January 24

Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712)

It was on this date, January 24, 1712, that Frederick the Great was born in Berlin (he was also called Frederick II, Friedrich der Große and Friedrich II). The future Hohenzollern King of Prussia spent his youth under a harsh and pious father, for whom Frederick learned to hide his hatred, and trained for a military career until he saw a chance to escape to England. His father caught him, forced him to watch an accomplice executed, and in 1733 compelled him to marry.

In his Anti-Machiavel, which he wrote before his accession in 1740, Frederick urges monarchs to be "the first servant of the State." He followed his own advice. While distinguishing himself as a military leader, Frederick's youthful training in the arts balanced his character. He not only played the flute and composed music still performed today, but ruled Prussia with enlightenment and concern for the people. While the institution flourished in France and Russia, he abolished serfdom within his domains.

Frederick created a stable legal code, established a superior school system, allowed a free press and religious toleration — "All religions must be tolerated," said Frederick, "... every man must go to heaven in his own way." Frederick was a patron of art and literature (he befriended and protected Voltaire), as well as music. His court musicians included C.P.E. Bach and Johann Joachim Quantz.

To his intimates, Frederick admitted his Atheism, but outwardly even a monarch could not profess such a thing. His letters, especially those exchanged with Voltaire, show his Rationalist side.[1] In a letter to Voltaire before his accession, Frederick wrote:

Theologians are all alike, of whatever religion or country they may be. Their aim is always to wield despotic authority over men's consciences. They therefore persecute all of us who have the temerity to unveil the truth.[2]
After his accession, Frederick wrote to Voltaire:
If the philosophers were to form a government, the people, after 150 years, would forge some new superstition, and would either pray to little idols, or to the graves in which the great men were buried, or invoke the sun, or commit some similar nonsense. Superstition is the weakness of the human mind, which is inseparably tied up with it; it has always existed, and always will.[3]

Frederick the Great died on 17 August 1786. It was Frederick who said, "There are so many things to be said against religion that I wonder they do not occur to everyone."[4]

[1] Frederick II of Prussia, Collected Works, 31 vols., 1846-57.
[2] Frederick to Voltaire, 4 November 1736.
[3] Frederick to Voltaire, 1766.
[4] Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.

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Emperor Hadrian (76 CE)

It was also on this date, January 24, 76 CE, that the Roman Emperor Hadrian was born in Rome, or perhaps in Spain. From a successful military career, and a quick rise through the political elite of Rome, Hadrian became the adopted son of Emperor Trajan and succeeded him as Emperor, with the help of Trajan's wife, Plotina, on 11 August 117.

The Stoic-Epicurean Emperor traveled broadly, inspecting and correcting the legions in the field. At home he attended to social needs. Hadrian mitigated but did not abolish slavery, had the legal code humanized and forbade torture. He built libraries, aqueducts, baths and theaters. Hadrian is considered by most historians to have been wise and just: Schiller called him "the Empire's first servant," and Edward Gibbon admired his "vast and active genius," as well as his "equity and moderation."*

At his imperial villa at Baiae, on the Bay of Naples, Hadrian died on 10 July 138. This poem, written shortly before his death, expresses Hadrian's religious skepticism:

     Animula vagula blandula
     Hospes comesque corporis
     Quae nunc abibis in loca
     Pallidula rigida nudula
     Nec ut soles dabis iocos!

Little soul, wandering and pale,
Guest and companion of my body,
You who will now go off to places
Pale, stiff, and barren,
Nor will you make jokes as has been your wont!

* Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I, 1776; also, Bernard W. Henderson, Life and Principate of the Emperor Hadrian, 1923; Anthony R. Birley, Hadrian, The Restless Emperor, 1997.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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