Confessions of Frederick the Great - H. Treitschke

Second Morning—On Religion

Religion is absolutely necessary in a state. This is a maxim which it would be madness to dispute; and a king must know very little of politics, indeed, that should suffer his subjects to make a bad use of it; but then it would not be very wise in a king to have any religion himself. Mark well, my dear nephew, what I here say to you; there is nothing that tyrannizes more over the head and heart than religion; because it neither agrees with our passions, nor with those great political views which a monarch ought to have. The true religion of a prince is his interest and his glory. He ought, by his royal station, to be dispensed from having any other. He may, indeed, preserve outwardly a fair occasional appearance, for the sake of amusing those who are about him, or who watch his motions and character.

If he fears God, or, to speak as the priests and women do, if he fears hell, like Lewis XIV, in his old age, he is apt to become timorous, childish, and fit for nothing but to be a capuchin. If the point is to avail himself of a favorable moment for seizing a province [18th century translator note: Alas unhappy Poland], an army of devils, to defend it, present themselves to his imagination; we are, on that supposition, weak enough to think it an injustice, and we proportion in our conscience, the punishment to the crime. Should it be necessary to make a treaty with other powers, if we remember that we are Christians, we are undone; all would be over with us; we should be constantly bubbles. As to war, it is a trade, in which any the least scruple would spoil everything, and, indeed, what man of honor would ever make war, if he had not the right to make rules that should authorize plunder, fire, and carnage?

I do not, however, mean that one should make a proclamation of impiety and atheism; but it is right to adapt one's thoughts to the rank one occupies. All the popes, who had common sense, have held no principles of religion but what favored their aggrandizement. It would be the silliest thing imaginable, if a prince were to confine himself to such paltry trifles as were contrived only for the common people. Besides, the best way for a prince to keep fanaticism out of his country is for him to have the most cool indifference for religion. Believe me, dear nephew, that holy mother of ours has her little caprices, like any woman, and is commonly as inconstant. Attach yourself, then, dear nephew, to true philosophy, which is ever consolatory, luminous, courageous, dispassionate, and inexhaustible as Nature. You will then soon see, that you will not have, in your kingdom, any material dispute about religion; for parties are never formed but on the weakness of princes, or on that of their ministers.

There is one important reflection I would with you make; it is this: your ancestors have, in this matter, conducted their operations with the greatest political dexterity; they introduced a reformation which gave them the air of apostles at the same time that it was filling their purse. Such a revolution was, without doubt, the most reasonable that could ever happen in such a point as this: but, since there is now hardly anything left to be got in that way, and that, in the present position of things, it would be dangerous to tread in their footsteps, it is therefore even best to stick to toleration. Retain well, dear nephew, the principle I am now to inculcate to you: let it be your rule of government, that men are to worship the Divinity in their own way; for, should you appear in the least neglectful of this indulgence, all would be lost and undone in your dominions.

Have you a mind to know why my kingdom is composed of so many sects? I will tell you: in certain provinces the Calvinists are in possession of all the offices and posts; in others, the Lutherans have the same advantage. There are some, where the Catholics are so predominant, that the king can only send there one or two Protestant deputies; and, of all the ignorant and blind fanatics, I dare aver to you that the Papists are the most fiery and the most atrocious. The priests in their senseless religion are untamable wild beasts, that preach up a blind submission to their wills, and exercise a complete despotism. They are assassins, robbers, violators of faith, and inexpressibly ambitious.

Mark but Rome! Observe with what a stupid effrontery she dares arrogate to herself dominion over the princes of the earth! As to the Jews, they are little vagrants, poor devils, that at bottom are not so black as they are painted. Almost everywhere rebuffed, hated, persecuted; they pay with tolerable exactness, those who endure them, and take their revenge by bubbling all the simpletons they can light on.

As our ancestors made themselves in the ninth century, Christians, out of complaisance to the emperors; in the fifteenth, Lutherans, in order to seize the possessions of the church; and Calvinists, in the sixteenth, to please the Dutch, upon the account of the succession of Cleves; I do not see why we should not make ourselves indifferent to all these religions for the sake of maintaining tranquility in our dominions.

My father had formed an excellent project, but it did not succeed with him. He had engaged the President Laen to compose for him a small treatise on religion, which was to procure a coalition of the three sects into one. The president abused the Pope, hinted that St. Joseph was a soft simpleton, took the dog of St. Roc by the ears, and pulled St. Anthony's pig by the tail; he expressed no faith in the story of the chaste Susannah, he looked on St. Bernard and St. Dominic as courtiers that were refined cheats, and protested against the canonization of St. Francis de Sales for a saint. The eleven thousand virgins met with no more quarter from his credulity than all the saints and martyrs of the Jesuit Loyola.

