Friedrich II vs. Voltaire - A dispute in the early modern period

The line between factual criticism and personal attacks was also blurred at the courts of the 18th century. The relationship between the belligerent philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) and Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), who was praised as a philosopher king, shows this: Enlightenment and personal invective are not mutually exclusive, but are two sides of the same coin.

Voltaire - The philosopher with the sharp pen

Throughout his life, Voltaire endeavoured to maintain good relations with influential people at the French royal court and with the princes and monarchs of Europe who were sympathetic to him. In order to gain their favour, attacks on their political opponents were a frequently used tool of his choice. Abusive criticism was also a common tool among Enlightenment philosophers. Voltaire also resorted to the medium of poetry. With biting criticism of the political situation in Europe, he attacked authorities who, in his eyes, abused their influence, including the Church, the French supreme courts (parlements) and the Jesuits.

How vituperative criticism ended Voltaire's stay in Potsdam

Voltaire's stay in Berlin and Potsdam from 1750 onwards was intended to enhance his reputation and that of Frederick II in the public eye. However, their dispute developed into a public affair that tarnished the reputation of both the king and the philosopher-poet. Voltaire's position in Berlin had become impossible after two years.

One of the causes of the quarrel was Voltaire's vituperative attacks against the President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Voltaire endeavoured to undermine Maupertuis' reputation as an irreproachable scholar with anonymous writings, while the king defended the Academy and its president with anonymous writings and in turn lashed out against the critic.

The dispute between Frederick II and Voltaire over Maupertuis, conducted with anonymous writings, ultimately shattered the relationship between the King of Prussia and the French philosopher and led to Voltaire's departure from Berlin. After Frederick's death, this dispute then found its way into the series of anecdotes about the king, which Chodowiecki (1726-1801) depicted.

Frederick II of Prussia as a critical philosopher and author of diatribes

Throughout his life, Frederick II presented himself to the public not only as a king, but also as a philosopher. In his writings, he used the role of philosopher to criticise his fellow rulers on the thrones of Europe or his ancestors. While such criticism was considered inappropriate for a king, it was permissible for a philosopher. During the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) in particular, Frederick II also used his literary talent to attack his opponents with anonymous diatribes. This was linked to the hope of influencing public opinion in his favour.

Anton Friedrich König (1722-1787) was a miniature painter who created countless miniature depictions of Frederick II of Prussia. The picture shows the king with a sash and the Order of the Black Eagle. At the same time, he is depicted as a philosopher - at his desk in front of a library backdrop.

A fictitious death interview

In 1772, Frederick II wrote a dialogue between the French mistress of King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, and the Virgin Mary. The mutual insults between the two violated both the commandment of religious piety and the decency of persons of rank. Due to its offensive content, the conversation with the dead was omitted from the editions of the writings, so that it only had to be rediscovered in 1998.

Fortune is not always the companion of wisdom: sometimes a fool is enough to bring down the most beautiful project. Nevertheless, I have always reigned...while your immaculate reign, Madame, has neither loosened nor bound anything in heaven or on earth. That is why my most Christian lover never slept with me through a whole legation, but quite straightforwardly in the manner of a householder.

Madame de Pompadour to the Virgin Mary, in a fictitious conversation with the dead[Friedrich II. von Preußen:] Dialogue des morts entre Madame de Pompadour et la Vierge Marie. In: Oeuvres posthumes. Bd. 5. Berlin, London 1789, Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg: Kn00718

A fictitious letter

In a letter to the Austrian Field Marshal Daun (1705-1766), the Pope congratulated him on his successes in the "eternal eradication of heresies" and presented him with a blessed sword as a reward for his victories. For the Prussians, it was clear that their opponents were preparing a religious war against Protestantism. The protective power of the Protestants in the Old Reich was to be weakened. Numerous reprints of the letter were distributed.

However, the Pope in Rome was not the sender. The fictitious letter was penned by Frederick II. The monarch publicly distanced himself from such communication strategies. At the same time, they were a tried and tested means of confrontation.

May this sword drink their rebel blood; may the axe be laid at the root of the tree that bore cursed fruit. May Northern Germany be converted with sword, fire and blood, following the example of St Charlemagne! [...] May the whole of paradise, which We populate through Our legend, take care of your successes!

Frederick II as Pope in a fictitious letter to Field Marshal von Daun[Friedrich II. von Preußen:] Breve oder Cabinets-Schreiben Seiner Päbstlichen Heiligkeit an des Herrn General-Feld-Marschalls Grafen von Daun Excellenz bey Uebersendung des Geweyheten Degens. Übersetzt ins Lateinische von Jean-Baptiste de Boyer d’Arg

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Kupferstich auf dem man verschiedene Personen auf einem Marktplatz sieht

Dispute arena marketplace

Court arena

Dispute arena screens and sounds

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