Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke




Fourth Morning—On Politics

Since it has been agreed among men that to cheat or deceive one's fellow-creatures is a mean and criminal action, there has been sought for, and invented, a term that might soften the appellation of the thing, and the word, which undoubtedly has been chosen for the purpose, is Politics. Now the word has only been found out in favor of sovereigns, because we cannot quite so decently be called rogues and rascals. But, be that as it may, this is what I think as to politics. I understand, then, by this word, dear nephew, that we are ever to try to cheat others. It is the way to have the advantage, or, at least to be on a footing with the rest of mankind. For you may rest persuaded that all the states of the world run the same career. Now this principle being once settled, never be ashamed of making alliances, and of being yourself the only party that draws advantage from them. Do not commit that stupid fault of not abandoning them whenever it is your interest so to do; and especially maintain vigorously this maxim, that stripping your neighbors is only to take away from them the means of doing you a mischief.

It is politics, properly speaking, that found kingdoms and preserve them; so that, dear nephew, it is fit that you understand them thoroughly, and conceive them in their clearest light. For this purpose, I shall make two divisions of them to you, the one politics of the state, and the other private politics; the first turns on the great interests of the kingdom; the other on the particular interests of the king, and of this we shall first treat.


On Private Politics


A prince ought never to present to view but the fairest aspect of character, and this is a point to which you must pay a very serious attention. When I was only prince royal, I had very little of a military turn; I loved my ease and the pleasures of the table, and, as to love, I made it on all sides.

When I came to be king, I appeared the soldier, the philosopher, the poet; I lay upon straw, I ate ammunition-bread at the head of my camp; I drank very little before my subjects, and appeared to have a contempt for women.

As for my personal conduct, it is this: in my journeys I always go without a guard, and travel night and day; my train is far from numerous, but well chosen. My carriage is plain, but then it is hung upon special easy springs, and I sleep in it as well as in my bed.

I seem to have no nicety about my eating and drinking. A lacquey, a cook, a confectioner, are all the menials I have for providing my table. I order my own dinner myself, and it is not what I acquit myself the worst of, as I know the country; and whatever I call for, of wild game, of fish, or butcher's meat, it is always sure to be of the best produce of the land.

When I come to a place of inhabitants, I have always a fatigued air, and show myself to the people in a very shabby surtout and a wig ill combed.

These are trifles, but trifles that often make a marvelous impression. I give audience to the whole universe, except to priests, ministers of the Church, and monks; as those gentry are used to speak so as to be heard at a distance, I hear them from my window; a page receives them, and makes my compliments to them at the door. In everything I say, I affect the air of thinking of nothing but the happiness of my subjects; I ask questions of the nobility, of citizens, of mechanics, and enter with them into the minutest particulars.

You have, my dear nephew, heard, as well as myself, the flattering discourse of those good kinds of people. You cannot forget him that said, that I must be an extraordinary good king, who could put myself to so much fatigue after having carried on so long a war. You may also remember him, who pities me from his heart, on observing the bad surtout I had on, and the small dishes that were served on my table. The poor man did not know that I had a very good coat underneath, and could not imagine it possible to dine anything like well without a ham and a whole shoulder of veal on the table.

At a review of my troops, before a regiment is to pass muster, I take care to read over the names of all its officers and sergeants, and I retain three or four of them, with the names of the companies to which they belong. I procure an exact information of the petty abuses which may have been committed by my captains, and I allow the soldiers liberty of complaining.

The hour of the review being come, I set out from wherever I am. Presently the mob gets round me; nor do I suffer it to be kept off, but chat by the way with the first person that is nearest me, or that can make the most reasonable answer. As soon as I am come to the regiment, I see that the exercise be without too much trouble, and rather with ease, performed throughout all the ranks, and I speak to all the captains. When I am over-against those whose names I have retained, I speak to them freely, as likewise to all the lieutenants and sergeants: this gives me a wonderful fine air of memory and reflection.

