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In this lesson you will explore the rise of the enlightened despots in Europe and discover how this apparent contradiction became a major trend.

Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

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Enlightened Absolutism

Some things just sound contradictory. ‘Jumbo shrimp’, for example.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, a new political style emerged where a monarch with absolute power worried about the individual rights of the people, called enlightened absolutism. Sounds contradictory, right? Well, they found a way to make it work, and this became a major trend.

Enlightenment and Monarchies

OK, so to understand this seemingly contradictory idea, there are two important concepts. The basis for this political trend was an intellectual movement in Europe called the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers stressed reason, analysis, and decisions based on reliable data over emotion or simply doing things because of tradition. They also supported individual rights such as religious freedom and the freedom of speech.

On the other side of this are the actual political systems of Europe. Most European nations were absolute monarchies, meaning the monarch had absolute power. This is different than a constitutional monarchy, where the power of the monarch is restricted by the constitution.So, enlightened absolutism is a political system headed by an absolute monarch that believes in Enlightenment philosophy.

The idea was first really promoted by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Voltaire wanted France to eventually become a constitutional monarchy, but did not think that was likely, so he proposed that the absolute monarch surround himself with philosophers to help make rational, reasonable decisions.We call a monarch who ruled like this an ‘enlightened monarch’ or ‘enlightened despot’. The enlightened despots tried to institute enlightenment reforms but kept all of the political power without creating a constitution. In general, enlightened despots allowed freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, and the right for individuals to own private property.

They often supported art and education and reasoned that the overall welfare of the people benefited them as monarchs.

Enlightened Despots

Although many monarchs across Europe tried systems of enlightened absolutism, three stand out as the most exemplary. First is Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1765-1790. Determined to act on behalf of the greatest good for all, Joseph instituted reforms to make education more accessible, a policy of tolerance for religion, and promotion of the German language across his empire to promote unity. Joseph also worked to free the peasants from the slave-like labor of the serfdom system, where the poor worked for a local lord who got all the profits of their labor.

Another of the great enlightened despots was Frederick II, also called ‘Frederick the Great’, who was King of Prussia from 1740-1786. Frederick modernized the Prussian government, making it possible for non-noble men to become judges and other government officials. Prussia operated very efficiently under the absolute power of Frederick, with the military and economy growing. Although he did not always respect freedoms of religion or press, Frederick was a very generous supporter of art and philosophy, openly encouraging the spread of the Enlightenment in Prussia.The third great enlightened despot was Catherine II, or ‘Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia’. Catherine ruled Russia from 1762-1796, and her reign was so prosperous that it is remembered as Russia’s Golden Age. Catherine modernized Russia along European models, founding several important cities that were filled with marvelous Russian art, architecture, and music.

During this time, Russia grew in size, became more politically and economically stable, and emerged as one of the great powers of the world. Catherine was also a major supporter of education and founded the first state-sponsored institution of higher education for women in Europe, called the ‘Smolny Institute’. Under Catherine, the Russian court housed many of Europe’s most prominent artists, economists, scientists, and philosophers, including Voltaire himself.

Lesson Summary

During the 17th and 18th centuries, an intellectual philosophy called the Enlightenment swept over Europe. It promoted reason, analysis, and individual rights, and philosophers like Voltaire encouraged governments to use it. Many did. Notably, the Enlightenment was adopted by several absolute monarchs, or monarchs with total power.

The absolute monarchs who used Enlightenment philosophy were called enlightened despots and generally supported policies of religious freedom, freedom of speech, education, and art.Three of the greatest enlightened despots are Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, King of Prussia, and Catherine II, Empress of Russia. These monarchs ruled with absolute power but still supported many individual rights for their people and sponsored art, education, and philosophy in their realms. For the enlightened despots, absolute power and individual rights turned out to be pretty complimentary, after all.

Learning Outcomes

Study this lesson on Europe’s enlightened despots so that you can:

  • Examine the concept of enlightened absolutism
  • Remember Voltaire’s views on constitutional monarchies
  • Discuss the reigns of the three most prominent enlightened despots

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