Issue 200, Spring 2012
Question: How did two “American Princes,” Oktscha Linscha and Tuski Stanaki, come to be baptized in 1725 in Dresden, Saxony, and what -became of them?
—Allgemeiner Anzeiger der Deutschen, 1817
Paul Jacob Marperger, member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, is one of those figures you could know nothing about and not really be missing anything, but when you do know him, worlds open. Born Nuremberg, 1656; died Dresden, 1730. He is sometimes tagged as the first professional economist. My favorite -description of him is from an encyclopedia of library and information science, where it is written that “he represents at least a bulge from any general trend line.” That is perfect; it has a perfect vagueness. He broke ground in too many disciplines to do anything lasting
in one of them. His literally unnumbered works earn the verdict of a nineteenth-century German critic that he was “a terrible, prolific -writer.” Yet Marperger had lived all over Europe and worked in prominent merchant firms and knew as much as anyone about the flow of international capital. There were readers at the time who considered his writings useful. Here and there in his pamphlets on social issues (lotteries, widows, the postal service), one finds good details. He pleaded with the Germans to build flat, tarred roofs that wouldn’t feed conflagrations the way their pitched wooden ones did, and besides, you could garden on them. He once wrote, in regard to the vexing problem of vandals smashing the still fairly novel oil-burning streetlights in northern Europe, this charmingly confident sentence: “The first and foremost law regarding the night lanterns is their inviolability.”
Marperger knew the foremost law of everything. He thought of it as his job. He was a founder of cameralism, a school of political philosophy that took for its ideal state a kingdom in which the ruler would be advised on all decisions by a cabinet (a chamber, a camera) of variously trained experts. It was the early eighteenth century, when European minds were opening, but in many instances, not wide enough to appreciate the vastness of human ignorance. Their all-knowingness could verge on madness. Marperger produced a series of pamphlets in the 1720s whose collective title reads (in part), “Abbildung einer, nach allem natürlichen, und politischen, auch Policen- Cammer- Commercien- und Oeconomie-Requisitis wohlbestellten, und mehrentheils . . . Vollkommenen Republic ohne daß man deßfalls auf eine platonische/utopische oder severambische &c., zu verfallen Ursach haße,” or in other words, “How to Have a Perfect Republic in Every Respect, Without Any Need for Utopian Nonsense.”
Around the year 1723 or ’24, Marperger stepped through the membrane of theory and became an actual cameralist advisor to the court of Augustus the Strong, the elector of Saxony and king of Poland and Lithuania. Augustus lived high: he kept dual palaces in Dresden and Warsaw and was said to have 365 illegitimate children (the erotic history of his reign, La Saxe Galante, became a best-selling book after he died). He needed an economist.
Marperger arrived at the Dresden court with his eldest son, the forty-year-old theologian Bernhard Walther Marperger, who also had been -offered a place in Augustus’s royal administration. The son was made head court preacher, an office that involved ministering to the little Protestant congregation there at the palace. But it came along with another and more complex set of duties, because the head court preacher automatically became president of the made-up-sounding “Supreme Consistory,” a Lutheran body charged with refereeing doctrinal controversies.
This presidency was no mere ceremonial office. In fact it had grown increasingly delicate. We may think of Lutheranism as a monolithic sect, so to speak, but in Saxony in the 1720s it had many mansions. This was the height of Pietism—a reform-minded evangelical revival within the Lutheran church—and along with the energy of that movement had come fractures. There were moderate Pietists, as exemplified by the Marpergers (one of the reasons Augustus liked the son: he wanted no trouble); radical Pietists (ready to give up their possessions and live in common like the first Christians); and academic, philosophical Pietists (often accused of atheism by the others). Nor had the old-line orthodox Lutherans gone away. They remained entrenched, suspicious of the Pietist innovations, vigilant to sniff out blasphemy. The younger Marperger complains in his letters about the condescending advice he received from them (not to be so “humble” with his wife, for instance).
Marperger learned to navigate these various intra-Protestant rifts with a mandarin efficiency and aloofness (the king had chosen well). But they were not all he had to contend with—a deeper conflict had developed. It stemmed from the strange religious situation that obtained in Dresden, strange not just to us today but to contemporaries: the Saxon elector, Augustus, prince of one of the most deeply Protestant cities in Europe, who ruled over the very cradle of Lutheranism and was its sworn protector by blood, had brazenly converted to Roman Catholicism in order to become king of Poland and Lithuania as well. There were actually two chapels within the palace, one Protestant and one Catholic. His Majesty did not attend Marperger’s services. He went to the other one.