Contra Principem: Frederick the Great’s Intellectual Assault on Niccolò Machiavelli

Part One
Machiavelli and his World

BORN in Florence on May 3rd, 1469, Niccolò Machiavelli was the son of Bernardo di Niccolò Machiavelli (1426-1500), an Italian lawyer, and Bartolomea di Stefano Nelli. The young Niccolò was descended from a long line of judicial representatives and was therefore endowed with a very sagacious and analytical mind.

At the time of Machiavelli’s birth, Italy’s prosperous city-states were constantly at war with the Catholic Church and the entire period was characterised by an uneasy relationship between the Pope and the country’s ambitious princes.

This seemingly endless conflict between the secular and religious spheres – something that had begun during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as a result of the bitter disputes that had taken place between the Guelphs and Ghibellines – also involved foreign interests and nations such as France, Spain and Switzerland competed for supremacy with the Holy Roman Empire. With countries tending to change their geopolitical allegiances at a moment’s notice, it was a very unpredictable time indeed and Machiavelli took an immediate interest in the fascinating and multi-faceted nature of power-politics. Machiavelli’s education, on the other hand, included a thorough grounding in Latin, grammar and rhetoric. It would stand him in good stead for the intellectual gymnastics that later became his raison d’être.

In 1494, following the removal of the notorious Medici banking dynasty that had governed the city for the past sixty years, Florence once again became a republic and Machiavelli – by now twenty-nine years of age – found himself a role in the second chancery, where he was based at the famous Palazzo Vecchio and made responsible for producing official documents on behalf of the Florentine government. Soon afterwards, he was made secretary of the Dieci di Libertà e Pace, an administrative bureau which, despite the name, was in charge of overseeing the various departments of war, observing the country’s domestic business affairs and sending diplomats to other cities.

At the start of the sixteenth century, Machiavelli married Marietta Corsini (d. 1553) – who eventually bore him four sons and two daughters – and was himself sent to Rome as a diplomat and charged with maintaining official relations with the Papacy. These trips presented Machiavelli with an opportunity to study the behaviour of the Church, and he witnessed first-hand the blatant attempts of Cesare Borgia (1475–1507) and his father, Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), to extend their power throughout central Italy. Machiavelli had no time for Catholicism, but he certainly admired the manner in which Borgia perverted the religion in order to suit his own political agenda. Machiavelli also travelled to Switzerland, Germany and the French court of Louis XII (1462-1515), which gave him another valuable chance to improve his knowledge about the whys and wherefores of European diplomacy.

From 1503 until 1506, Machiavelli was placed in charge of reorganising the Florentine militia and, influenced by the writings of the Roman historian, Livy (59-17 BCE), ensured that the city’s defence force was comprised of proud local citizens and thus purged of disloyal mercenaries who had fought, not for principles and patriotism, but for filthy lucre and the ignominious spoils of war. In 1509, when the Florentine militia scored a notable victory over Pisa, Machiavelli himself was at the helm. Conversely, by 1512 Machiavelli and his men ended up on the losing side when they were defeated at Prato by the ‘Warrior Pope’, Julius II (1443-1513), and a mercenary army of Spanish troops. In the wake of this setback, Piero Soderini (1452-1522) resigned as head of the Florentine state and was exiled. These disappointing events were to influence Machiavelli’s writings a great deal.

Following the victory of Pope Julius II, the Florentine republic was dissolved and Machiavelli was forced out of office. In 1513, the returning Medici dynasty – which had now managed to secure the election of its very own Cardinal Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1475-1521), under the name Pope Leo X – charged him with conspiracy and he was thrown into prison. Despite being tortured, however, Machiavelli continued to protest his innocence and was released after just three weeks. It was then that Niccolò retired to his farmland property at Percussina, near San Casciano, and began formulating his ideas about philosophy and producing some of his earliest writings. At the same time, he began corresponding with various political figures and even wrote several plays, among them La Mandragola (1524).

