Enlightened despotism

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Enlightened despotism (also called benevolent despotism by modern historians) was the use of Enlightenment ideas and principles by monarchs to enhance the central government's power and thereby their own.[1] It is directly linked to the Enlightenment period in the 18th and early 19th century. An enlightened despot is a non-democratic or authoritarian leader who exercises his or her political power for the benefit of the people rather than exclusively for his or her self-interest or benefit or for the benefit of only a small portion of the people. An enlightened despot may, for example, focus government priorities on matters of public importance. These matters include healthcare, education, population control, or physical infrastructure. He or she may be committed to peaceful relations, rather than wars or invasions of other states, and may even allow for some democratic decision-making to exist, such as through public referendums.

Enlightened despots were monarchs who distinguished themselves from despots (in the ordinary sense) by the way they governed. They ruled (or claimed to rule) for the well-being of their subjects. As John Stuart Mill had articulated, "despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement".[2]

Enlightened rulers may have played a part in the abolition of serfdom in Europe.[3]

Although their reigns were based upon Enlightenment principles, their beliefs about royal power were similar to those of regular despots. Enlightened despots believed that they were destined to be ruler the moment they were born.

Emperor Joseph II once said: "Everything for the people, nothing by the people".[4]

Famous enlightened despots[edit]


Most dictatorial regimes portray themselves as enlightened and often tend to regard democratic regimes as messy, inefficient, and corrupt. Additionally, many dictators may attempt to openly spread misinformation about their Enlightenment in an attempt to create a personality cult.

Like many political classifications, the title of enlightened despot suffers from its inherent subjectivity. Leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, Benito Mussolini (at least until the war against Ethiopia), António Salazar, Francisco Franco, Isaias Afwerki, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew, Mao Zedong, Pervez Musharraf, Hugo Chavez and the Medici dynasty have been characterized by some as enlightened despots. In all these cases it depends largely on one's point of view as to just how "enlightened" or "dictatorial" they were or are. In many cases dictators who serve in office for a very lengthy period are more likely to be regarded as enlightened, for the simple reason that they will often be forced to pay some attention to the public interest in order to remain in power, and more importantly, to be regarded as politically legitimate. Dictators who hold office for a brief period of time, or are simply members of a rotating dictatorial elite (for example, some juntas) may have less charismatic authority and prove to be forgettable and easier to demonize.

In the Spanish language, the word dictablanda is sometimes used for a dictatorship that preserves some of the liberties and mechanisms of democracy. (The pun is that, in Spanish, dictadura is "dictatorship", dura is "hard" and blanda is "soft").


  1. ^ Perry, Chase & Jacob 2015, p. 442.
  2. ^ Mill 1989, p. 13.
  3. ^ http://www.1902encyclopedia.com/S/SLA/slavery-12.html
  4. ^ World of the Habsburgs. "Joseph II: The long-awaited son". Textmode. World of the Habsburgs. Retrieved 2015-10-21. ‘Everything for the people, nothing by the people’