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Enlightened Despots in Europe

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  • 0:02 Enlightened Absolutism
  • 0:27 Enlightenment & Monarchies
  • 2:10 Enlightened Despots
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson you will explore the rise of the enlightened despots in Europe and discover how this apparent contradiction became a major trend. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Enlightened Absolutism

Some things just sound contradictory. 'Jumbo shrimp', for example. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a new political style emerged where a monarch with absolute power worried about the individual rights of the people, called enlightened absolutism. Sounds contradictory, right? Well, they found a way to make it work, and this became a major trend.

Enlightenment and Monarchies

OK, so to understand this seemingly contradictory idea, there are two important concepts. The basis for this political trend was an intellectual movement in Europe called the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophers stressed reason, analysis, and decisions based on reliable data over emotion or simply doing things because of tradition. They also supported individual rights such as religious freedom and the freedom of speech.

On the other side of this are the actual political systems of Europe. Most European nations were absolute monarchies, meaning the monarch had absolute power. This is different than a constitutional monarchy, where the power of the monarch is restricted by the constitution.

So, enlightened absolutism is a political system headed by an absolute monarch that believes in Enlightenment philosophy. The idea was first really promoted by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Voltaire wanted France to eventually become a constitutional monarchy, but did not think that was likely, so he proposed that the absolute monarch surround himself with philosophers to help make rational, reasonable decisions.

We call a monarch who ruled like this an 'enlightened monarch' or 'enlightened despot'. The enlightened despots tried to institute enlightenment reforms but kept all of the political power without creating a constitution. In general, enlightened despots allowed freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion, and the right for individuals to own private property. They often supported art and education and reasoned that the overall welfare of the people benefited them as monarchs.

Enlightened Despots

Although many monarchs across Europe tried systems of enlightened absolutism, three stand out as the most exemplary. First is Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1765-1790. Determined to act on behalf of the greatest good for all, Joseph instituted reforms to make education more accessible, a policy of tolerance for religion, and promotion of the German language across his empire to promote unity. Joseph also worked to free the peasants from the slave-like labor of the serfdom system, where the poor worked for a local lord who got all the profits of their labor.

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