Episode 29 – The Philosopher King – Enlightened Despotism, part 2, Prussia


In his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant declared: “[E]nlightenment requires nothing but freedom … to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. Now I hear the cry from all sides: ‘Do not argue!’ … Only one ruler in the world says: ‘Argue as much as you please, but obey!’”

That ruler was Frederick the Great — and his influence was not lost on Kant.

“[T]his age is the age of enlightenment,” Kant declared. “[T]he century of Frederick.”

Frederick the Great ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786 and launched a blitzkrieg of Enlightenment reforms impacting religious tolerance and freedom of speech. He was hailed as a philosopher king by Voltaire and gave refuge to scandalous writers who had been persecuted around Europe. But his rule was erratic, and often Absolutism would trump Enlightenment ideals.

In this episode, we cover Frederick the Great’s reign and his attitude and policies towards freedom of thought and the press. Topics include:

  • How Frederick’s Enlightenment ideals reformed Prussia
  • How he favored Enlightenment for the elite, but not the masses
  • How Voltaire, Diderot, and D’Holbach clashed over the merits of Frederick’s enlightened despotism
  • How Frederick offered refuge to scandalous authors such as the French atheist Julien Offray de La Mettrie
  • The dos and don’ts of Prussian censorship
  • How the enlightened Prussian public sphere differed from its French and American counterparts
  • How the enlightened Prussian elite, including Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, praised both freedom of speech and Frederick the Great’s Enlightened Despotism
  • How the death of Frederick and the ascension of Friedrich Wilhelm resulted in a backlash against enlightenment values, including free speech and religious tolerance

Why have kings, emperors, and governments killed and imprisoned people to shut them up? And why have countless people risked death and imprisonment to express their beliefs? Jacob Mchangama guides you through the history of free speech from the trial of Socrates to the Great Firewall.

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