Notes on Voltaire’s theory of ‘Enlightened Despotism’ Wolno Some history



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Notes on Voltaire’s theory of ‘Enlightened Despotism’ Wolno
Some history:

Also known as ‘Benevolent Despotism’ or ‘Enlightened Absolutism’, this general theory was inspired by Voltaire’s writing and further reinforced first-hand during his visits to the courts of various monarchs around Europe in the 1700’s. The Hapsburg dynasty in Austria, specifically during the reigns of Maria Theresa and later her son, Joseph II, subscribed to this form of governing, as did Frederick the Great (a personal friend of Voltaire’s) in the German state of Prussia. So did Russian empress Catherine the Great, and some of the Bourbon rulers of Spain. The Bourbon dynasty also supplied France with its royal bloodline; however—somewhat ironically considering this kinship and the fact that Voltaire was a Frenchman—France’s monarchs were not interested in experimenting with this form of rule. Voltaire was a sharp critic and at times found himself jailed or exiled by French authorities.


The bones of the philosophy:

Essentially, enlightened despotism is a form of absolute rule by a single person who consults with advisors and makes decisions without having to face debate or political opposition. In the absence of an aristocracy, this ruler would not be put into a position of having to serve the interests of a peerage (nobility), and could concentrate on the general population only.


As the term ‘enlightened despotism’ suggests, these rulers were expected to follow the principles of the Enlightenment era which were primarily influenced by rationality, religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, the right to citizenship and private property, and which fostered the arts, sciences (natural philosophy), and widespread education (or to put a philosophical label on all these things: Humanism). The ‘social contract’ between such a despot and his/her countrymen would be that’s/he would enjoy the material privileges traditionally afforded to a monarch but in return would rule in a way that served the will of the general public and which empowered its individual members.
The biggest difference between previous philosophies attached to monarchical rule was that this position was no longer believed to be sanctioned by ‘divine right’; i.e. God’s approval. Voltaire, like many of the political and social philosophers of his day, strongly opposed the overlap of church and state. Therefore, if a despot was not thought to be doing a good job of serving the population’s interests, his/her ‘contract’ would be terminated and s/he would be replaced.
Rationale behind the philosophy:

Voltaire was fiercely humanistic in that he strongly supported individual rights. However, he considered it naïve to think that a) everyone’s interests were the same and that b) everyone was interested or informed about political issues that affected their lives. This is summed up in Voltaire’s most famous quote, which is “I may not agree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”. It follows then that Voltaire believed in the people but not in democracy. A democratic system he believed would bog a nation down. There would be too many dissenting voices, too many special interest groups, too much debate and not enough decision-making and efficiency of progress. Also, if given the vote, many citizens would not vote for a candidate for the right reasons. Being popular was by no means a guarantee that a successful candidate would be effective at leading and serving a sector of the population. Certainly Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ would have had a very tough time finding themselves elected to office since their energies would be wasted trying to master the art of ‘shmooze’.


Problems with the application of this philosophy:

If a despot who by definition would have absolute control over a country’s institutions, including its military organizations, found him/herself no longer in the favour of the masses, it is possible—if not probable—that s/he may not be willing to step down from the position. This of course could easily result in violent revolution or civil war. Since there would be no vote in a country led by absolute despotism, what means would a population have to vote a ruler out of power and elect a replacement? Sadly, these are practicalities that Voltaire did not address, nor did fellow Enlightenment philosopher, Englishman John Locke, who had a very similar ‘social contract’ theory.


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