Enlightened absolutism

John Florens | Dec 22, 2023

Table of Content


The enlightened despotism is a political doctrine, resulting from the ideas of the philosophers of the XVIIIth century, which combines, in the one who has the power, determined force and progressive will. It was defended in particular by Voltaire and was practiced mainly by Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia and Joseph II of Austria. If Montesquieu analyzed the springs of what he called "despotism" and if Frederick II flattered himself in his writings to "enlighten the people", the association of the two terms in French seems to go back only to Madame de Staël (1818, posth.), and in German to Franz Mehring (1893). His predecessor, the German historian Wilhelm Roscher, used the term "enlightened absolutism" (1847): he saw in the enlightened absolutism of Frederick II of Prussia the culmination of an evolution of monarchical practices that began with "confessional absolutism" in the sixteenth century (that of Philip II, in particular) and then blossomed into "court absolutism" (the Versailles of Louis XIV). Enlightened despotism is also known as the "new doctrine".

A variant of despotism that developed in the mid-18th century, power was exercised by monarchs of divine right whose decisions were guided by reason and who presented themselves as the primary servants of the state. According to Henri Pirenne, "Enlightened despotism is the rationalization of the state. The main enlightened despots thus maintained an ongoing correspondence with the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and some of them even supported them financially.

Among the enlightened monarchs we find: Maria Theresa, Joseph II, Maximilian-Francis and Leopold II of Austria especially when he was Grand Duke of Tuscany, Maximilian III and Charles Theodore of Bavaria, Louis XVI of France, Philip I of Parma, Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, Charles III of Spain, Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia, Francis III and Hercules III of Modena, Charles-Emmanuel III and Victor-Amédée III of Sardinia, Frederick-Guillaume of Schaumburg-Lippe, Gustav III of Sweden.

The action of the enlightened despots is sometimes qualified as "modern" because of their philosophical inspiration and the reforms they put in place. However, the very structure of political power and society was not modified by these regimes, which were thus similar to other absolutisms of the time. They put at the service of the established order the philosophical ideas which are contemporary to them. From where this remark of Mrs. de Staël: "There are only two kinds of auxiliaries for the absolute authority, they are the priests or the soldiers. But are there not, it is said, enlightened despotisms, moderate despotisms? All these epithets, with which one flatters oneself to make illusion on the word to which one adds them, cannot give the change to the men of good sense ".

In the passage on Eldorado in his tale Candide, Voltaire paints a portrait of this ideal monarch. This king possesses the power that follows a reason that exceeds the real limits. He reigns there without financial, political or cultural problems, it is a whole.

The philosophical inspiration of the Enlightenment

The philosophy of the Enlightenment puts reason at the center of everything. It must be sovereign and thus become the principle of the organization of the State. For this to happen, the ruler must be aware of the imperfections of the system and seek to make it more rational. It is this idea that the absolute monarchs take up. They say they adhere to this rationalist thinking and want to put the authority they have acquired at the service of reason. The legitimacy that this task gives them replaces the divine justification of their power.

The enlightened rulers are presented as the first servants of the State, as Frederick II of Prussia likes to say: they are only intermediaries in charge of putting into practice the reforms that rational thought requires. Their decisions are thus not the fruit of a despotic will, but the incarnation of the reason.

With this new legitimacy inspired by the ideas of their time, the sovereigns began modernizing reforms.

Modernizing reforms

They extend in particular in the fields of agriculture (under the influence of the physiocrats), industry, economy, the organization of the State and religion

The persistence of the sovereign's pre-eminence

The enlightened despots apply new methods to serve the same goals as before: the greatness of the state and the sovereign (the power of the state involving the prestige of its sovereign). The economic development and the introduction of rationality in the mode of government serves to make up for a delay detrimental to the strength of the state, it allows to increase its wealth and its military power.

The monarch remains absolute: even if he claims to be at the service of an ideal greater than himself, he remains the total and unquestionable incarnation of the State, the codes and the administration do not limit his powers. The reforms serve primarily his own interests because the monarchs are the first owners of their Empire. Frederick II owned almost a third of the Prussian soil: any progress in agriculture enriched the king and the government. He was also a great industrialist and the main banker of the country.

