German political and social thought assigned pride of place, through most of the eighteenth century, to “enlightened absolutism.” Its theory, known in the Anglophone world from the writings of Englishman Thomas Hobbes, held that human beings exited the (hypothesized) primeval state of nature to enter into a social contract whereby, for the sake of peace and security, they created a sovereign monarchy to rule irrevocably over them. Yet this monarchy was bound, both by reason and self-interest, to seek the social good, rather than its own narrow self-aggrandizement. Frederick II, the intellectually gifted Prussian “philosopher-king,” embraced such ideas, arguing that “the king is the first servant of the state.” In his conception, “the state” figured as a power higher than the monarch, and one that, in raison d’état (“reason of state”), possessed its own rational necessity – namely, to pursue only those diplomatic, military, economic, and social ends that would maximally strengthen it against hostile powers and enrich it domestically.
There were, that is, laws of statecraft the ruler was bound to follow – on pain otherwise of self-extinction. Frederick recognized the inequality prevailing among his subjects (nobles, burghers, villagers), but argued that greater rights imposed higher duties. It was the state’s obligation to rationalize and perfect society by applying reason’s principles to all public projects, including the Christian religion, whose precepts needed to be reinterpreted so as to harmonize with Enlightenment ideas.
It was a crucial development in German history that Frederick’s Prussia patronized and even co-opted the German Enlightenment, which came to stamp the state’s political culture very strongly. Masses of mainly middle-class university graduates streamed into civil service and clerical posts, in which they preached the union of the Prussian kingdom and Enlightenment philosophy. In this view, heartily shared by Frederick II, the Prussian state figured as an engine of rational progress and prosperity. State power [Macht] served reason [Vernunft]. This is an equation that never acquired general assent in eighteenth-century France or England, however much the state there was respected (and feared) by its subjects. But by the later eighteenth century, largely because of the example of Frederickian Prussia, but also thanks to Maria Theresa’s and Joseph II’s Austrian reforms, “enlightened monarchy” set the political standard throughout Germany.
This trend heightened the self-confidence and the actual importance of the educated middle classes, which supplied most of the university graduates who subsequently distinguished themselves as Enlightenment intellectuals, skilled professionals, and state servants (though these ranks also included numerous nobles’ sons). Such middle-class graduates came to form a specific class in modern German society: the “educated middle class” or “educated bourgeoisie” [Bildungsbürgertum]. They increasingly set the intellectual and cultural tone, in contrast to the preceding era’s aristocratic court culture. They supplied the cultural producers who crafted both the modern German language and a new German literature of European greatness. They, too, formed the public, and contributed the inspirational ideas that – especially in the persons of Johann Sebastian Bach, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – helped raise German music to European heights.