Enlightened absolutism

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Enlightened absolutism (also called benevolent absolutism by modern historians) is a form of absolute monarchy or despotism inspired by the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs embrace rationality. Most enlightened monarchs fostered education and allowed religious tolerance, freedom of speech and the right to hold private property.


The concept of enlightened absolutism was formally described by the German historian Wilhelm Roscher in 1847[1] and remains controversial among scholars.[2] Roscher was presaged by Voltaire, a prominent Enlightenment philosopher who felt enlightened monarchy was the only real way for society to advance.

Enlightened absolutists held that royal power emanated not from divine right but from a social contract whereby a despot was entrusted with the power to govern through a social contract in lieu of any other governments.

The difference between an absolutist and an enlightened absolutist is based on a broad analysis of the degree to which they embraced the Age of Enlightenment. For example, although Empress Catherine II of Russia entirely rejected the concept of the social contract, she embraced many ideas of the Enlightenment, being one of the great patron of the arts in Imperial Russia and incorporating many ideas of enlightened philosophers, especially Montesquieu, in her Nakaz, which was intended to revise Russian law.

In effect, the monarchs of enlightened absolutism strengthened their authority by improving the lives of their subjects. This philosophy implied that the sovereign knew the interests of his or her subjects better than they themselves did. The monarch taking responsibility for the subjects 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 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.[3] Other rulers like the Marquis of Pombal, prime minister of Portugal, used the ideas and practices of the Enlightenment not only to achieve reforms but also to enhance autocracy, crush opposition, suppress criticism, advance 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.[4][5]

Major nations[edit]

Governmental responses to the Age of Enlightenment varied widely. In France, the government's posture was one of hostility, and the philosophers fought government censorship. The British government generally ignored the Enlightenment's leaders.

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.[6] Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, was an enthusiast of French ideas (he ridiculed German culture, unaware of the remarkable advances it was undergoing). Voltaire, a French philosopher out of favor in France, eagerly accepted 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."[7]

Charles III, King of Spain from 1759 to 1788, sought to rescue his empire from decay through ambitious reforms such as weakening the Church and its monasteries, promoting science and university research, facilitating trade and commerce, modernizing agriculture, and avoiding war. Spain relapsed into former patterns after his death.[8] Empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796, had an enthusiastic response toward Enlightenment ideas.

Emperor Joseph II, ruler of Austria from 1780 to 1790, was over-enthusiastic, announcing so many reforms with so little support that revolts broke out and his regime reverted to a comedy of errors.[9]

Senior ministers, such as Joseph I of Portugal's prime minister, Marquis of Pombal, and Struensee in Denmark, did govern amicably with Enlightenment ideals.

Associated rulers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ A. Lentin (ed.), Enlightened Absolutism (1760-1790), Aveiro, 1985, p. ix.
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ H.M. Scott, ed., Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe, (University of Michigan Press, 1990)
  4. ^ Reprinted in Isaac Kramnick, ed. The Portable Enlightenment Reader (1995) part;y online
  5. ^ Reprinted in Isaac Kramnick (1995). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-024566-0. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  6. ^ Stephen J. Lee, Aspects of European history, 1494–1789 (1990) pp. 258-66
  7. ^ Giles MacDonogh, Frederick the Great: A Life in Deed and Letters (2001) p 341
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Nicholas Henderson, "Joseph II", History Today (March 1991) 41:21–27
  10. ^ McKay, "A History of Western Society", Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p.616-619
  11. ^ a b c d H.M. Scott, 1990, p. 1.
  12. ^ H.M. Scott, 1990, p. 265ff
  13. ^ a b H. Arnold Barton, Scandinavia in the Revolutionary Era 1760-1815, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p.142ff. ISBN 0-8166-1392-3.
  14. ^ Bearne, Catherine Mary (1907). A Sister of Marie Antoinette: The Life-Story of Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples. T. Fisher Unwin: London, p 142.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)