Europe, considered a fiefdom of democracy, was not always so. For a long time it was organized in absolutist monarchies, where the king held all the power and paid no attention to the situation of his people.
But this changed in the 17th century, with the appearance of the Enlightenment, which, in the following century, would promote changes in the European political system, giving rise to the Enlightened despotism . Below we will see more in depth what it consists of, and what changes it implied for the time.
What was enlightened despotism?
Enlightened despotism, also known as benevolent despotism or enlightened absolutism, is a political concept that refers to the style of government that many European countries took during the second half of the 18th century , in a world where the Old Regime was still present. This type of government combined aspects of classical absolutism with philosophical ideas of the French Enlightenment.
The emergence of enlightened despotism represented a timid change from the traditional absolutist system, in which the figure of the monarch was all-powerful. In this despotism, the monarch continues to have absolute power, but acquires a more sensitive vision with respect to his people , initiating reforms with the intention of improving their well-being, although always in a very moderate way and without abandoning a paternalistic perspective.
Changes in the treatment of its citizens, giving them greater freedoms, were not synonymous with a loss of privileges for the aristocracy, nor with a narrowing of the gap between social classes. Of course, the idea that the absolutist monarchy would eventually be replaced by a democratic republic was unthinkable and totally contrary to the established order. Enlightened despotism was not intended to take away the powers of the monarchy, but simply to promote some reforms.
The phrase that best sums up the mentality of this system of government is that of “everything for the people, but without the people” (“Tout pour le peuple, rien par le peuple” in French). This would mean that reforms should be carried out to increase the satisfaction of the people, to promote knowledge, culture and wealth, but without the involvement of the plebs, a class seen as chronically immature and mentally underage, in the new measures.
On absolutism and the Enlightenment
Before going deeper into the origin and consequences of enlightened despotism, it is necessary to explain, briefly, what absolutism is in its most classic form, and what the Enlightenment is.
Absoluteness is the modern name given to the types of governments that were typical of the European Old Regime.
In the vast majority of countries at that time, the sovereigns held the total power of the state . There was no public control of what the king did, being the one who decided how his kingdom worked.
This idea is well summed up in a sentence said by Louis XIV, King of France, who is considered the greatest exponent of what is a prototypical absolutist monarchy: “The state is me” (“L’État, c’est moi”).
The Enlightenment was a philosophical, artistic and scientific movement that emerged in Europe after the Renaissance . In this cultural movement its thinkers believed firmly in human reason and in the progress of society.
This thought arose in France in the 17th century, although it did not stay only in France. It had an enormous impact on other European countries and even crossed the Atlantic to settle in the European colonies.
How did this system of government originate?
This form of self-government from the end of the old regime originated in the second half of the 18th century. Its emergence was not due to a voluntary proposal from the European monarchs, who were virtually all-powerful. The reason why these kings and emperors initiated reforms in their respective states was the criticism received from enlightened philosophers, critical of the traditional functioning of classical absolutism , which promoted inequalities and injustices.
It is not that these philosophers, or at least most of them, wanted the arrival of the republics. They simply felt that no sovereign should allow the people to suffer hardship. It was a humanist view, so to speak. These thinkers were in favor of a gradual change in government structures, in order to prosper towards a more modern and rational society, but without giving up the figure of the monarch.
The change had to come from above, so that it would be peaceful and controllable . A popular revolution, in the view of the philosophers of the time, would imply a change that was too deep and unexpected for the whole of society, and dangerous. It was necessary for the monarchs to initiate reforms to keep the whole of society satisfied, and thus ensure that the change, which had always been feared, would be beneficial.
For this reason, either with the empathic argument of not wishing any evil to the plebs, or with the argument of fear, that they should be revolutionized, the monarchs listened to the philosophers. It was much better to keep the subjects happy, and improve their lives a little, than to give them the feeling that the sovereign cared little for their situation, and wait for them to rebel against him. This is when enlightened despotism proper arises.
Enlightened despotism would never have been achieved if it had not been for an unwritten pact between two apparently antagonistic social classes that held power. The nobility, its highest representative being the monarch, had held power for centuries. But they faced the problem that, despite having noble titles, these were not as important as money, something that the bourgeoisie did have in large quantities, and which was becoming the pillar of what would end up being the capitalist society.
Main illustrated monarchs
Among the main enlightened monarchs we find several European sovereigns, such as Charles III of Spain, Joseph I of Portugal, Joseph II of Austria, Maria Theresa I of Austria, Gustav III of Sweden, Louis XIV of France, Frederick II of Prussia and, probably the most remarkable, Catherine II of Russia, great patron in Imperial Russia.
Some of these monarchs did not work alone. In fact, there are many figures of enlightened philosophers or other thinkers who are working as the right hand of a sovereign , being the case of the Marquis of Pombal in Portugal, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos in Spain or Bernardo Tanucci in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Limitations of Enlightened Despotism
As you might have thought, especially given the fact that in Europe today most countries are republics or constitutional monarchies, enlightened despotism, enlightened despotism did not last forever, and that was because of its limitations.
The most notable was the fact that did not succeed in structuring society in a more democratic and egalitarian way , since privileges were not taken away from the nobility and the people, despite some modest improvements, continued to suffer. However, successes in areas such as administration, the economy and education were noteworthy.
The monarchy was willing to give in on several fronts, but not at all to break with the traditional caste system of the Old Regime. The nobility was the nobility, the clergy was the clergy and the plebs were the plebs , that is how it had been and how it should have been. No matter how many reforms were made, taking away privileges from the nobility or giving them to the people was something unthinkable, unnatural.
That is why, although within the rabble there would always be someone happy with the new reforms, others saw how the monarchy did not really want their welfare or, if it did, it was rather seeing them as small children who should be cared for, and who would never grow up. And the people got tired, and as a consequence, the most radical acts that we present below began.
Clearly, the change of mentality that took place during the Enlightenment, generating the shift from classical absolutism to enlightened despotism, had great benefits for the European sciences and arts , with many monarchs behaving as great patrons, allowing great technological and cultural advances.
A number of rights were won, such as greater ideological and religious freedom, as well as greater freedom of expression. Scientists could experiment without fearing that their new discoveries would be censored by religious organisations , while philosophers could think and express what they had concluded. Of course, Western civilization was advancing by leaps and bounds. And it was those giant steps that would end the system itself.
Giving scientists, artists and especially philosophers greater freedoms to research, think and express themselves was, ironically, the beginning of the end for many absolutist monarchies. Many thinkers saw that they could aspire to more and that, although there was more freedom than before, many of the changes were not as beneficial as might be expected.
The nobles would still have many privileges , which would make the bourgeoisie, especially, think of the need for more radical changes. This thought would sow the seeds of the French Revolution of 1789, with events as unthinkable decades before as the taking of the Bastille, the proclamation of the French Republic and the execution of the French kings, Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette.
- León Sanz, V. (1989). La Europa ilustrada, pp. 49-52, 138.
- Delgado de Cantú, G. M. (2005). El mundo moderno y contemporáneo, p. 253.
- Martínez Ruiz, E; Giménez, E. (1994). Introduction to modern history, pp. 545-569. AKAL Editions.