Machiavelli was chiefly influenced by the Greeks and Romans of the past, particularly Thucydides (460-400 BCE), Plato (428-348 BCE), the aforementioned Livy and Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), but he also had a very modern mindset and was never afraid to explore new ideas or venture into fresh philosophical territory. One of his modernist tendencies was to promote empiricism and realism at the expense of idealism, managing to discuss politics in a way that was wholly detached from the lingering morality of European Christianity. Nonetheless, given his own educational background this was achieved through a decidedly Classical framework and, once again, enabled him to examine ideas and personalities through a more discerning and objective lens. Machiavelli’s refusal to acknowledge the prevailing religious attitudes of his day meant that he was often accused of promoting immorality and sadism. Vilified down the centuries, some of Machiavelli’s most vitriolic critics have included figures as diverse as William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Edmund Burke (1729-1797) and Karl Marx (1818-1883).

It remains a fact that Machiavelli’s own political background in the Florentine republic inevitably brought him into direct conflict with the Church and he therefore elevated humanistic pragmatism above what he regarded as common superstition. Rather than feel guilty about what he considered to be the role of the superior man, Machiavelli was prepared to state quite openly that there was nothing wrong with personal ambition or striving for glory and that such things were virtues both in and of themselves. For Machiavelli, then, attaining good fortune was something entirely natural and a matter of will, not the result of divine intervention. He did, however, accept that religion had the ability to create order and discipline.

Machiavelli died in 1527 at the age of fifty-eight and was buried at the Church of Santa Croce in his native Florence.

Part Two

MACHIAVELLI’S Il Principe was written in 1513, after its author had been removed from his important diplomatic role with the Florentine bureaucracy and then returned to his secluded farmhouse.

In 1532, when the book first appeared in printed form, five years after his death, the enormous power of the Catholic Church and Italy’s intolerant attitude towards ‘immorality’ in general meant that it was quickly regarded as an extremely controversial publication. In 1559, after going through fifteen editions, Machiavelli’s work was included on Pope Paul IV’s (1476-1559) Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or index of forbidden texts, and in the wake of this decision some of Il Principe‘s most vociferous and outspoken opponents included the Italian bishop, Ambrogio Caterino Politi (1484-1553); the English cardinal, Reginald Pole (1500-1558); and the Portuguese bishop and historian, Jerónimo Osório (1506-1580).

In 1576, on the other hand, the French lawyer and politician, Innocent Gentillet (1535-1588), published his Discourse against Machiavelli and set about attacking his counterpart on account of promoting ‘immoral’ strategies. Alternatively, as if to cement the anti-Catholic nature of Machiavelli’s text, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) – who, in the 1530s, systematically destroyed the Roman Church in both England and Ireland – became one of its most avid readers.

As the Medieval period came to an end and materialistic interpretations of religion, politics and society became increasingly more commonplace, the inherent realism of Il Principe influenced a large number of Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers and historians like Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), John Milton (1608-1674), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), David Hume (1711-1776), Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), Adam Smith (1723-1723), Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), René Descartes (1596-1650), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Charles-Louis Montesquieu (1689-1755).

In the modern period, Machiavelli’s work has been studied by dictators and autocrats such as Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), as well as by the Marxian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). Each of these personages had their own reasons for doing so, of course, but it is debatable whether a significant proportion of them ever truly understood Machiavelli’s real objectives. He wrote, not for the hereditary prince who was inevitably forced to suppress his own ambitions in order to maintain the wider institution of his dynastic line, but for a new prince who refused to be contained by such responsibilities. In this sense, therefore, Machiavelli’s sixteenth-century prince, as the symbol of a coming age of modernity, was pitted against the world of tradition.

Part Three
Frederick II and his World

THE famous Hohenzollern dynasty, from which Frederick II was descended, had begun in Swabia, but its most famous son and longest-reigning monarch was born in Berlin on January 24th, 1712. His parents were King Frederick Wilhelm I (1688-1740) and the Queen Consort, Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (1687-1757), whose own reign had been marked by abstinence, frugality and a strong devotion to Calvinism.

