Enlightened absolutism

Enlightened absolutism

Overview
Enlightened absolutism is a form of absolute monarchy
Absolute monarchy
Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government, his or her power not being limited by a constitution or by the law. An absolute monarch thus wields unrestricted political power over the...

 or despotism
Despotism
Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy...

 in which rulers were influenced by the Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

. Enlightened monarchs embraced the principles of the Enlightenment, especially its emphasis upon rationality
Rationality
In philosophy, rationality is the exercise of reason. It is the manner in which people derive conclusions when considering things deliberately. It also refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons for belief, or with one's actions with one's reasons for action...

, and applied them to their territories. They tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Most fostered the arts, sciences, and education.

The concept—invented by German historians in the 1870s—remains controversial among scholars.

Enlightened absolutists held that royal power emerged not from divine right but from a social contract whereby the ruler had a duty to govern wisely.

The difference between an absolutist
Absolutism (European history)
Absolutism or The Age of Absolutism is a historiographical term used to describe a form of monarchical power that is unrestrained by all other institutions, such as churches, legislatures, or social elites...

 and an enlightened absolutist is based on a broad analysis of how far they embraced the Age of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

.
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Encyclopedia
Enlightened absolutism is a form of absolute monarchy
Absolute monarchy
Absolute monarchy is a monarchical form of government in which the monarch exercises ultimate governing authority as head of state and head of government, his or her power not being limited by a constitution or by the law. An absolute monarch thus wields unrestricted political power over the...

 or despotism
Despotism
Despotism is a form of government in which a single entity rules with absolute power. That entity may be an individual, as in an autocracy, or it may be a group, as in an oligarchy...

 in which rulers were influenced by the Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

. Enlightened monarchs embraced the principles of the Enlightenment, especially its emphasis upon rationality
Rationality
In philosophy, rationality is the exercise of reason. It is the manner in which people derive conclusions when considering things deliberately. It also refers to the conformity of one's beliefs with one's reasons for belief, or with one's actions with one's reasons for action...

, and applied them to their territories. They tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Most fostered the arts, sciences, and education.

The concept—invented by German historians in the 1870s—remains controversial among scholars.

Enlightened absolutists held that royal power emerged not from divine right but from a social contract whereby the ruler had a duty to govern wisely.

The difference between an absolutist
Absolutism (European history)
Absolutism or The Age of Absolutism is a historiographical term used to describe a form of monarchical power that is unrestrained by all other institutions, such as churches, legislatures, or social elites...

 and an enlightened absolutist is based on a broad analysis of how far they embraced the Age of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

. For example, although Empress Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II of Russia
Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great , Empress of Russia, was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia on as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg...

 entirely rejected the concept of the social contract, she took up many ideas of the Enlightenment
Russian Enlightenment
The Russian Age of Enlightenment was a period in the eighteenth century in which the government began to actively encourage the proliferation of arts and sciences. This time gave birth to the first Russian university, library, theatre, public museum, and relatively independent press...

, being a great patron of the arts in Imperial Russia
Russian Empire
The Russian Empire was a state that existed from 1721 until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was the successor to the Tsardom of Russia and the predecessor of the Soviet Union...

 and incorporating many ideas of enlightened philosophers, especially Montesquieu
Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu
Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu , generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French social commentator and political thinker who lived during the Enlightenment...

, in her Nakaz
Nakaz
Nakaz, or Instruction, of Catherine the Great was a statement of legal principles authored by Catherine II of Russia, and permeated with the ideas of the French Enlightenment. It was compiled as a guide for the All-Russian Legislative Commission convened in 1767 for the purpose of replacing the...

, which was meant to revise Russian law.

In effect, the monarchs ruled with the intent of improving the lives of their subjects in order to strengthen or reinforce their authority. Implicit in this philosophy was that the sovereign knew the interests of his subjects better than they themselves; his responsibility to them thus precluded their political participation.

Voltaire
Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...

 was a prominent Enlightenment philosopher who felt enlightened monarchy was the only real way for society to advance.

However, historians debate the actual implementation of enlightened absolutism. They distinguish between the "enlightenment" of the ruler personally, versus that of his or her regime. For example, Frederick II, "The Great," of Prussia was tutored in the ideas of the French Enlightenment in his youth, and maintained those ideas in his private life as an adult, but in many ways was unable or unwilling to effect enlightened reforms in practice. Others rulers like Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the prime minister of Portugal, used the enlightenment not only to achieve reforms but also to enhance autocracy, crush opposition, suppress criticism, further colonial economic exploitation, and consolidate personal control and profit.

