Those monarchs who considered themselves "enlightened" instituted some reforms to improve the welfare of their subjects; however they did not act completely as a result of altruistic motivation; and at times severely limited their reforms.
Two cases illustrate the point:
- Frederick the Great of Prussia developed a relationship with Voltaire, and told the latter in a letter:
I must enlighten my people, cultivate their manners and morals, and make them as happy as human beings can be, or as happy as the means at my disposal permits
Frederick abolished torture and simplified the Prussian legal system. He referred to himself as the "first servant of the state," and never relied on Divine Right as authority for his rule. However, he did not abolish serfdom in Prussia, even though he spoke against it. He allowed religious freedom for many, but not Jews, whom he said
injure the business of Christians and are useless to the state.
Jews were limited in their employment opportunities, were forced to live in Ghettos, and could be ordered to leave the country at will. Frederick's disdain for Jews did not prevent him from borrowing money from them.
- Catherine the Great of Russia corresponded with a number of Enlightenment thinkers, primarily Voltaire. She once told him in a letter
You write on paper; but I write on human skin, which is far more ticklish.
Catherine offered to have Diderot's Encyclopedie published in Russia when it was censored in France. She strengthened local governments in Russia, limited (but did not abolish) torture, and worked to improve education. She also allowed a limited degree of religious toleration.
Catherine's reforms came to a screeching halt when a peasant's revolt broke out led by Emilian Pugachev, who claimed to be Catherine's late husband, Peter III. The revolt was crushed and her reforms also ended. Catherine came to believe that the peasantry could not be trusted. She therefore extended serfdom to areas where it had previously not existed, absolved the nobility from taxes forever, and seized property of the Russian Orthodox Church. Her enlightenment ideals did not prevent her from participating in the partition of Poland which ultimately resulted in that country's removal from the map.
So, Enlightened Despots embraced enlightenment ideals to a limited extent; but did not give themselves over wholly to the concept.