Enlightened Absolutism

During the 18th century, in the age of the Enlightenment, some European rulers who had embraced the idea of absolute monarchy became interested in Enlightenment philosophy. These rulers believed in the absolute rule of the sovereign, but they also advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment, and in some cases even corresponded with major Enlightenment thinkers.

Frederick William II, king of Prussia, had a personal relationship with one of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire. Voltaire had tried to persuade Frederick William to keep out of the War of the Austrian Succession, but to no effect. In fact, he was later sent back by France to encourage him to redouble his efforts when the tides turned agianst . Frederick William himself was concerned with judicial reform and religious toleration, both of which were encouraged by the Enlightenment.

In Russia, Catherine the Great also had a correspondence with Voltaire, in addition to a friendship with Diderot. Diderot was the famous contributor and editor of the Encyclopédie, the most significant work of the Enlightenment. Catherine the Great instituted a new education policy, but it was not widely taken advantage of because the population was hesitant. She also encouraged religious toleration, extending it to Catholics and Jews. Under Catherine Church lands were made into government lands, and the offices of the clergy were paid by the crown, ensuring their allegiance. Catherine engaged in judicial reform as well, which, although not a great victory, did succeed in abolishing torture.

Under Joseph II in Austria many Enlightenment ideas, especially those having to do with religion, were promoted. His mother, Maria Theresa, banned the Jesuit order and used their seized wealth to fund schools. Joseph instituted a program of religious toleration that was the most extensive of any Catholic country of the time. He also passed the Edict on Idle Institutions, which suppressed one third of all the monasteries in Austria. Joseph reformed the legal system, punishing the Aristocracy in a manner similar to the commoners and making these punishments better fit their respective crimes. He eased the condition of the serfs, but they reverted back to their previous state when he died. He also started a compulsory education system to foster greater patriotism.

These countries are some examples of the phenomena of “Enlightened Absolutism” which spread across Europe in the 18th century. In some cases, the rulers of these countries had correspondence and even friendship with prominent Enlightenment thinkers. The ideas of the Enlightenment, including religious toleration, social and legal reform, and a greater reliance on reason above religion were all promoted in this form of absolutism.


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