We can define enlightened absolutism as a political ideology that held that a monarch should have complete power but that the monarch should use that power for the benefit of his or her people. Frederick the Great of Prussia is seen as a ruler who exemplified this idea.
This idea was absolutist because it held that monarchs should have absolute power. It did not accept Enlightenment ideas to the extent of allowing for democracy. However, it was enlightened because it accepted the Enlightenment idea that the government should work for the benefit of its people.
Enlightened absolutism or enlightened despotism is a term used to describe the reigns of several 18th century European monarchs. Under "enlightened absolutism," the monarch retains absolute power but uses that power to protect the good of the masses.
In practice, enlightened despots sought to overcome the influence of church and the nobility (and other special interests) over the lives of their subjects, and use the power of the monarchy to institute social and governmental reforms. Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Austria are among the rulers considered "enlightened despots." Some of the reforms these rulers attempted included:
- codifying laws
- conducting land ownership surveys
- curbing the power of nobles, by eliminating tax exemptions and limiting their judicial power over peasants
- abolishing or diminishing hereditary serfdom
- promoting religious tolerance
- supporting the arts and education
While enlightened despots believed that the state should serve the people, they were far from advocating democracy. In fact, even Frederick the Great, one of the most effective and progressive of these rulers, considered the "common peoples" to be "savage beasts," who required the strong hand of a benevolent ruler to guide them.
Enlightened absolutism is sometimes called enlightened despotism. An "absolute ruler" or "despot" is someone who believes that the ruler should have all the power and no one should have any right to question or challenge what the ruler does. Generally, "despot" is a negative term.
An "enlightened" despot was one who bought into at least some of the ideas of the Enlightenment. For example, the Enlightenment stressed reason, rather than faith, as the basis for human action. Enlightened despots often allowed people to worship as they chose, own land, and and have freedom of speech. Many also stressed education and libraries.
Catherine the Great of Russia was an enlightened despot. She was an absolute ruler with total control, yet she allowed many freedoms Russians didn't previously have. She also fostered education and was a lifelong student herself.