Gregory Brown
513 Agnes Arnold Hall
Department of Philosophy
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3004

Friedrich II.
(Frederick II.)
"The Great"

Crown Prince of Prussia
King of Prussia, as Friedrich II. (1740-1786)

Friedrich was born on 24 January 1712, the eldest son of king Friedrich Wilhelm I. (1688-1740) and Sophia Dorothea (1687-1757), daughter of Georg Ludwig (1660-1727), later elector of Brunswick - Lüneburg (Hanover) (1698) and king of Great Britain (1714), and Georg's first cousin, Sophie Dorothea (1666-1726) of Brunswick - Lüneburg - Celle.  His father devised a scheme of education for him that was intended to make him a hardy soldier and that prescribed every detail of his conduct.  Friedrich Wilhelm's dislike for everything that did not seem practical led him to exclude Latin from the list of his son's studies. But encouraged by his mother, and influenced by his governess Madame de Roucoulle and his first tutor Duhan, a French refugee, Friedrich acquired an excellent knowledge of French and a taste for literature and music.  He even received secret lessons in Latin.

Freidrich Wilhelm viewed his son as absorbed in frivolous and effeminate amusements and consequently acquired an intense dislike for him.  This played a role in causing him to break off the negotiations for a double marriage — much promoted by Sophia Dorothea — between the  Prince of Wales, Friedrich Ludwig (1707-1751), and  Friedrich Wilhelm's daughter, Wilhelmina, on the one hand, and Princess Amelia of Great Britain and Friedrich on the other.1  Friedrich had been indiscreet enough to carry on a separate correspondence with the English court and to vow that he would marry Amelia or no one.  Friedrich Wilhelm openly avowed his hatred for Friedrich, and he displayed it in violent outbursts and public insults.  As a result, Friedrich often thought of running away and taking refuge at the English court.  He finally resolved to do so during a journey which he made with the king to south Germany in 1730, when he was eighteen years old.  He was helped by two friends, Lieutenant Katte and Lieutenant Keith; but by the imprudence of the former, the plot was discovered.  Friedrich was placed under arrest, deprived of his rank as crown prince, tried by court martial, and imprisoned in the fortress of Cürstin.  Warned by Friedrich, Keith escaped.  Katte, however, delayed his flight and was apprehended; a court-martial decided that he should be punished with two years' fortress arrest.  But the king wished to make an example of Katte in order to impress upon Friedrich the responsibility of his position.  He thus imposed the death penalty upon Katte and ordered that the execution take place in Friedrich's presence.  On the morning of 7 November Katte was beheaded before Friedrich's window, after the Crown Prince had asked his pardon and received the reply that there was nothing to forgive.  The experience seems to have had the effect on Friedrich for which Friedrich Wilhelm had hoped.

Friedrich remained in Cürstin for about fifteen months, learning the details of the Prussian administrative system in accordance with Friedrich Wilhelm's program for his son.  During this period of probation he had been deprived of his status as a soldier and refused the right to wear a uniform; officers and soldiers were forbidden to give him the military salute.  But in 1732 he was made colonel in command of the regiment at Neuruppin.  In the following year he married the daughter of duke Ferdinand Albrecht II. (1680-1735) of Brunswick - Wolfenbüttel - Bevern.  He was given the estate of Rheinsberg, near Neuruppin, and he lived there until he succeeded to the throne.  During these years he gained the esteem of Friedrich Wilhelm by discharging his duties conscientiously.  He carried on a lively correspondence with Voltaire and other French men of letters and was a diligent student of philosophy, history, and poetry.

