The European Enlightenment

Absolute Monarchy and Enlightened Absolutism


   Even though Enlightenment social and political theory introduced radically new ideas such as checks and balances, the social contract and individual liberty, most of the philosophes believed in monarchical government. The seventeenth century had seen an elaborate theorizing on the nature of monarchy and the justification for absolute monarchy, that is, the idea that the monarch is ultimately the sole ruler of the country and is accountable only to God. The principle theorist of absolutism was, as we've discovered in an earlier chapter, Bossuet. He believed that monarchs are placed in power by God; disobedience to a monarch is equivalent to disobeying God. Since monarchs are placed in power by God, that also meant that monarchs are answerable to no-one except God in matters of ruling the state. The power of a monarch, then, was absolute. In order to guarantee the absolutism of monarchical power, Bossuet argued that the government of a monarchy should be a tightly-knit centralized government. Local powers and nobility should be brought under the control of agents of the king. In France in particular, Bossuet's theories of absolute monarchy were applied in their full during the reign of Louis XIV. The most immediate effects of the social and political thought of the philosophes was not felt in any grand overturning of established monarchies, but rather the adoption of enlightened absolutism by a small handful of highly educated and commited monarchs: Joseph II and Maria Theresa of Austria, and Catherine the Great of Russia.

   While Louis XIV justified his absolute authority by appealing to the divine right of kings, the enlightened absolutists justified their absolute authority by proclaiming themselves servants of the state or the people. The enlightened served the state by pushing for reform in the government in order to stamp out unequal treatment before the law and preserve rights and property. The first monarch to actively put these ideas into practice was Frederick II of Prussia, called the Great (1740-1785). He abolished the serf system which tied tenant farmers to certain properties for life and replaced the powers accruing to the nobility with a greatly expanded bureaucracy composed of educated civil servants. His father, Frederick William I (1713-1740), was dedicated to the military expansion of Prussia; to do this, he built a bureaucracy of civil service entirely based on merit. Frederick II, however, saw the need to include the nobility and actively recruited them into the civil service. For Frederick was above all a pragmatic enlightened monarch who saw the need to placate all aspects of society.

   Following Cesare Beccaria, Frederick eliminated the use of torture in judicial proceedings and judicial punishments, abandoned capital punishment and greatly reduced corruption in the judicial system. Following Voltaire (whom he knew personally), Frederick passed a series of measures to protect religious minorities, including Muslims. He did not, however, tolerate Judaism and levied huge taxes on Jews in order to drive them out of the country.


Maria Theresa and Joseph II   Frederick's ascension of the Prussian throne coincided with the death of Charles VI (ruled 1711-1740) of Austria in 1740. Charles died without a male heir, but he had convinced the Austrians and the major European powers to allow his daughter, Maria Theresa (ruled 1740-1780), to become the Empress after his death. Frederick II, newly installed as king of Prussia, took advantage of the confusion at Charles's death, and marched into Austria and seized the territory of Silesia. Thus began the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), since Frederick justified this action by not recognizing the legitimacy of the Empress of Austria.

   Maria Theresa instantly appealed to the Hungarians and the British; the Hungarians supplied troops and the British supplied money. With this help, she managed to hold on to her monarchy and the rest of Austrian territory, though Austria never regained Silesia.

   Austria did not have a tradition of absolutist monarchical rule, but the Wars of the Austrian Succession made her determined to adopt the centralized governments typical of absolutist countries, such as France and Prussia. Austria, unlike other powerful states in Europe at the time, was an extremely diverse population. The rulers, the Hapsburg dynasty, didn't so much rule the country as they got wealthy off of it. She divided the Austrian Empire into ten tightly-knit and closely administered units. Each administrative unit was run by a "war commissioner" who was appointed and controlled by the central government in Vienna. She also greatly expanded and professionalized her army, and raised taxes dramatically in order to do this.

   In addition to centralizing her government and consolidating her power, Maria Theresa undertook a number of reforms to increase the quality of life for Austrian peasants. In particular, she severely reduced the amount of work that a landholder could demand of a peasant.

   In 1765, Joseph II, the son of Maria Theresa, became Emperor of Austria and ruled jointly with his mother until she died in 1780; Joseph continued as Emperor until 1790. Joseph was even more passionate than his mother about increasing his power and using his power to increase the welfare of the Austrian state.