Enlightened absolutism is the theme of an essay by Frederick the Great defending this system of government.

Major nations


Government responses to the Age of Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 varied widely. In France the government was hostile, and the philosophes fought against its censorship. The British government generally ignored the Enlightenment's leaders.

However in several nations with powerful rulers—called "enlightened despots" by historians—leaders of the Enlightenment were welcomed at Court and helped design laws and programs to reform the system, typically to build stronger national states. Frederick the Great--who ruled Prussia 1740-1786, was an enthusiast for French ideas (he ridiculed German culture and was unaware of the remarkable advances it was undergoing). Voltaire, who had been imprisoned and maltreated by the French government, was eager to accept Frederick's invitation to live at his palace. Frederick explained, "My principal occupation is to combat ignorance and prejudice ... to enlighten minds, cultivate morality, and to make people as happy as it suits human nature, and as the means at my disposal permit." Charles III
Charles III of Spain
Charles III was the King of Spain and the Spanish Indies from 1759 to 1788. He was the eldest son of Philip V of Spain and his second wife, the Princess Elisabeth Farnese...

, king of Spain from 1759 to 1788, tried to rescue his empire from decay through far-reaching reforms such as weakening the Church and its monasteries, promoting science and university research, facilitating trade and commerce, modernizing agriculture and avoiding wars. Spain relapsed after his death. Empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia 1762-1796 was enthusiastic. Emperor Joseph II
Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor
Joseph II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790. He was the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis I...

, ruler of Austria 1780-1790, was over-enthusiastic, announcing so many reforms that had so little support that revolts broke out and his regime became a comedy of errors. Senior ministers Pombal in Portugal and Struensee in Denmark
Johann Friedrich Struensee
Count Johann Friedrich Struensee was a German doctor. He became royal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark and a minister in the Danish government. He rose in power to a position of “de facto” regent of the country, where he tried to carry out widespread reforms...

 governed according to Enlightenment ideals.

Rulers associated with enlightened absolutism

  • Catherine II of Russia
    Catherine II of Russia
    Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great , Empress of Russia, was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Prussia on as Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg...

  • Carlos III of Spain
  • Frederick the Great of Prussia
  • Frederick VI of Denmark
    Frederick VI of Denmark
    Frederick VI reigned as King of Denmark , and as king of Norway .-Regent of Denmark:Frederick's parents were King Christian VII and Caroline Matilda of Wales...

  • Gustav III of Sweden
    Gustav III of Sweden
    Gustav III was King of Sweden from 1771 until his death. He was the eldest son of King Adolph Frederick and Queen Louise Ulrica of Sweden, she a sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia....

  • Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor of Austria
    Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor
    Joseph II was Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790 and ruler of the Habsburg lands from 1780 to 1790. He was the eldest son of Empress Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis I...

  • Leopold I, Grand Duke of Tuscany
    Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor
    Leopold II , born Peter Leopold Joseph Anton Joachim Pius Gotthard, was Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary and Bohemia from 1790 to 1792, Archduke of Austria and Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790. He was a son of Emperor Francis I and his wife, Empress Maria Theresa...

  • Maria Carolina of Austria
    Maria Carolina of Austria
    Maria Carolina of Austria was Queen of Naples and Sicily as the wife of King Ferdinand IV & III. As de facto ruler of her husband's kingdoms, Maria Carolina oversaw the promulgation of many reforms, including the revocation of the ban on Freemasonry, the enlargement of the navy under her...

    , Queen of Naples
  • Napoleon I of France
    Napoleon I of France
    Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution.As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815...

  • Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, Minister of the Kingdom of Portugal
  • Louis XIV of France
    Louis XIV of France
    Louis XIV , known as Louis the Great or the Sun King , was a Bourbon monarch who ruled as King of France and Navarre. His reign, from 1643 to his death in 1715, began at the age of four and lasted seventy-two years, three months, and eighteen days...

  • Maria Theresa of Austria
    Maria Theresa of Austria
    Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma...


Further reading

  • John G. Gagliardo. Enlightened despotism (1967)
  • Leo Gershoy. From despotism to revolution, 1763-1789 (1963)
  • H. M. Scott, ed. Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe (1990)