The Reading Room

The “Enlightened Absolutism” of the Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century was the age of “enlightened absolutism” in Russia and the German-speaking states. Its noteworthy practitioners included Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia,  Catherine II (the Great) of Russia, and Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire.
If “enlightened absolutism,” also called “enlightened despotism,” sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is. At the time, though, it seemed like an improvement over the system of power by divine right, where rulers had little concern for the people under them. In practice, it offered only inconsistent improvements, and it modernized the justification for concentrating power in the ruler. In the twentieth century, Germany and Russia came under two of the most brutal authoritarian states in history, partly because of the examples their eighteenth-century predecessors set.
The Enlightenment strongly affected European thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the doctrine of divine right didn’t fit well with its emphasis on reason. Monarchs began to represent the state as a machine requiring central direction, which they provided. The most prominent advocate of this view was Thomas Hobbes, who claimed an absolute ruler was necessary to forestall a “war of all against all.” Voltaire promoted the idea in his correspondence with Frederick and Catherine. Perhaps he thought that if he couldn’t stop them from being absolutist, he could at least enlighten them a little.
The new concept gave the people somewhat more freedom than they had had under previous rulers, but the results were inconsistent at best. Frederick supported religious tolerance in Prussia but was hostile to Jews. He abolished serfdom in the royal domains but left it otherwise untouched. He reformed the judiciary but imposed heavy taxes. Catherine II, who was German by birth, modernized governmental structures and promoted culture but did little to advance freedom in her country. The institution of serfdom remained basically untouched during her reign.
The Habsburg rulers in Vienna, Maria Theresa and Joseph II, were less absolutist, if only because they held less power. By the eighteenth century, the emperor was really just the leader of a confederation of largely independent states. The ongoing conflict with Prussia, especially the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, showed how precarious the Habsburgs’ hold on power was. Joseph broadened religious toleration and tried to improve the legal status of peasants, though he encountered strong opposition and ultimately deemed his efforts a failure. Napoleon forced the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. 
Enlightened despotism is similar in theory to Plato’s idea of the philosopher king. In the Republic, Plato had Socrates argue that society should be ruled by an elite of the most virtuous people. These rulers had to be philosophers, since they loved truth and were immune to the temptations of power. Philosophy was, of course, Plato’s profession.
While enlightened absolutism is dead as an explicit position, it kept the idea of the “great leader” alive far beyond the eighteenth century. A little less than two centuries after Frederick and Catherine, Hitler came to power in Germany and Stalin in Russia. Hitler greatly admired Frederick. 
Karl Marx thought that the working class would put the enlightenment into absolutism. He advocated the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a transitional phase between capitalism and true Communism. During that phase, actions and ideas incompatible with the “classless society” would be brutally suppressed. In practice, it was merely tyranny with a new set of excuses.
History has shown that absolute power is deadly, no matter how “enlightened” the people who wield it are. The self-contradictory nature of the idea slowly yielded to the idea that a government is answerable to its people. While despotism still exists in many places, it now has to find other excuses.