Enlightened Absolutism

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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.
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