The question of freedom of expression remains. For example, Empress Catherine II herself discovered and denounced Alexander Radishchev's critical writing, Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, and sued the author in summer 1790.

The persistence of the structure of the company

The nobility is an organized social group that seeks to preserve its privileges at all costs. It was hostile to any change in the organization of society and had significant means of pressure (raising taxes, concrete presence on the ground). To ensure their authority, the sovereigns had to take this into account and moderate their reforms so as not to undermine the existing social structure.

Enlightened despotism needed the nobility to implement its reform policy because it was there that it recruited its high officials and to ensure the coherence of the State in the face of the external enemy during wars. For example, it is the government that supervises the army. The army was supervised by the junkers (young nobles, sons of landowners), which reinforced the social hierarchy, as the bulk of the troops were peasants.

The reforms were largely contradictory, as they claimed to modernize the structures of the state, but continued to favor the nobility: the privileges of the nobility and the monopoly on land were strengthened and the peasants were denied any independence. The peasantry was only taken into account because it provided income for the state (taxation) and troops for the army. But the reforms did not challenge the social hierarchy in the countryside. Worse, serfdom was introduced in some regions where it did not exist, such as in New Russia (Ukraine) in 1783. Catherine II even distributed land with their lots of serfs in Little Russia.

The power of the state, however, was achieved through a weakening of the dominant social classes, but their weight forced the sovereign to spare them, either in legislation or in practice by reserving for them a share of the real authority, through functionarization or militarization. The old dominant orders are thus transformed by the experience of enlightened despotism.

Some contemporary dictators have compared themselves to enlightened despots, such as Muammar Gaddafi, leader of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. In concrete terms, enlightened despotism is an idealized regime where the monarchy of law has absolute power, certainly, but enlightened by reason. This is why enlightened despotism is the regime advocated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, as opposed to the republic, a regime considered by Voltaire, for example, as plebeian and authoritarian. It is therefore difficult to speak of contemporary enlightened despotism.

Moreover, since the French Revolution in Europe and especially since the end of the First World War, the populations and their elites have moved towards another model, that of democracy, the power of the sovereigns having become increasingly limited, to the point where the remaining dynasties have only symbolic prerogatives.

Contemporary enlightened despotism is therefore not possible in theory. The republican dictatorship that can concretely turn into a factual monarchy (not legally defined as a hereditary monarchy), as with the Duvaliers in Haiti, is of a very different essence from that of the monarchy. However, according to the Marxist historian Albert Soboul, there was one: Napoleonic despotism. Napoleon Bonaparte consolidated the social work of the Constituent Assembly.


  1. Enlightened absolutism
  2. Despotisme éclairé
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  7. ^ Perry et al. 2015, p. 442.
  8. ^ Mill 1989, p. 13.
  9. ^ World of the Habsburgs. "Joseph II: The long-awaited son". Textmode. World of the Habsburgs. Archived from the original on July 22, 2023. Retrieved 2015-10-21. Even Joseph's early writings reveal his attitude towards the office of ruler. He thought that a monarch should sacrifice everything for the welfare of his people. In keeping with his maxim 'Everything for the people, nothing by the people', he did not think that subjects should be given a voice in the political process. Joseph saw his role as that of a benevolent despot who was obliged to coerce his unwitting people for their own good.
  10. Angela Borgstedt: Das Zeitalter der Aufklärung, WBG, Darmstadt 2004, S. 21.
  11. Jacques Proust: Diderot et l’Encyclopédie. Éditions Albin Michel, Paris 1995, ISBN 2-226-07892-4, S. 443.
  12. Heinz Duchhardt: Barock und Aufklärung (= Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte, Bd. 11), 4., neu bearbeitete und erweiterte Auflage, München 2007, ISBN 978-3-486-49744-1; dagegen Angela Borgstedt: Das Zeitalter der Aufklärung, WBG, Darmstadt 2004.
  13. mit dem er sich jedoch zeitweise überwarf und eines seiner Bücher verbrennen ließ.

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