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The Oxymoron of Enlightened Absolutists

At first glance, the use of “enlightened” and “absolutists” in the same sentence may seem very strange. Actually, a few absolute rulers did embrace aspects of the Enlightenment movement and considered themselves enlightened, even if contemporaries and later historians did not. The absolutists of eastern Europe seemed particularly interested in the message of the philosophes.

The philosophes welcomed the interest in the enlightenment from absolutists. They sought change from the top down for two reasons. The rulers had the power to change things, and the people couldn’t be trusted to do so. Even Voltaire remarked that a benevolent ruler, even an absolute one, might be just what the people needed. Absolutism was a way of life for much of Europe, so the replacement of absolute governments with democratic or republican governments never really seemed like a possibility. Rather, the philosophes shared their ideas with the absolutists partly because the absolutists of the east would listen and partly because the philosophes believed they could help bring about reform. To some extent they did.

Frederick the Great

Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), also known as Frederick the Great, hardly was cut out of the same mold as his father, Frederick William I (see Chapter 10). Frederick despised the military and enjoyed literature and the arts as a young boy.

He rejected his father’s militaristic lifestyle and his religion, Calvinism. Frederick even embraced all things French, something that drove his father crazy.

By the time Frederick inherited the throne from his father in 1740, he had resolved to change his rebellious ways and use the mighty military he inherited. He invaded Silesia and took vast lands and population from Maria Theresa of the House of Habsburg, practically doubling Prussia’s land and population. Frederick soon found himself bogged down in the Seven Years’ War, in which France, Russia, and Maria Theresa tried to knock Prussia out and divvy the land up between them. On the verge of defeat, Frederick’s Prussia survived only because the new leader of Russia called off his attack.

Frederick had always had a fondness for the Enlightenment, but he had never instituted any of its ideals in Prussia because of his incessant warring. After the brutal war, a kinder, gentler Frederick decided to concentrate on a more efficient, tolerant, and humane rule of Prussia. He created a fair and efficient judicial system, perhaps the best of its day in Europe. He got rid of torture tactics within the system and ensured that his officials were free from corruption. He allowed his subjects to worship as they pleased. Once the host and good friend of Voltaire, Frederick encouraged education, the advancement of knowledge, and philosophical activity. Many of the philosophes, including Immanuel Kant, fought for freedom of the press, or the freedom to publish philosophical and scholarly findings, and Frederick heard their pleas. Frederick worked hard to improve the lives of his subjects by promoting education, agriculture, and the economy in general. He had become the benevolent ruler of which Voltaire had written.

Would You Believe?

As “enlightened" as Frederick II was, he never freed the miserable serfs and failed to grant religious tolerance to the Jews.

Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great of Russia made her way from relative obscurity up the political food chain to achieve true greatness. Catherine (1729-1796) married Peter III, the nephew of Peter the Great’s daughter, in 1744. From the beginning of the relationship, Peter, pock-marked in appearance and with brainpower to match, was no competition for the brilliant and cunning Catherine. Catherine spent her time reading the works of the philosophes. She had absolutely no interest in her husband, but she did have a desire for his crown. Patiently she waited for her opportunity. Less than a year after Peter took the throne in 1762, Catherine’s lover, an officer in the Russian military, led a revolution in the palace. After they deposed Peter, who had squandered the loyalty of the military when he decided not to continue attacks on Frederick’s Prussia, the brothers of Catherine’s lover murdered the hapless Peter. Catherine the Great had the crown she wanted.

Continental Quotes

“I shall be an autocrat, that's my trade; and the good Lord will forgive me, that's his."

—Catherine the Great

Catherine was the sweetheart of the philosophes. Because she had so engrossed herself in the writings of the philosophes, Catherine ruled from day one as an enlightened monarch. As Peter the Great had done, Catherine imported westerners to infuse western culture into the still-backward country of Russia. She brought in both art and the written word to introduce the nobility to the glory of the West. She sponsored many of the philosophes when no one else would and she corresponded extensively with the likes of Voltaire. She offered to publish the Encyclopedic and subsidized it on occasion.

As a Matter of Fact

Catherine certainly will be remembered as a woman of letters. In addition to her devotion to the development of the French Encyclopédie, Catherine worked diligently to establish herself as a patron of literature in Russia. The famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg began as Catherine's personal collection of art and literature. Catherine also did her part to contribute to the body of literature by writing a manual on education in which she used many of the ideas put forth by John Locke.

Would You Believe?

Throughout her reign, Catherine had many lovers upon whom she always lavished gifts. Even as a sixty-plus senior citizen, she had lovers as young as twenty-two.

Just as Peter the Great upgraded the Russian military, Catherine upgraded the Russian culture. Catherine hoped to overhaul the justice system, much the way Frederick had done in Prussia, but her goal was never fully realized. She did abolish torture and grant some religious tolerance, though. Catherine might have granted other freedoms, perhaps even to serfs, had it not been for a rebellion led by a Cossack named Pugachev. After she crushed the rebellion, she realized she needed to keep the peasantry in check and keep the social status quo. This, along with generous grants of conquered lands such as Poland to her nobles, kept the nobility happy and loyal.

Maria Theresa and Joseph II

The two remaining enlightened absolutists lacked the Enlightenment fervor that Frederick and Catherine possessed, but they nevertheless ruled as enlightened monarchs. The Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) of Austria limited the Church’s influence, strengthened the bureaucratic system, and eased up on the peasants a little by limiting the power of the landlords.

When her son, Joseph II (1741-1790) of Austria, came to power in 1780, he picked up where his mother left off and initiated his own enlightened reforms. He placed the Church under more restrictions than his mother had and extended religious tolerance to both Protestants and Jews. Like Catherine and Frederick, Joseph sought to overhaul the bureaucracy and make it a more efficient governing machine. Joseph abolished serfdom altogether and, in doing so, created a backlash among his nobles. He also required that the peasants’ remaining obligations be converted to cash debts. The peasants hated this because they didn’t have any cash. In a move designed to make his society better, Joseph inadvertently angered everyone. Needless to say, when Joseph died, Habsburg Austria was a mess.

The Least You Need to Know

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in the eighteenth century that grew out of the new way of thinking created by the thinkers of the Scientific Revolution.

The Enlightenment, though it had some political effects, was an intellectual movement among the elite of Europe.

The leaders of the Enlightenment were intellectuals who called themselves philosophes and who saw themselves as the intellectual beacons in a dark and gloomy Europe.

The philosophes, and indeed the Enlightenment, embraced and championed such things as skepticism, reason, deism, and political and religious tolerance.

Some of the leading minds of the Enlightenment included Bayle, Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, d’Holbach, and Rousseau.

The themes of the Enlightenment found popularity among the aristocrats of Europe and with the absolutists of eastern Europe.

Absolute rulers including Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Austria instituted reforms in their lands and ruled as enlightened monarchs.

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