You saw, dear nephew, in what manner I mortified the major who used to furnish his company with shirts too short; I used him so ill, that one of the soldiers had the impudence, by way of showing the scanty measure, to pull his shirt out of his breeches.

If a regiment does not acquit itself of the exercise to my satisfaction, I have a kind of punishment for it that is not amiss; I order it to perform the exercise for thirteen days longer than usual, and ask none of the officers to my table. If the maneuvers are well executed, I have all the captains to dine with me, and even some of the lieutenants.

By means, then, of the reviews being conducted in this manner, I come at a perfect knowledge of my troops; and when I find any officer that answers me with firmness, intelligence, and clearness, I set him down in my list for making use of his service on proper occasions.

Hitherto it has been believed by the world that it is the stark love and kindness I bear to my subjects that engages me to visit my dominions as often as I possibly can. I like to leave that same world in quiet possession of that idea; but there enters very little of the reality of such a motive into that trouble I give myself; the truth is, that I am obliged to it, and this is the reason.

My kingdom is despotic, consequently I, who am the possessor of it, am alone in charge of it. If I did not make, at times, a tour of inspection through my dominions, my governors would put themselves in my place, and would, little by little, divest themselves of their principles of obedience, and adopt in their stead those of independence.

Besides, as my orders cannot be other than stern and absolute, those who represent me would usurp the same tone of tyranny. Whereas, by visiting my kingdom from time to time, I am enabled to take cognizance of all the abuses that may have been committed of the powers entrusted by me, and to keep within the bounds of their duty such as might otherwise take it into their head to transgress them.

Add to these reasons that of making my subjects believe that I come familiarly among them purely to receive their complaints, and to redress their grievances.


On Literature


I have done everything in my power to acquire a reputation in literature, and, in that, have been more successful than Cardinal Richelieu, for, thank God, I pass for an author; but, between you and me, and not to let it go any farther, they are a damned set of people, those they call wits. They are insupportable for their vanity; insolent, despising the great, and yet fond of greatness: tyrants in their opinions, implacable enemies, inconstant friends, difficult to live with, and often flatterers and satirists in the same day. And yet, for all this, they are necessary beings to a prince who would reign despotically, and who loves glory. They are the dispensers of the honors of celebrity; without them, there is no acquiring a solid reputation. They must, then, be caressed from our need of them, and recompensed from good policy.

As this is a profession, or call it, if you will, a trade, that takes us off from the occupations worthy of the majesty of the throne, I never compose but when I have nothing better to do; and to give myself the more ease in it, I keep at my court some wits, who take care to put my ideas into order.

You have seen with what distinction I treated Monsieur D'Alembert in his last visit here; I always set him at my table, and did nothing but praise him. You even seemed surprised at the great respect I showed this author; but you do not know, perhaps, that this philosopher is listened to at Paris like an oracle; that he talks of nothing else there but of my talents and my virtues; and that he maintains everywhere that I fulfil the character of a true hero and of a great king.

Besides, there is a sort of pleasure to me, in hearing myself praised with wit and delicacy; and, to deal sincerely with you, I am far from being insensible to panegyric. I cannot dissemble to myself that all my actions are not clearly praiseworthy; but D'Alembert is so good-natured, that, when he sits by me, he never opens his mouth but to say obliging things to me.

Voltaire was not of so pliable a character; accordingly I drove him from my court, of which I made a merit to Maupertuis, though the true reason at bottom was, that I stood in fear of him, because I was not sure that I could always humor his avarice, and knew perfectly well, that half-a-crown less than he expected would draw on me two thousand scratches from his satirical claws.

Besides, everything well considered, and after having taken the advice of my academy, it was a clearly decided point that it was impossible for two wits to breathe the same air.

I was forgetting to tell you, that in the midst of my greatest straits and disasters, I took care that the wits should have their pensions duly paid them. These philosophers exclaim against war as the most execrable of all madnesses the moment that it touches their pocket.


