Philosopher King

It is, I think, not so fashionable these days to consider history in terms of monarchs and leaders. To many, kings and generals have hijacked the ‘story’ that really belongs to those whose lives were more of a struggle and who paid the price for royal vanity or incompetence. Then again, the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful.

Friedrich der Große

For much of my youth I was in the presence of a copy of this rather famous painting of Frederick the Great, by the artist Anton Graff, painted in 1781 when the King was 69 years old, five years before he died.

It hung in our family home. My father was something of an admirer of the Prussian king. I probably never thought about it (or him) to any great extent at the time, except when I encountered some references to Frederick in history lessons. But a friend of mine who was a regular visitor to the house found the portrait disconcerting, and always claimed that Frederick eyed up the modern world with obvious disapproval and kept his gaze firmly on us as we did whatever we did back then.

So although I knew next to nothing about Frederick, he was a very definite presence in my youth. Then I left the parental home and, frankly, forgot all about him and Prussia and the times in which he lived. If I ever knew much about them in the first place. Recently someone gave me a book about Frederick, and I got interested.

As we sometimes wonder about the qualities (or lack of them) of our contemporary politicians, it is interesting to reflect on Friedrich der Große, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. In many ways one could describe him as the architect of the modern concept of the state. Although some will record him as a military leader who secured Prussia’s place as a growing European power, it is more interesting to note his establishment of a civil service, of his (relatively speaking) support for a free press, of his status as a patron of literature, music and art, of his championing of science and philosophy (his relationship with Voltaire in particular). In addition, he was a composer and performer of music – indeed a composer of music that is still played and recorded, his flute concertos being the most popular.

Sometimes we don’t really know what we want of our leaders. Sometimes we put up with leaders who manifestly will not give us what we need. The ‘enlightened absolutism’ offered in the 18th century by Der Alte Fritz really wouldn’t do today. But the enlightened intellectual engagement might. At least I would like to think so.

I now have the portrait that hung on my father’s wall. I don’t think I’ll take it down.

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9 Comments on “Philosopher King”

  1. Vince Says:

    Undoubtedly an interesting man. But what made Prussia was the combo of three reigns crossing a full century of three strong administrators. There was also a good bit of luck involved too. Remember when he took over, but for Marie-Theresa, the Habsburg line had ended. And he took advantage instantly. But he couldn’t have done so without the systems his father and grandfather had in place.


    • Yes, you are right of course. But Frederick was nevertheless different, because of his eclectic interests and talents and his recognition of the importance of an enlightened civil society.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    While one can understand the impact (even at an unconscious level) that being in the presence of a copy of this famous painting might have on a young mind and the family memories connected to it, however I’m not sure that it justifies a revival of “the great man” theory, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_man_theory), summed up in Carlyle’s statement that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, as this post seems to imply. Such theory is not “fashionable” anymore for some very good reasons, which aptly reflect scientific progress and modern sensitivities. The “history from below” theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People%27s_history) popularized by historians like E.P.Thompson in the 1970’s has addressed a glaring imbalance in the assessment of the past, without entirely denying, in my understanding at least, the impact of key historical figures.
    Also, I don’t think that “the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful”- not sure that is actually possible – what it suggests is that *our* eyes (and minds) find extremely seductive the national identity narratives that that Kings (and a few Queens) embody. Such timeless seduction, the popular (at times populist) appeal of the charismatic (often maverick) leader is common currency in current political discourse (Trump, Boris Johnson etc.).
    There are historical figures, and Frederick the Great is one, that perfectly encapsulate the aspirations, ideals, values and contradictions of a whole nation. Frederick was a philosopher king, one who loved French literature and Italian music, and yet what the portrait reflects is not the enlightened attitude of a king satisfied with his accomplishment, rather it captures the misanthropy and obstinacy of his later years. Contrary to the family friend I don’t think that Frederick’s eyes express disapproval of the modern world, the look is that of a haunted man, one who has experienced the burden of responsibilities and military action, or at least that is what the artist saw in him in his brief encounter with the king (who never posed for the portrait).
    There is a scene in the film Downfall (Der Untergang 2004) where Hitler looks at his favorite portrait of Frederick the Great, in the bunker, it is a very poignant scene, the dangers of the “great men” theory of history are all too obvious to ignore.


    • As ever, a very interesting comment, Anna.

      I don’t think I wanted to revive the ‘Great Man’ approach, but rather wanted to point to an historical figure whose outlook was more interesting than that of many of our contemporary leaders. He was of course not perfect, and as you rightly say, in later life became misanthropic. He didn’t treat his wife well (he was in any case gay). But his rule was probably the most enlightened on offer at the time in Europe, and I cannot help admire the philosopher/soldier/composer that he was.

      Another dark corner – though not one for which he can attract any blame – was the use to which the Nazis put him, which made him unfashionable in the 1950s and 60s, except curiously in East Germany which at one point tried to ‘claim’ him as a forerunner.

      In the meantime I rather enjoy his concertos.

  3. Vince Says:

    I worry about the Gay assertion. I think his outlook was formed early and it was closer to a Stoicism in the vein of Marcus Aurelius. Why that came about might be interesting to explore. Myself I suspect abuse in childhood, perhaps from a female.

  4. paulmartin42 Says:

    I am sure that Fred had his weaknesses but he did not have the internet etc to cope with. The problem with modern media, in particular the BBC across all its programs, is that there is a standard approach of knocking our leaders (eventually) and broadcast mud seems to stick.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I could not disagree more with such an assertion, not only because of its media illiteracy, which might be justifiable if one is not an *expert*, but because of what it seems to imply, i.e. the role of media, especially of a public broadcaster like the BBC is not to be too critical of our leaders, perhaps even embrace a more *patriotic* attitude towards current events (Brexit comes to mind) – as Boris Johnson and others would have it – our leaders are so above reproach!
      If the problem was with media’s mud sticking and knocking leaders then Trump and others would have already gone, instead they have developed some kind of ‘teflon’ attribute, and the well deserved mud just slips away…

      • paulmartin42 Says:

        Of course even the BBC is entitled to free speech but as with everyone there comes responsibility. There was little or no sympathy for Theresa May with her coughing fit during her speech yesterday; when that lady fainted at the Labour party conference there was no similar mud slinging.

        Not sure that mud “just slips away”: poor old Boris is now allegedly a laughing stock in European capitals. Let’s not forget Donald & Theresa were democratically elected, for a longtime – knocking them continuously is not patriotic nor in our best interests, as Bombardier employees, for example, are finding out.


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