ‚ÄėAtlantic‚Äô philosophy and literature shaped by Voltaire, or by other ruling dynasts (House of Hanover, House of Hesse-Kassel)? Ursula Pia Jauch emphasised that resistance rights, which were central to French and English Enlightenment thought, did not figure in Frederick‚Äôs thought, whereas Andreas Peńćar highlighted the multidimensional character of English political thought.

Mastering state and self

In his paper Frederick, Voltaire, and the anti-Machiavel tradition, Ritchie Robertson (Oxford) discussed Frederick’s famous denunciation of the doctrines put forward by Machiavelli in The Prince, and his own conception of the ideal monarch. The paper first set Frederick’s arguments in the context of the reception of Machiavelli, who was not only demonised from the 16th century onwards, but also read with respect by political writers from Bacon to Rousseau. Often indeed he was read together with Bacon and Tacitus, accessing the arcana imperii. Secondly, Robertson analysed Frederick’s concept of a good monarch, which derived especially from Fénelon’s Télémaque, before concluding with a discussion of the apparent contradictions between Frederick’s writings and his political actions, in which Robertson argued for a more nuanced view of the relationship between politics and literature.

Avi Lifschitz, in his paper On the use and abuse of self-love: Frederick and Rousseau, pointed out that although Frederick II and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were in touch only briefly and indirectly in 1762, when Rousseau was granted asylum in Prussian-ruled Neuch√Ętel, the King was consistently preoccupied with the themes discussed in Rousseau‚Äôs two Discourses of the 1750s. The paper traced Frederick‚Äôs treatment of self-love (amour propre), which is also central to the discourse about creativity and the arts, in its relation to the common good, a key issue in Rousseau‚Äôs Discourses. Lifschitz pointed out that Frederick appreciated strict morality but considered it impracticable in modern commercial society. Focusing on Frederick‚Äôs Essay on the Forms of Government and his Essay on Self-Love, while also drawing on his correspondence with Keith, Lifschitz thus highlighted Frederick‚Äôs moderate Epicureanism (in the ethical and political spheres) and put his opposition to early modern and ancient notions of civic virtue into a wider intellectual context.

The discussion of these two papers centred on two aspects: other influences on Frederick‚Äôs concepts, and the tensions inherent in his texts. It was suggested that Locke‚Äôs and Lucretius‚Äô concepts of the social contract had equal influence on Frederick‚Äôs concept of self-love, just as Mandeville‚Äôs political thought left traces in the Voltairean concept of self-love. It was noted that Frederick‚Äôs Epicureanism, while evidently not Primitivism, could appear akin to Stoicism.¬† The tensions in Frederick‚Äôs handling of the Machiavellian material ‚Äď between the ideal and the pragmatic ‚Äď were acknowledged; however, Frederick appeared to be meditating on this tension. Robertson emphasised that Frederick did not always engage with Machiavelli‚Äôs arguments, but used him as a handle to discuss his concept of the ideal monarch and to define a position for himself among contemporary European princes ‚Äď the chapter on hunting was highlighted by Blanning as an example. Thus, it was argued that the Consid√©rations and the Anti-Machiavel could be considered two different ‚Äėspeech acts‚Äô with different target audiences, although the eventual audience was beyond Frederick‚Äôs control.

Practitioner and patron

The relationship of poetry and reason was at the centre of the paper delivered by Kevin Hilliard (Oxford) on Frederick and lyric poetry. In his dispute with d’Alembert about the possibilities of poetry in a philosophical age, the Prussian King defended the ancient poetic tradition and argued that the demystifying tendency of modern thought had to be stopped at the point where it threatened poetic fancy. At the same time, Frederick was as committed as anyone in the period to the cause of philosophical rationalism. Hilliard argued that Frederick’s poetry is a practical exploration of how these contrary impulses can be reconciled, and he showed how the hybrid genre of the letter in prose and verse plays an important role in making such a reconciliation possible.

In his paper An art collector on the European stage, Christoph Vogtherr (Wallace Collection, London) made the point that contrary to the wide-spread perception of Frederick II as a particularly austere figure, the Prussian King was one of the greatest European art collectors of his age, who was particularly active on the art market from his Rheinsberg days through to the 1770s. His collecting is usually seen as a very direct expression of his personal taste, but it can be understood much better in the context of collecting both internationally and at the German courts of the time. Apart from 16th-century Italian art, Frederick collected in particular Flemish artists of the 17th century, French painters of the early 18th-century, and contemporary Dutch artists. In the Potsdam palaces, paintings and sculpture formed a network of signifiers that conveyed an image of the king and his country’s importance to other European courts, to the German educated public, and in particular to the enlightened society of Paris. Vogtherr forcefully argued for the need to put Frederick’s collecting of art into a European context and described some of the strategies by which he reached international audiences.

Much of the discussion focussed on the role of mediators and advisors in both literary and artistic taste. While the practicalities of Frederick‚Äôs collecting were in the hands of his factotum Fredersdorf, his taste was shaped by d‚ÄôArgens and Algarotti, and later also by Matthias Oesterreich, whose role again highlights the importance of Dresden as a major point of reference. In the discussion, the similarities and contrasts between Frederick‚Äôs poetry and his collecting were considered striking: both exhibited a hybrid interest in the contemporary and the ancient (or even ‚Äėold-fashioned‚Äô), but as Nicholas Cronk pointed out, Frederick was much more ‚Äėmodern‚Äô in his collecting than in his literary practice. His favoured hybrid epistolary genre was a poetic ritual derived from the Grand Si√®cle, which was deliberately used by the King, since the g√©omettres were politically anti-monarchical, in contrast to the anciennes.