Conduct in the Smaller Matters of Life


Have you a mind to satisfy all the world at a very little cost? This is the secret. Let all your subjects have leave to apply to yourself directly by writing, or in personal audience; and, according as you admit of either of these, answer or hear what they have to say. But this is the style you are to employ:

"If what you tell me be true, I will do you justice; but you may also lay your account with the zeal I have for punishing calumny and falsity. I am your king, Frederick."

If they complain, in person, to you, hear them with attention, or at least with an air that may make them think you have it. Let your answer especially be firm and laconic. Two letters, or two verbal answers, in such a style, will save you from the importunity of many complaints, and will give you among your own subjects, and more yet in foreign courts, such an air of simplicity, and of descending into particulars, as in point of character makes the fortune of kings.

I am well assured, dear nephew, that on the credit of two letters of this kind, actually extant in those countries which the French took in 1757, I passed among them for a king the most popular, the most plain-dealing, and the most equitable, that ever was or could be.


As to Dress


If my grandfather had lived twenty years more, we should have been an undone people, for his birthday would have devoured the kingdom. I never wear any coat but my uniform. The military imagine that this proceeds from the regard I have for their profession; but in fact it is to make my example enforce my preachments of simplicity of dress. My father was right in his notion of bringing in the blue for birthdays.

Those who are not rich, and would appear well dressed, would do well to avoid the half-lace. One should leave embroidery, and the tawdry daubings of gold and silver, to those idle, effeminate princes who live in the midst of nothing but pleasures, balls, and debauchery. There is a necessity for the frivolous to study every day some new fanciful taste in dress, that they may please the ladies, which they make their sole occupation.


As to Pleasures


Love is a little deity that spares no one. When one resists those darts he lets fly at us in a fair way, he takes another turn; so that I would not wish you to have the vanity of making head against him. One way or other he is sure of you. Though I have not to complain of the trick he has played me, I would not advise you to follow my example. It might come in time to have very bad consequences; for, by degrees, your governors and officers would, in their choice of recruits, consult more their own pleasures than the honor of your service, and your army might come at length to be like the regiment of your uncle Henry.

I should have liked hunting well enough, but the account-expenses of my grandfather's grand huntsman corrected me of that inclination.

My father has told me a hundred times, that there were but two kings in Europe rich enough to keep buck-hounds, because it is indecent for a crowned head to hunt with no more state than a private gentleman.

Nature has given me self-indulgent-enough dispositions. I love good eating, good wines, coffee, and even spirituous cordials, and yet my subjects believe me the most abstemious king in the universe. When I eat in public, it is my German cook that dresses my dinner; but when I am snug in my little private apartments, I have a French cook who does his best to humor my palate, which, I must confess, is rather of the nicest. Philosophers may say what they will, with all their lessons, but the pleasures of the senses very well deserve that we should spare them a couple of hours a day; for, in fact, what would our existence be without them?

I could take a pleasure in play, but I cannot bring myself to a habit of enduring to lose. Besides, play is the looking-glass of the soul; and this does not at all do for me, for I do not much care that anyone should look into mine.

I love theatrical entertainments extremely, and especially music; but I find the Opera cursedly dear, and the pleasure I take in hearing a fine voice or a good violin would be much more lively and pure if it did not cost me so much money.

As no one can be imposed upon as to this expense, I have used my best endeavors to persuade that it was useful and even necessary; but I never could get the old generals to come into the opinion, that an eunuch or a virtuoso ought to have the same pay as they.

I will now give up to you the knowledge of man, though at his expense. Believe me, he is always delivered up to his passions; vanity is at the bottom of all his thirst after glory, and his virtues are all founded on his self-interest and ambition. Have you a mind to pass for a hero? Make boldly your approaches to crimes. Would you like to be thought virtuous? Learn to appear artfully what you are not.