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Frederick II ("the Great"), "Forms of Government and the Duties of Rulers" (1777)

Here, Frederick presents a version of social contract theory, in which monarchical power is justified before civil society and stands in opposition to republicanism, by its maintenance of the law, defense of the realm, and other services. These pages contain his famous designation of the king as “the principal servant of the state” [“der erste Diener des Staates”]. The essay suggests that the “absolutist” ruler should govern “as if” he were responsible for his actions to “the people.”

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Forms of Government and the Duties of Rulers

The citizens have accorded pre-eminence to one of their number only because of the services which he can render them. These services consist in maintaining the laws, in meting out justice, in opposing with all his strength the deterioration of morals, in defending the State against its enemies.

The ruler should carefully watch the cultivation of the soil. He should provide an abundance of food for the people, encourage industry, and further commerce. He ought to be like a sentinel who watches unceasingly the neighbours of the State and the activities of its enemies. It is necessary that the sovereign should act with foresight and prudence and conclude alliances in good time, and he ought to choose his Allies among those who are most likely to promote the interests of his country. Each of the functions named requires a wealth of knowledge from the sovereign. He must study profoundly the physical conditions of his country, and should thoroughly know the spirit and character of the people, for an ignorant sovereign is as guilty as an ill-disposed one. Ignorance in the ruler is due to his laziness, while malice springs from an evil mind. However, the sufferings caused by his mistakes are as great in the one case as in the other.

Princes, sovereigns, and kings have not been given supreme authority in order to live in luxurious self-indulgence and debauchery. They have not been elevated by their fellow-men to enable them to strut about and to insult with their pride the simple-mannered, the poor, and the suffering. They have not been placed at the head of the State to keep around themselves a crowd of idle loafers whose uselessness drives them towards vice. The bad administration which may be found in monarchies springs from many different causes, but their principal cause lies in the character of the sovereign. A ruler addicted to women will become a tool of his mistresses and favourites, and these will abuse their power and commit wrongs of every kind, will protect vice, sell offices, and perpetrate every infamy.

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