Frederick’s educational background was strictly Protestant and he was instructed by Huguenot tutors and learned both German and French. He also had access to a sizeable library containing around three thousand books and was therefore able to familiarise himself with the Greek and Roman classics, Poetry and French Philosophy. Frederick, on the other hand, was regularly beaten by his cruel father and forced to take an interest in military affairs.

Considered effeminate, at least in accordance with his father’s own brutish standards, some historians have speculated about whether Frederick had a secret homosexual relationship with Hans Hermann von Katte (1704-1730), a Lieutenant in the Prussian Army, but there is no real evidence for this claim. It is true, on the other hand, that the two men had planned to run away to England together and Frederick Wilhelm I eventually had von Katte beheaded for ‘desertion’. Forced to watch this public decapitation by his tyrannical father, Frederick was distraught. Nonetheless, the eighteen year-old Hohenzollern prince later went on to marry Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel-Bevern (1715-1797) on June 12th, 1733. Frederick had initially preferred Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780), but Elisabeth would become his queen.

In 1740, when his father died, Frederick’s interest in poetry and philosophy were put to one side as he inherited the Kingdom of Prussia and all the politicking and intrigue that came with it. Now in command of a population of almost two million people and an impressive army of around 80,000 men, Frederick spent the next forty-six years defending his kingdom against the aggression and hostility of its neighbours.

During the War of the Austrian Succession, which began in December 1740, Frederick had angered his Habsburg rivals by occupying Silesia before it could fall into the hands of the Polish king, Augustus III (1696-1763). Whilst the Prussians won the ensuing battle, however, Frederick had fled from the scene in the mistaken belief that his own army had been routed and was later forced to apologise for this militaristic oversight. In 1744, the fact that Austria and France were at war led to Frederick forging an alliance with the French in order to secure his hard-won Silesian territory.

When, in January 1745, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII of Bavaria (1697-1745) died, Francis of Lorraine (1708-1765) – the husband of Maria Theresa (1717-1780) – was elected Emperor in his place and Saxony subsequently joined the Austrians in an effort to outmanoeuvre Frederick’s Prussia. Five months later, the Prussians trapped the Austrians and their Saxon allies in the mountains near the Silesian border, thwarting an invasion. Frederick then defeated them at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg and Austria was forced to sign a peace treaty and agree to the Prussian seizure of Silesian territory.

In 1756, during what became known as the Diplomatic Revolution, Habsburg Austria united with Bourbon France but Frederick made his own alliance with Great Britain and launched an attack on Saxony. Thus began the Seven Years’ War, which lasted until 1763. The campaign saw Frederick taste his first defeat when the Prussians were stopped by Austrian Bohemia at the 1757 Battle of Kolin. Eventually, Frederick was facing an alliance between Austria, France, Russia, Saxony and Sweden, with only Great Britain, Hesse, Brunswick and Hanover on his side. Meanwhile, after the death of King George II (1683-1760), Frederick’s uncle, even the British were forced to desert their Prussian friends and the country’s financial assistance was withdrawn.
However, after the death of Elizabeth of Russia (1709-1762), the pro-Prussian Peter III (1728-1762) agreed to withdraw Russian troops from Frederick’s territories and the anti-Prussian coalition fell apart. Once again, the Austrians were forced to make peace. Whilst Frederick emerged from the Seven Years’ War in victorious fashion, however, the heavy casualties that had been suffered during the conflict had taken their toll on the country as a whole and many thousands had died.

In 1772, Frederick conquered Poland – a nation whose citizens he attacked as ‘slovenly trash’ and ‘vile apes’ – and forced it to accept his own Enlightenment values. The country’s territorial link with Lithuania, a total of 20,000 square miles, was partitioned in order to allow the Prussians access from Pomerania, Brandenburg and East Prussia. With the Polish population standing at twelve million, Frederick exploited the civil war between the country’s 200,000 Protestants and 600,000 Eastern Orthodox for his own ends. Polish currency was also forcibly devalued in order to make huge profits for Prussia and Frederick initiated a systematic programme of Germanization.