Friedrich ascended the throne of Prussia on 31 May 1740.  He maintained the forms of government established by his father, but rule in a more enlightened spirit; he tolerated every from of religious opinion, abolished the use of torture, maintained an impartial administration of justice.  He began to make extensive military preparations.  In the very year of his ascension, Friedrich attacked Maria Theresa (1717-1780), daughter of Karl VI. (1685-1740) and ruler of the Habsburg dominions (1740-1780) and gained Silesia.  He fought to keep it in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), where he achieved impressive victories over the French at Rossbach (1757) and the Austrians at Leuthen (1757). He obtained the territory of West Prussia in the first partition of Poland in 1772. He opposed the emperor Joseph II. (1741-1790), the son of Maria Theresa and co-regent with her from 1765, in the War of Bavarian Succession (1778-1779).

By the end of the War of Austrian Succession, Friedrich had become a sovereign of great position in Europe and was henceforth the most outstanding ruler of his time.  But he regarded himself, as he said, as but "the first servant of the state."  The Berlin Society (later Academy) of Sciences, begun by Friedrich's grandfather  Friedrich I. (1657-1713) at the urging of the philosopher G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716) who had served as its first president, had fallen into contempt during the reign of Friedrich's father.  But Friedrich restored it and revitalized it.  Friedrich's father had also banished Christian Wolff (1679-1754), a disciple of Leibniz and professor of mathematics and philosophy at Halle, at 48-hour notice and "on pain of the halter," for teaching what the King had come to believe, at the urging of Wolff's Pietist enemies, was fatalistic determinism.  But Friedrich recalled Wolff to Halle in 1740 after he had ascended the throne.  He also did more to promote elementary education than any of his predecessors.  The economic development of Prussia flourished under Friedrich as well.

Friedrich despised German as the language of boors, although at a later period, in a French essay on German literature, he predicted a great future for it.  He habitually wrote and spoke French and aspired to rank as a distinguished French author.  He continued to correspond with French writers and induced a number of them to settle in Berlin, where Maupertuis (1698-1759) was the president of the Academy.  The French philosopher and physician, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) was invited to Berlin, appointed a member of the Berlin Academy, as well as "physician ordinary" and "reader" to the king.  In 1752 Voltaire (1694-1778), who had repeatedly visited him, came at Friedrich's urgent request.  But Voltaire's vanity and caprice served to lower the king's esteem for him, while the king irritated Voltaire by often requiring him to correct bad verses and by making him the object of rude banter.  The publication of Voltaire's Diatribe du Docteur Akakia in 1752, in which Maupertuis was lampooned, proved to be the final provocation for Friedrich, and Voltaire was soon out of Prussia, but not before being arrested and briefly detained in Frankfurt.

Of Christianity, Friedrich always spoke in the mocking tone of the enlightened philosophers, regarding it as the invention of priests, although after the Seven Years' War he sought to strengthen the church for the sake of its elevating moral influence.  In his judgments of mankind he often talked as a misanthrope.  He was once conversing with Sulzer, who as a school inspector, about education.  Sulzer expressed the opinion that  education had of late years greatly improved.  "In former times, your Majesty," he said, "the notion being that mankind were naturally inclined to evil, a system of severity prevailed in schools; but now, when we recognize that the inborn inclination of men is rather to good than to evil, schoolmasters have adopted a more generous procedure."  "Ach, mein lieber Sulzer,' the king replied, "er kennt nicht dies verdammte Race."

Friedrich's grandmother, Sophie Charlotte (1668-1705), queen consort of Prussia, was a friend and philosophical correspondent of the great philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, as was her mother, Sophie (1630-1714),  the electress of Hanover.  Of his grandmother, Friedrich wrote:

"This princess had the genius of a great man and the knowledge of a savant; she did not deem it unworthy of a queen to admire a philosopher; the philosopher was Leibniz, and she bestowed her friendship on him with the thought that those to whom Heaven has given noble minds are the equivalent of kings." [as quoted in Mates, p. 26]


     1Amelia and Friedrich Ludwig were the children of king Georg II. August (1683-1760) of Great Britain and his queen consort, Caroline (1683-1737).


  • The Encyclopædia Britannica, 13th edition.  New York: The Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1926.
  • Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia.  Ed. Harry Judge.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Mates, Benson. The Philosophy of Leibniz.  New York: Oxford U.P., 1986.