The sword and the word

J√ľrgen Luh discussed the reflective element of Frederick‚Äôs military thought in his paper Military Action and Military Reflection: Frederick‚Äôs ‚ÄėEl√©ments de castram√©trie et de tactique‚Äô of 1770. He focused on Frederick‚Äôs last paper on military tactics, a memorandum which was composed for the benefit of the Prussian generals, and published in French in 1770 and in German in 1771. Based on the experiences gained during the Seven Years War, the memorandum includes the King‚Äôs deeper insight into the changing art of warfare. Referring to Frederick‚Äôs earlier Principaux, the¬† El√©ments present Frederick as a teacher of his officers who is prepared to concede mistakes and learn from the enemy, above all from the Austrian Field Marshal Daun ‚Äď a man the King had made fun of during the Seven Years‚Äô War. Translating the experiences of the Seven Years War into military reflection, Frederick thus concluded that holding territory should be given the priority over arranging pitched battles ‚Äď a major revision of his earlier thought that demonstrates how flexible the King‚Äôs thinking remained well into the second half of his long reign.

In the final paper ‚ÄėLe roi historien‚Äô: Frederick the Great as a writer of history, Christopher Clark placed the Prussian king in a wider context of questions of time and continuity, and the interplay between history and politics. Clark pointed out that although Frederick the Great styled himself le roi philosophe as a young man, he exerted more enduring influence as an historian. His ambitious histories of the Prussian lands were frequently edited during his lifetime, which demonstrates an unusual personal investment in writing history. Frederick‚Äôs historical writings, Clark argued, should however not only be seen in the context of Enlightenment historiography, but also be placed in the longer tradition of dynastic advice such as the ‚ÄėPolitical testaments‚Äô of earlier Hohenzollern rulers. Here, Frederick‚Äôs history of Brandenburg is striking in its near complete erasure of the prolonged conflicts between the Electors of Brandenburg and the nobility, all the more so since this represents a departure from the history writing of his mentor, Voltaire. The consolidation of Hohenzollern power and the domestic side of the emergence of the ‚ÄėPrussian state‚Äô thus remain gaps in Frederick‚Äôs historical writings. Instead, the King presents the state as a transcendental entity that cannot be accounted for historically.

In the discussion, Peńćar and Biskup asked if Frederick‚Äôs historical writings were not more about himself and about the dynasty than about the abstract concept of the ‚Äėstate‚Äô. Clark emphasised the need to distinguish between the King‚Äôs writings, which all focus on different aspects, from dynasty and warfare to statehood and civilisation. Although Frederick shunned the discussion of domestic conflicts over ‚Äėliberty‚Äô, and never developed a concept of liberty himself, he was well able to play the ‚Äėliberty game‚Äô in Imperial politics. Nicholas Cronk pointed out that the roles of roi historien and roi philosophe are not necessarily contrasts, but should be seen as differing manifestations of the same thing, since philosophers also write history. This was tied to Frederick‚Äôs belief in the miracle of Prussian existence, with the history writing being part of a personal fantasy of control. Frederick took the watchmaker metaphor from Voltaire and applied it to his own existence, in line with his fundamentally classical sense of history as cyclical. Luh emphasised that there were few immediate external influences on the King‚Äôs military writings, although Frederick‚Äôs extensive library could well be indicative of any textual influences, especially given the prevalence of Caesar there. The link between Frederick‚Äôs early thought on taking the army into battle was also linked to expressions of strategy in his poem La guerre.

Roundtable & Discussion

The roundtable and discussion that concluded the conference both highlighted themes that had recurred throughout the symposium and aspects that had featured less and would bear further investigation. In his summary, Nicholas Cronk (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford) suggested that the term ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô should be further explored, as it is currently experiencing a renaissance, albeit with anti-Enlightenment overtones. As Katrin Kohl‚Äôs paper had made clear, it remains a richly nuanced term. In this context, Joanna Innes (Oxford) remarked that the very openness of the concept had thrown up questions during the conference that a more specific definition might have suppressed. Cronk also noted with reference to Frederick‚Äôs last paper on military tactics how prominent cultural transfer had been ‚Äď particularly through correspondence networks. Furthermore he highlighted that the King‚Äôs correspondence with Voltaire should be seen as a¬† ‚Äėmonument‚Äô in its own right. This pointed to a central element of the symposium, namely Frederick‚Äôs self-presentation in a variety of genres and media.

Several of the themes highlighted were developed by Dan Wilson (Royal Holloway, London), Kate Tunstall (Oxford) and Tim Blanning (Cambridge). Tunstall highlighted the different methodological approaches to the topic of the conference by historians and Germanists on the one hand, and scholars from the field of French studies on the other. She emphasised that the latter would have focused on questions of posturing and writing as action, rather than authorship and intended audiences. She further noted how strongly the focus of the symposium had been on Frederick himself, as opposed to the network of figures around him. Questions of Frederick‚Äôs distinctiveness would require further comparisons with other rulers (both past and contemporary ‚Äď Louis XIV was mentioned here again). Questions of his legacy were picked up by Blanning and Wilson, who suggested that in the light of current scholarship, earlier historiographical debates surrounding Frederick‚Äôs relationship to German literature and the complex question of the German ‚Äėrepublic of letters‚Äô should be revisited. Among the topics suggested for further investigation, Frederick‚Äôs patronage and practice of music was most prominent. The publication of conference contributions in a collection of essays was considered desirable by all participants.


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