Enlightened Absolutism

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Enlightened Absolutism


in several European absolutist states in the second half of the 18th century, a policy that pursued the ideas of the Enlightenment. The policy of enlightened absolutism entailed the implementation of reforms that abolished the most obsolete feudal institutions and that sometimes resulted in progress toward the development of bourgeois society.

In the 18th century, many representatives of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire, advocated the idea of a state headed by an “enlightened monarch” who would be capable of transforming public life on the basis of new, rational principles. With the fragmentation of feudalism, the maturation of the capitalist structure, and the spread of Enlightenment ideas, even the European monarchs were forced to consider making reforms. In a number of countries, feudal monopolies and some of the privileges of certain social estates were abolished, and peasant reforms were carried out. Ecclesiastical reforms were implemented (the subordination of the church to the state, the secularization of church lands, the expulsion of the Jesuits, and the elimination of monastic orders). School instruction and court and legal proceedings were reformed, and there was progress toward religious toleration and the relaxation of censorship. State policies sometimes reflected the ideas of the Physiocrats.

Reforms in the spirit of enlightened absolutism were carried out in a number of countries, including Prussia (during the early reign of Frederick II), Austria (beginning with the reign of Maria Theresa, and especially during the reign of Joseph II), Spain (under Charles III and the Enlightenment thinkers and statesmen P. Abarco de Bolea [the count of Aranda], P. Campomanes, and J. Moñino de Floridablanca), and Portugal (under S. J. de Carvalho, the marquis of Pombal). Enlightened absolutism was also characteristic of Denmark (under the ministers A. Bernstorff and J. F. Struensee, as well as the regent, Prince Frederick), Sweden (Gustavus III), and Russia (Catherine II’s policies during the 1760’s).

Some of the reforms associated with enlightened absolutism contributed objectively to the development of the capitalist structure, but feudal despotism prevailed in the policies of the enlightened sovereigns. The incompatibility between Enlightenment principles and absolutist regimes was most sharply manifested in Prussia under Frederick II. When the feudal absolutist state undertook reforms that infringed on the interests of the nobility, and especially when the reforms assumed a distinctly bourgeois character (for example, A. R. J. Turgot’s reforms of 1774–76 in France), feudal circles expressed resolute opposition, and ultimately the reforms were not implemented.

In general, the policy of enlightened absolutism was successful only in countries where the bourgeoisie was in a comparatively early stage of development. Even in these countries, the period of enlightened absolutism was brief. With the collapse of the feudal absolutist system as a result of the French Revolution, European monarchs abandoned their “liberal” undertakings in the spirit of enlightened absolutism. Almost everywhere the policy of enlightened absolutism gave way to open feudal reaction. In Russia the turning point was the suppression of the Peasant War under the leadership of E. I. Pugachev (1773–75).


Mittenzwei, J. “Über das Problem des aufgeklärten Absolutismus.” Zeitschrift fur Geschichtswissenschaft, 1970, no. 9.
Druzhinin, N. M. “Prosveshchennyi absoliutizm v Rossii.” In the collection Absoliutizm v Rossii (XVII-XVIII vv.). Moscow, 1964.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The creator of Prussian Enlightened Absolutism, Frederick the Great, made the Prussian way of ruling even more efficient.
Thus, as the regalist ilustrados of the Bourbon bureaucracy made inroads for Enlightened Absolutism in the domain of the Catholic Church, they pushed the proverbial envelope, creating controversy through their attempts at religious reform not directly endorsed by Rome (9), and in the process produced enemies and alienated friends both at home and abroad.
In terms of evaluating the play's relationship to other dramas of the period according to Luserke's and Marx's criteria, Die Soldaten heralds a break away from the politically marginalized, even impotent stance of the Sturm und Drang and a first step towards the Aufklarung, in the wider sense of the political debate and practical governance of enlightened absolutism. Whereas in July 1775 Lenz had exclaimed that Die Soldaten was unreservedly 'wahr', by March the following year, in a candid moment whilst on the road to Weimar, he admitted to Herder that this was perhaps not so accurate a statement.
Often, what is implicitly described as unique is actually a pan-European phenomenon, whether it be enlightened absolutism in the eighteenth century conservative reaction following the Congress of Vienna, or terrorism in the last third of the nineteenth century.
Local histories explained institutional poor relief as examples of an increasingly enlightened absolutism. Cavallo outlines a far more nuanced process that takes into account successive conflicts between the city and the court (1540s-1620s), between groups within the elite (1620s-1720s), and between the royal bureaucrats and the administrators and patrons of traditional charitable institutions (1720s-1789).
Georg Cavallar shows how Kant's explicit praise of Frederick the Great disguises deeper criticisms in "Kant's Judgment on Frederick's Enlightened Absolutism," History of Political Thought 24 (1993).
Professor Franz Szabo of Carleton University argues that Kaunitz was very much more than that: as Chancellor of State, Szabo argues, he was the moving force behind the modernization of the Habsburg dominions across 40 years, a reformer of genius, an adherent of 'enlightened absolutism' (which, Szabo insists, had a coherent meaning for contemporaries), and nothing less than its boldest and most successful proponent in eighteenth-century Europe.
Rather than the term "enlightened despotism," some authorities prefer the term "enlightened absolutism." The concept of the "despot" raises, for them, an image of individual rulers who act wantonly and arbitrarily, while they feel that "absolutist" rulers are those who, strictly speaking, are politically unrestricted but may feel bound by some sense of law and the rights and interests of individuals within their respective societies.(7) Furthermore, there is a need to appreciate the specific reference that the term "enlightened" raises.
As in Austria, where the system is in many ways a distant cousin of ours, it meant a kind of enlightened absolutism or paternalism in which cultural goals were formulated and their implementation controlled by the organs of the democratic state.
The book opens with a wide-ranging account of the task of culture in the context of eighteenth century enlightened absolutism that marked German political life of the day.
These elites, which in large measure were the product of enlightened absolutism, now aspired to greater influence and felt frustrated by the royal monopoly on power.
In the process she shows that while the forces of tradition and immutability inhibiting change generally seemed to have the upper hand, a subtler dynamic initiated by the far-reaching reforms of the central government under enlightened absolutism was nevertheless effecting a fundamental transformation of that society.