As to the mysteries, he agreed that no explanation of them should be attempted, but that good sense ought to be put into everything, while he was by no means for being tied up to the mere sound of words. As to the Lutherans, he was for making of them the center-point of union and of rest. He wanted the Catholics to be, in appearance, somewhat less faithful to the court of Rome; but then he admitted that the Lutherans ought to betray less subtlety of argument in their disputes. He insisted, that, on removing certain distinctions out of the way, the sects would find themselves very near to each other. He thought there would be more trouble required to bring the Calvinists to a reconciliation, because they had more pretensions than the Lutherans. In the meanwhile, he proposed one good expedient, which was, not to have any but God for one's confidant, on occasion of taking the communion. He looked on the worship of images as a bait for the common people, but admitted that it was proper for a country to have a tutelary Saint of some kind or other.

As to the Monks, he was for expelling them, because he looked on them as an enemy that always laid the country under heavy contributions. But priests, he allowed them their housekeepers for wives. This scheme made a great noise, because those good ladies, the three mother churches, thought themselves each respectively aggrieved, and that it was a sacrilege to touch upon the holy mysteries. But if this essay of a project had been relished, there would have been no efforts spared to have effectuated its execution. I have not, my dear nephew, renounced it, and I natter myself that I shall facilitate to you the execution of it. The great point is, to be useful to the whole of humankind, by rendering all men brothers; and by making it a law to them to live together as friends and relations, by inculcating to them the absolute necessity of living and of dying in commutual peace and concord, and to seek their sole happiness in the social virtues.

When these maxims shall have once taken root in the rising generations, the fruit of it will be the world's forming itself into one numerous family, and the so much celebrated golden age will come up to that state of felicity which I ardently wish to mankind, and which it will then enjoy without adulteration. Now, pray mark what I am doing for this purpose: I use my best endeavors that all the writings in my kingdom, on religion, should breathe the strongest spirit of contempt for all the reformers that ever were, and I never slip any the least occasion of unmasking the ambitious views of the court of Rome, of its priests, and ministers. Thus, little by little, I shall accustom my subjects to think as I do, and shall detach them from all prejudices.

But as it is necessary to have some religious worship, I will, if I live long enough, underhand, bring into play some man of eloquence, who shall preach a new one. At first, I will give myself the air of designing to persecute him: but, little by little, I will declare myself his defender, and will, with warmth, embrace his system. And, if you must know the truth, that system is already made.

Voltaire has composed the preamble to it; he proves the necessity of abandoning everything that has already been said upon religion, because there is no one point of it upon which everyone is agreed. He draws the picture of every chief of a sect with a mildness which bears a kind of resemblance to truth. He has dug up certain curious anecdotes of popes, of bishops, of priests, of ministers, of the other sects, which diffuse a singular gaiety over his work. It is written in a style so close and so rapid as not to leave time for reflection: and, full as this author is of the most subtle art, he has the air of the greatest candor imaginable, while he is advancing the most doubtful principles.

D'Alembert and Maupertuis have formed the groundwork of the plan, and the whole is calculated with such scrupulous exactness, as to tempt one to believe that they had endeavored to demonstrate it to themselves before they sought to demonstrate it to others. Rousseau has been at work for these four years past, to obviate all objections; and I am anticipating in imagination the pleasure I shall take in mortifying all the ignorant wretches that shall dare to contradict me; for there is an army of prelates and priests, constantly assembled, who are forever imposing on the populace, which has neither the capacity nor the time to reflect. Thence it comes to pass that, in those countries that swarm with priests, the people are more unhappy and more ignorant than in Protestant countries.

The priests are like soldiers, who do mischief habitually and for amusement. There are already prepared fifty consequences for every object of dispute, and, at least, thirty reflections on each article of the Holy Scriptures. He is even actually taken up with furnishing proofs that everything, at present, preached from thence, is but a fable, that there never was a terrestrial paradise, and that it is degrading God to believe that he made, after his own image, a mere idiot, and his most perfect creature a rank, lewd, jade.

For, in short, adds he, nothing but the length of the serpent's tail could have seduced Eve; and, in that case, it proves there must have been a horrid disorder of her imagination. The Marquis d'Argens and M. Formey have prepared the constitution of a council; I am to preside in it, but without pretending that the Holy Ghost is to give any the least particle of light to me more than to the rest. There shall assist at it but one minister of each sect of religion, and four deputies of every province, two of which to be of the nobility and two of the commons, or third estate. All the other priests, monks and ministers, in general, to be excluded, as being parties concerned in the matter. And that the Holy Ghost may the clearer appear to preside in this assembly, it will be agreed to decide everything honestly according to common sense.