Enlightened despotism

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How did the Enlightenment influence political developments?
The philosophes were primarily interested in converting people to critical "scientific" thinking and therefore were not concerned with politics.
However, such thinking naturally led to political criticism and interest in political reform.
Educated people, who were primarily nobility and middle class came to regard political change as both possible and desirable.
Most of the philosphes favored neither Montesquieu's reformed aristocracy nor Rousseau's democracy
Enlightened thinkers believed that political change should come from above--from the ruler--rather than from below.
Voltaire was a very strong monarchist

Diderot had visited Catherine in Russia

They were friends of royality and did not wish to limit their power but rather to redirect it toward the:

1. rationalization of economic & political structures

2. liberation of intellectual life
Enlightened Absolutism (Enlightened Despotism) is the term applied to this idea. The phrase indicated monarchical government dedicated to the rational strengthening of the central absolutist administration at the cost of other lesser centers of political power.
The work of the "Enlightened Despots" was a general veneer.

1. Frederick correspondes with the philosophes

housed Voltaire at his court

wrote history and political essays

2. Catherine was a master at public relations

she consciously sought to create an image of being


she read works of Diderot and Voltaire

made frequent references to them in writing

and speeches

this was all in the hope that her nation might seem

to be more modern and western

3. Joseph II undertook a series of religious, legal

and social reforms that were believed to have come

from his contact with the philosophes

Why was this so?

1. royal absolutism was a fact of life

kings and queens were not ablout to give up power

2. philosophes believed that benevolent absolutism

offered the best chance for change

Critical thinking was the art of turning good

government into an exact science

Thus it was necesary to only educate the monarch
3. philosophes turned to the rulers because they

seemed to be listening

4. the philosophes distrusted the masses who they saw

as enchained by the supersitions of the priests

worse, they thought of the "people" as guided by

violent passions rather than by critical thinking


In spite of their personal differences the leading monarchs of the late 18th century all claerly believed that they were acting on the principals of the enlightenment
The philosophes agreed and generally cheered them on in their efforts
Enlightened monarchs especially Frederick and Catherine encouraged the spread of cultural values.

Perhaps this was their greatest achievement

They were skeptical of religion

sought the here and now

they found their happiness in the enjoyment of life
They tried to make life better for their subjects by enacting needed reforms. They had their greatest success in Prussia and in the general area of religious toleration
Still the gap between the privileged nobility and the heavily burdened people remained as great as ever
Most historians believe that they were not really sincere in their efforts. This particularily applies to Catherine but probably not to Joseph II. Frederick's biographer states that he was genuinely concerned for his subjects
European monarchs dramaticaly strengthened their authority in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

(except for England, Holland and Poland)

Absolute monarchs reduced some of the power of the nobility, the only political group that mattered.
Still royal absolutism never touched the social and economic privileges of the nobility in any fundamental way.
Thus power of even the best monarch was balanced and restrained by the social and economic power of the nobles.
Therefore social and economic reforms were of necessity limited and superficial. Powerful nobles simply would not allow it to be otherwise
Remember that both nobles and monarchs owed their position to tradition and one could not be secure at the expense of the other. This explains why monarchs who built absolutists states turned to nobles to lead their armies.
Enlightened Despots sought rational economic and social integration of their realms so that they could wage more efficient future wars--a policy hated by the philosophes
Remember that all of the states of Europe had emerged fromthe 7 Years War understanding that they would require stronger armed forces for the next conflict and looking for new sources of taxation to finance those armies. The search for revenues and further political support led these monarchs to make "enlightened" reforms

Note that Frederick liked to refer to himself as:

"The first servant of the state"

Montesquieu summed it all up in one famous line:

"No monarchy, no nobility; no nobility, no monarchy."

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