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Enlightened Philosophers, such as Voltaire and Diderot, and the Physiocrats, who were ministers to the French court, did not wish to limit the powers of the Monarchies. They attempted to persuade European Rulers to redirect power towards the rationalization of economic and political structures and the liberation of intellectual life.

In his book, 'Leviathan' (1651), the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes provided the formula for an ideal state in which all citizens would live together under terms of a social contract. To keep everyone from exercising too much freedom, however, there would be an absolute monarch. The monarch would rule by Enlightened Absolutism.

The definition of the term, Enlightened Absolutism, is a monarchical governments dedicated to the rational strengthening of the central absolutist administration at the cost of the lesser powers of government. The rulers most closely associated with this term, Frederick the Great, of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, and Catherine II of Russia. All of these monarchs are Enlightened Absolutists.

They adapted these enlightened philosophies to their policies of reform, causing real change in Eastern Europe, in the last third of the 18th century. The changes that took place were not necessarily good for the people because in the end, these three regimes, of Enlightened Absolutism became more repressive, than they were before.

Frederick the great, during his old age, lived far removed from his people. The Prussian Aristocracy, looking out for its self-interests, filled the major Prussian Military and administrative posts. Joseph II, confronted by the growing frustration and political unrest over his plans for restructuring the society, began to use more and more censorship and secret police, to maintain his power.

Catherine, never fully recovered from the fears raised by popular unrest. When the French Revolution broke out, she resorted to banning books on Enlightened thought and sent offensive authors to Siberian exile.

The three European States were distinguished by autocracy, censorship, increasingly, downtrodden serf populations grasping nobility and a fear of change permeated all the ruling classes where each monarch advocated real change and they adhered to the spirit of innovation, what they lacked was the humanity of the philosophers. Thus, these "Enlightened" reforms never truly made their regimes truly "Enlightened."

Neither of these Monarchs were truly Enlightened, nor were they truly Absolute in exercise of royal power. They were limited to the economic and political realities, of their countries. It was not the humanitarian and liberalizing zeal of the Enlightenment, which directed their policies, but the requirements of State security and political ambition.

It was the search of new revenues to raise and maintain more armies for the next war and political support, which led these monarchs to make "Enlightened" reforms. They used rationality to further what the Philosophers considered irrational militarism. Thus, these Monarchs used the Enlightenment and its idealism, to further consolidate their powers and expand their territories.

Each had studied the writings of the Philosophers and in some cases, had these Philosophers as guests in their courts. Voltaire, for example, stayed at the court of Frederick the Great for three years.

Web Sites

Biographies from
Frederick the Great
Joseph II of Austria
Catherine II

Other Web Sites

Fredericus Rex: Prussia's King Frederick the Great
This is an excellent biography of Frederick the Great and his accomplishments by the author Ursula Grosser.

Catherine the Great: A Monarch for the Ages
Ursula Grosser wrote this for the two hundredth anniversary of this Monarch's death November 1996. This web site also has a FAQ about Catherine.

Chapter II: Charles V. to Leopold II
This chapter discusses the Rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, from Charles V to Leopold II. It includes a short description of Joseph II. This is from the book A Short History of Austria-Hungary by H. Wickham Steed, Correspondent of The Times in Vienna; Walter Alison Philips, Lecky Professor of Modern History, Trinity College, Dublin; and David Hannay. This is the Eleventh edition copyright 1911.

Further reading

Kant's answer to what is the Enlightenment
Kant's answer to what the Enlightenment is and its relation to Frederick the Great.


Portions of this article were excerpted from Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia Copyright ©, 1993, 1994 Compton's NewMedia, Inc.