16 May 2023

What is enlightened despotism? – Know the characteristics of this political concept

By Donald

Enlightenment despotism was a form of government in which absolutist monarchs adopted Enlightenment ideas to implement reforms and modernize their kingdoms. Although they maintained authoritarian control, they sought to promote the welfare and progress of their subjects through educational, economic and administrative measures. We will talk about it below!

Definition and concept of enlightened despotism

It is a political and social concept developed during the 18th century, characterized by the combination of Enlightenment principles with the form of government autocratic and absolutist. Although the term ‘despotism’ may suggest oppressive and dictatorial rule, it is distinguished by the idea that the ruling monarch should be a ‘benevolent despotism’, seeking the welfare and progress of his subjects.

In enlightened despotism, monarchs adopted Enlightenment ideas and principles, an intellectual movement that defended reason, science and the search for human progress. Enlightened rulers believed that their absolute power gave them the authority to implement reforms and promote the well-being of their subjects, although this was done without giving up their authority and without relinquishing political power. The enlightened monarchs carried out reforms in areas such as education, the economy, justice, and public administration, seeking to modernize and streamline government structures.

Enlightened monarchs used advertising as a tool to consolidate their power and spread their ideas. Communication campaigns were carried out that extolled the virtues of the monarch and highlighted the benefits of the reforms implemented. These campaigns were carried out through pamphlets, public speeches, and ceremonies.

What are the characteristics of enlightened despotism?

Enlightened despotism is characterized by a set of distinctive features that differentiate it from other forms of government of the time. Some of the features are as follows:

  • monarchical absolutism: It is based on a monarchical system in which the monarchy has absolute power and focused on his hands. The king or queen is considered the supreme ruler and makes decisions without the need to consult other institutions or political actors.
  • enlightened reforms: Despite their absolute authority, enlightened monarchs embraced Enlightenment principles and sought to implement reforms in various aspects of society. This includes areas such as education, the economy, the justice and public administrationwith the aim of improving the living conditions of its subjects and promoting progress.
  • Search for general well-being: Unlike other absolutist systems, enlightened despotism is characterized by the idea that the monarch must govern for the benefit and well-being of his subjects. Enlightened rulers considered their authority conferred the responsibility to implement measures to improve the lives of the population, although this was done from a position of superiority.
  • centralization of power: Enlightened despotism implied a centralization of power through monarch’s hands. This translated into a greater concentration of authority in the figure of the king or queen, without the need to share or delegate power to other institutions or political actors.
  • control and censorship: Although it sought to promote reforms and progress, enlightened despotism was also characterized by maintaining rigorous control over society and limit freedom of expression. Enlightened monarchs used censorship and repression to stifle any opposition or criticism that might threaten their power or challenge their policies.
  • enlightened autocracy: Enlightened despotism is considered a form of autocracy, where the monarch concentrates political power and makes decisions without the active participation of society. Although reforms were implemented to improve the lives of citizens, political participation and democracy were not fundamental principles of this system of government.

What is the history of enlightened despotism?

Enlightened despotism originated as a response to the social and political changes that had place during the 18th century, known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Enlightenment. This period was characterized by the flowering of rational thought, science, and criticism of existing political and social structures. It developed primarily in Europe, where various monarchs adopted Enlightenment ideas to modernize and reform their kingdoms in different countries.

Some of the main exponents of enlightened despotism were Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, Joseph II of Austria, and Charles III of Spain. These monarchs considered that their absolute authority gave them the ability to implement reforms and promote well-being of his subjects. They sought to apply Enlightenment principles in areas such as education, economics, justice, and public administration.

For example, they promoted public education, encouraged the development of agriculture and industry, and established new institutions and laws to improve the administration of the state. However, despite the reforms, enlightened despotism did not advocate the political participation of citizens nor for democracy. The monarchs maintained absolute control over power and made decisions without consulting the population.

Who are the most important representatives of enlightened despotism?

had several important representatives in Europe during the eighteenth century. Some of the most prominent rulers who are considered representatives of enlightened despotism are the following:

  • Frederick II of Prussia: Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great, ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786. He was a fervent defender of Enlightenment ideals and promoted reforms in areas such as education, justice and the economy. Although he maintained authoritarian control, he is considered one of the foremost monarchs of enlightened despotism.
  • Joseph II of Austria: Joseph II ruled the Austrian Empire from 1780 to 1790. Like Frederick II, he implemented a series of enlightened reforms in areas such as administration, education, justice, and religion. However, some of his reforms met with resistance and he had difficulty implementing them.
  • Charles III of Spain: Carlos III reigned in Spain from 1759 to 1788. He is also considered a representative of enlightened despotism. During his reign, he implemented administrative, economic, and educational reforms, in addition to promote trade and the modernization of the country.
  • Catherine II of Russia: Catherine II, known as Catherine the Great, ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. Although her rule was autocratic, she is also credited with implementing enlightened reforms. she promoted education, culture and economic development in Russia, although he also faced resistance and maintained a repressive government.