‘Is it useful for the people to be deceived?’: Frederick II and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert on Philosophical Kingship

Tuesday 24th November 2015, Green Room, Gonville & Caius College, 5-6pm

Shiru Lim (University College London)

This paper took on the most recurrent question that commentators past and present have asked of the relationships between eighteenth-century rulers and men of letters: Could, and did, the latter bring their interest in and views on the organisation of civil society to bear upon their princely interlocutors? Examining the correspondence between Frederick II (1712-1786) and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), the paper showed how their discussions on the relationship between publicity, truth, and government highlighted the rival conceptions of philosophical kingship in eighteenth-century Europe. Culminating in Frederick’s imposing upon the Berlin Academy of Sciences the prize essay question of 1780 on the utility of popular deception (Est-il utile au peuple d’être trompé?), their correspondence highlights the shifting, porous boundaries between public and private, and the tensions between encouraging a broader Enlightenment while still maintaining control over it.

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