   Joseph went much further than Maria Theresa in centralizing the government. Hungary, for instance, was part of the Austrian Empire, but was an autonomous kingdom. Joseph sought to undermine that autonomy and the rights enjoyed by the Hungarians and reorganized Hungarian local governments so that his civil servant and officials would have more local power. None of these measures really took, however, because the Hungarian nobility refused to live by any of these new rules.

   Joseph also sought to bring the Catholic church under his control. First, he made it illegal for any clergy to communicate directly to the pope or the Vatican. He shut down over six hundred monasteries and convents and claimed monastic lands for himself. He also shut down all the seminaries and replaced them with his own; in these new seminaries, prospective priests would be taught to obey him rather than the pope. These policies effectively ended any influence that the Catholic church had over Austrian peoples.

   He also worked to generally increase the welfare of the Austrian lands. In the matter of serfs, he went far beyond Maria Theresa's reforms and abolished serfdom as a legal status entirely. In addition, he granted a number of new liberties to the peasant population: the right to learn skills, the right to marry, the right to educate their own children. He also took many of the privileges that landlords held over peasants away. He wasn't, however, doing all this to salve his conscious. New Enlightenment social theories about the selfishness of human beings implied that people worked harder and more productively when they saw some personal advantage to be gained from it. Joseph hoped to harness this selfishness by making life easier and more rewarding for the peasantry; the payoff, he believed, would be harder work and greater productivity from the labor force that cultivated the land.

   Partly in line with his efforts to reduce the power of the Roman Catholic church, and partly in line with new Enlightenment ideas, Joseph passed some of the most sweeping reforms of religious intolerance in the eighteenth century. In 1781, he declared the Toleration Patent, which declared that all Lutherans, Greek Orthodox, and Calvinist churches could freely worship without official harassment. These separate denominations were also allowed to found their own churches, schools, and hospitals, and could serve in the official bureaucracy. Joseph was also the only European monarch to ease the oppression of Jews within his territory. Although he never granted Jews the same religious freedoms as he granted to Christian denominations, he did significantly ease the tax burden and official harassment. He also allowed them to freely worship in private (but not in public).


Catherine the Great   Catherine the Great, who ruled as Empress of Russia from 1762-1796, is one of those catalyzing forces in history who, through hard experience, unbounded intelligence, and overwhelming practicality, changed the face of a country against overwhelming odds. She was a German princess who was married to Peter, a nephew of Elizabeth, who served as Empress of Russia from 1741 to 1762. Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, was a shrewd and Machiavellian ruler; she did not like Catherine, who was, from the time of her marriage to Peter in 1745 to the death of Elizabeth in 1762, constantly under the threat of danger. Peter was generally considered to be insane; he was certainly weak and sadistic. Catherine suffered greatly in this loveless marriage, and probably suffered abuse as well. When Elizabeth died in 1762, Peter succeeded her as Emperor Peter III. He made peace with Frederick II of Prussia at a time when Russia seemed poise to defeat Prussia, and the nobility finally assassinated him after only a few months as Emperor. We don't know how much Catherine was involved in the deposition and murder of Peter, but she probably knew about it and approved of it.

   During her long, painful years in the Romanov court, with a mad husband and a dangerous aunt as Empress, Catherine spent her time reading. Her favorite authors were the philosophes , and she avidly consumed all the new ideas coming from France and other parts of Europe. Her background as a German princess, as well as her education in philosophe literature, led her to believe that Russia was a barbaric and backward country; she dedicated her monarchy to bringing Russia into the modern, European age.

   In 1767, she called a Legislative Commission to revise the law and government of Russia. While the Commission was to do the dirty work of reforming the government, the principles that they were to use came from Catherine herself. She wrote the commission a document called the Instructions ; the general tone and most of the ideas of this document were derived from philosophe literature and philosophy. However, the commission never got off the ground. The only reforms it accomplished were the abolition of judicial torture and a very minor increase in religious tolerance. It did accomplish one useful task: it gathered the most thorough information about Russian than had ever been gathered before. Catherine would use that information to try to modernize Russia.

   Catherine pushed on ahead anyway. She began to assert absolute authority in order to reform the law and government. She massively reorganized local governments in 1775, but, unlike the Prussians, she created a civil burueacracy, not of all ranks of society, but of the nobility. She was, after all, intensely aware of her precarious hold on power; she had gotten this power through a palace coup by the nobility.

   Her most dramatic reforms came in the economic sphere. She vigorously set about eliminating trade barriers such as taxes and tariffs, and worked hard to build up the Russian middle class. She issued charters granting or outlining all the rights available to individual towns in an effort to spur productivity and the growth of wealth.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-20-98