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Enlightened absolutism (also called by later historians benevolent despotism or enlightened despotism) is a form of absolute monarchy or despotism in which rulers were influenced by the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs embraced the principles of the Enlightenment, especially its emphasis upon rationality, 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—formally delineated by German historian Wilhelm Roscher in 1847 —remains controversial among scholars. Roscher was presaged by Voltaire, the prominent Enlightenment philosopher who felt enlightened monarchy was the only real way for society to advance, and by Mozart's The Magic Flute, whose libretto was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, which can be regarded as an allegory advocating enlightened absolutism.
The difference between an absolutist and an enlightened absolutist is based on a broad analysis of how far they embraced the Age of Enlightenment. For example, although Empress Catherine II of Russia entirely rejected the concept of the social contract, she took up many ideas of the Enlightenment, being a great patron of the arts in Imperial Russia and incorporating many ideas of enlightened philosophers, especially Montesquieu, in her Nakaz, 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 her or his subjects better than they themselves; her or his responsibility to them thus precluded their political participation.
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 the Marquis of Pombal, prime minister of Joseph I 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.
Government responses to the Age of Enlightenment varied widely. In France, the government was hostile, and the philosophers fought against government 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 from 1740 to 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, 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 from 1762 to 1796, was enthusiastic. Emperor Joseph II, ruler of Austria from 1780 to 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, such as Joseph I of Portugal's Marquis of Pombal, and Struensee in Denmark, governed according to Enlightenment ideals.
Rulers associated with enlightened absolutism
- Catherine II of Russia
- Carlos III of Spain
- Frederick the Great of Prussia
- Frederick VI of Denmark
- Gustav III of Sweden
- Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor of Austria
- Joseph I of Portugal
- Leopold I, Grand Duke of Tuscany
- Louis XVI of France
- Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples
- Christian VII of Denmark (through his minister Johann Friedrich Struensee)
- A. Lentin (ed.), Enlightened Absolutism (1760-1790), Avero, 1985, p. ix.
- Charles Ingrao, "The Problem of 'Enlightened Absolutism and the German States," Journal of Modern History Vol. 58, Supplement: Politics and Society in the Holy Roman Empire, 1500-1806 (Dec., 1986), pp. S161-S180 in JSTOR
- H.M. Scott, ed., Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe, (University of Michigan Press, 1990)
- Reprinted in Isaac Kramnick, ed. The Portable Enlightenment Reader (1995) part;y online
- Reprinted in Isaac Kramnick (1995). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-024566-0. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
- Stephen J. Lee, Aspects of European history, 1494–1789 (1990) pp. 258-66
- Giles MacDonogh, Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters (2001) p 341
- Nicholas Henderson, "Charles III of Spain: An Enlightened Despot," History Today, Nov 1968, Vol. 18 Issue 10, p673–682 and Issue 11, pp 760–768
- Nicholas Henderson, "Joseph II", History Today (March 1991) 41:21–27
- McKay, "A History of Western Society", Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p.616-619
- H.M. Scott, 1990, p. 1.
- H.M. Scott, 1990, p. 265ff
- H. Arnold Barton, Scandinavia in the Revolutionary Era 1760-1815, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p.142ff. ISBN 0-8166-1392-3.
- Bearne, Catherine Mary (1907). A Sister of Marie Antoinette: The Life-Story of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples. T. Fisher Unwin: London, p 142.
- 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)