The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Absolutism


Reformation Glossary
Voluntary Associations
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were hard times in Europe. The Reformation produced a trail of strife and difficulty as the implications of Reformation thought began to be imagined in areas outside of religion. In particular, the Reformation doctrines of individual liberty, the priesthood of all believers, in which everyone shared religious authority equally, and the Calivinist idea of "voluntary associations," spread political dissension and doubt across the face of Europe.


Enlightenment Glossary
Divine Right of Kings
   Political philosophers attempted to extricate themselves from these matters through two different, contradictory approaches: "natural law" or "the Divine Right of Kings." According to natural law political thinkers, there were immutable natural laws which should govern states and their relations to their citizens and to other states. According to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, a system of thought derived ultimately from medieval theories of kingship, certain kings ruled because they were specifically chosen by God to be kings. Surprisingly, both of these approaches could yield the same result: the idea that the best form of government is an autocracy, or rule by a single person. This person was not to be questioned or disobeyed; this became known as "absolutism," since the monarch ruled with "absolute" power, that is, unshared power.


Enlightenment Glossary
Social Contract
   Natural law yielded absolutism in the work of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed all things, including human society, could be understood using principles of geometry. Hobbes' central argument was that all humans are driven by two and only two impulses: fear of death and desire for power. If left unchecked, human beings would act on these impulses and live violent, brutish, inhumane, and solitary lives. In order to keep these impulses in check, human beings, according to Hobbes, drew up a social contract, which ceded authority to a single person in exchange for a level of security. The single ruler would control the violent and selfish impulses of individual members in a society through brute force; individuals would lose their liberty, but they would gain security and community. Hobbes didn't care what form this single rule might take, whether a monarch or a dicatator, only that absolute power was required to keep society together.


   Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) adapted the medieval concept of kingship in his theory of the Divine Right of Kings, which argued that the king ruled absolutely by will of God, and that to oppose the king in effect constituted rebellion against God. Although people should be excluded from power, God's purpose in instituting absolute monarchy was to protect and guide society.


Enlightenment Glossary
Rights
   The response to the philosophical challenges to the institution of monarchy during the Enlightenment and the steady erosion of monarchical power and rise of democratic sentiment during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, led to a new form of absolutism: "Enlightened Absolutism." Eastern Europe became the game table of three powerful countries: Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Each of these countries was ruled by powerful, absolutist monarchs, who violently and aggressively invaded and stole territory from weaker states. The most powerful rulers of these states, Frederick I of Prussia (r. 1740-1786), the Hapsburg emperors of Austria (Marie-Therèse, reigned 1740-1780, and her son Joseph II, reigned 1780-1790), and Catherine the Great of Russia (r. 1762-1796). All of these monarchs attempted to rule their countries with an absolute and iron fist while instituting reforms based on Enlightenment principles. For instance, Frederick attempted to allow each of his subjects the right to choose whatever life they choose to live. The Hapsburg emperors revised laws to provide more equality under the law, eliminated the institution of serfdom by which people were forced to work under certain landowners, decreed religious tolerance and allowed for free speech. Catherine also attempted to put Enlightenment principles to work by ameliorating the institution of serfdom. Enlightened absolutism was essentially an attempt to justify absolute power in its capacity to create a better life for its subjects, which included establishing rights, which are, as you know, principles of self-rule.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-6-97