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Enlightened absolutism (also known as 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.

Enlightened absolutists' beliefs about royal power were often similar to those of absolute monarchs, in that many believed that they had the right to govern by birth and generally refused to grant constitutions, seeing even the most pro-monarchy ones as being an inherent check on their power. The difference between an absolutist and an enlightened absolutist is based on a broad analysis of how far they embraced Enlightenment. In particular, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II can be said to have fully embraced the enlightened concept of the social contract . In contrast, Empress Catherine II of Russia entirely rejected the concept of the social contract while taking up many ideas of the Enlightenment, for example by being a great patron of the arts in Imperial Russiamarker and incorporating many ideas of enlightened philosophers, especially Montesquieu, in her Nakaz, to a committee 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. For example, the abolition of serfdom in some regions of Europe was achieved by enlightened rulers. In the spirit of enlightened absolutism, Emperor Joseph II said, "Everything for the people, nothing by the people."

Voltaire was a prominent Enlightenment philosopher who felt enlightened despotism was the only real way for society to advance.

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.

Criticism and debates

One of the things that are considered to make enlightened absolutism unfeasable as a long-term government solution is the dependence on a single, ideal persona. Since the despots are regular people themselves, they are subject to making mistakes. And even if the ruler is outstanding, his death is likely to eventually negate his achievements, since he or she is seldom followed by a ruler of the same quality.

Isaac Asimov, in his SciFi short story "The Evitable Conflict" has speculated on a future where the task of absolute rule is entrusted to very evolved artificial intelligence, which is as close to perfection as possible, while at the same time being practically immortal.

Enlightened absolutists

A few examples of rulers that were little or not at all influenced by the Enlightenment but seem to have shared some important characteristics with the Enlightened Absolutists:

See also


  1. Scott, H.M. (ed.), Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990)
  2. H. Arnold Barton, Scandinavia in the Revolutionary Era 1760-1815, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p.142ff. ISBN 0-8166-1392-3.
  3. H.M. Scott, 1990, p. 265ff
  4. H. Arnold Barton, Scandinavia in the Revolutionary Era 1760-1815, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p.142ff. ISBN 0-8166-1392-3.

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