During the War of the Bavarian Succession, in 1778, Frederick prevented the Austrians exchanging their territory in the Netherlands for Bavaria and the fact that France made no real attempt to join the war on the Austrian side due to their activities in North America also meant that Prussia remained dominant. They even made peace with Saxony and Russia. Throughout his campaigns, Frederick’s great skill as a military theorist was unparalleled and even Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) later claimed that the Prussian monarch was the finest tactical genius the world had ever seen. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), too, who developed something of an obsession with Frederick the Great, went on to say the same thing.

The Prussian leader’s other achievements included the encouragement of architecture and, in particular, the construction of capital buildings such as the Berlin State Opera House, the Royal Library, St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and Prince Henry’s Palace. Elsewhere, he established the famous picture gallery at Sanssouci and patronised leading artists and Classical musicians. It was at Sanssouci that he finally died on August 17th, 1786, sitting in his favourite armchair and surrounded by great works of art.

Part Four

CURIOUSLY, discussion of Anti-Machavel is often omitted from those works dealing with the life and times of Frederick the Great and many of his biographers prefer to dwell upon his family background and various military campaigns. The same holds true for many of Machiavelli’s own biographers.

First published in September 1740, shortly after Frederick had ascended to the throne, the book is a chapter-by-chapter refutation of Machiavelli’s The Prince and was originally written in French. One reason for Frederick’s choice of language, as well as his strong determination to expose the claims of his sixteenth-century counterpart, may have been due to his close association with François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known as Voltaire. The two men had first established contact in 1736, after Frederick became aware of Voltaire’s good standing as a leading Enlightenment historian and philosopher.

After exchanging a series of letters over the course of the next four years, by which time Frederick had produced his Anti-Machiavel, in September 1740 they finally made one another’s acquaintance at Schloss Moyland, a neo-Gothic castle based at Bedburg-Hau in the district of Kleve. Two years later, in 1742, Voltaire visited Rheinsberg Castle for two weeks and, that August, met Frederick again in the spa-city of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aarchen). Consequently, due to the increasingly cordial relations between them, Voltaire was dispatched to Sanssouci by the French government and given the important ambassadorial role of determining the nature of Frederick’s plans in the wake of the First Silesian War.

It was also in the Summer of 1740 that Voltaire, now residing at Huis Honselaarsdijk, a Prussian residence in the Hague, took it upon himself to extensively revise Frederick’s text. Working in conjunction with the Dutch printer, Jan van Duren, Frederick and Voltaire eventually produced a combined edition. Frederick also sent Francesco Algarotti to London to handle the publication of Anti-Machiavel in English. Naturally, the fact that Frederick had now become king meant that the book was an instant success.

Voltaire did not always find himself in agreement with Frederick II’s ideas, particularly those pertaining to matters of religion. In a letter sent to Frederick himself, dated January 5th, 1767, he said of Christianity that it

is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world. Your Majesty will do the human race an eternal service by extirpating this infamous superstition, I do not say among the rabble, who are not worthy of being enlightened and who are apt for every yoke; I say among honest people, among men who think, among those who wish to think.

Aware that he was now reaching the end of his life, Voltaire added:

My one regret in dying is that I cannot aid you in this noble enterprise, the finest and most respectable which the human mind can point out.

The Frenchman’s forthright opinions about the dangers and intolerance of religious violence, as well as his increasing disillusionment with Frederick II’s ability to bring about the necessary reforms during his reign, had previously led Voltaire to revise certain aspects of his philosophy and this led to the publication of his most famous work, Candide (1759), a novella which includes a discussion of personal responsibility.

Although Frederick himself was rarely able to live up to the ideal of the benevolent ruler, his Anti-Machiavel essentially rests upon the kind of morality that Machiavelli himself lacked. The main thrust of his argument concerns the idea that statesmanship can take a benevolent and conscientious form, a notion that was – for the time – totally in keeping with the principles of the Enlightenment. By insisting that a ruler must have a strong sense of duty towards his subjects, Frederick believed that Machiavelli’s habitual ‘immorality’ would lead to the gradual corruption of the common people.

Like, in other words, begets like.

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