The Age of Enlightenment: Enlightened Despots in the Absolutist Era

The 18th and early 19th centuries were an era when politics were gripped by monarchs. Many non-democratic enlightened despots romanticized liberal democratic philosophy, often weaponizing it to hold power.

May 10, 2021By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
enlightened despots age of enlightenment
Portrait of François Marie Arouet – Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de la Tour , c. 1737; with Empress Catherine the Great of Russia by Feodor Rokotov, c. 1780; and King Frederick the Great of Prussia by Johann Heinrich Franke, 18th century


Enlightened despots sought to embody the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king. These rulers were highly educated and romanticized liberal theory. Enlightened ideals that formed a generation of rulers were largely perpetuated by the satirical French deep thinker Voltaire.  By streamlining philosophical treatise into art – plays, poetry, and otherwise – Voltaire single-handedly advocated for a tolerant flourishing of the arts and rational progressive liberalism in his enlightened political underpinnings. Let’s find out more about the Age of Enlightenment. 


King Frederick II of Prussia – Frederick the Great

age of enlightenment frederick the great portrait
King Frederick the Great of Prussia by Johann Heinrich Franke, 18th century,  via National Geographic


King Frederick II the Great of Prussia (r. 1740-1786) was an enlightened despot and close friend of Voltaire.  In his youth, the German king excelled in the field of philosophy eventually incorporating philosophical idealism into his reign.  


Frederick surrounded himself at court with musicians, writers, artists, and thinkers, including the son of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.  Though the beginning of his tenure was rather tumultuous and violent against Austria and Poland, the Prussian state expanded and established itself as a global power under his leadership, albeit at the expense of a lifelong rivalry with his contemporary Empress Maria Theresa.


voltaire portrait maurice quentin la tour painting
Portrait of François Marie Arouet – Voltaire by Maurice Quentin de la Tour , c. 1737 , via French Ministry of Culture


Under Frederick, the Prussian German arts flourished.  His people enjoyed the highest levels of legal freedom anywhere in Europe.  Religious and social tolerance prevailed – though Frederick still famously expressed anti-Semitic sentiment and persecuted Catholics by seizing clerical land for himself.  Frederick also introduced compulsory education for boys and girls aged 3-14 at state expense.

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The open tolerance of Frederick encouraged immigration which fed the expanding Prussian state and allowed the population to recover from warfare.


Empress Catherine II of Russia – Catherine the Great

rokotov catherine great portrait
Empress Catherine the Great of Russia by Feodor Rokotov, c. 1780,  via The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg 


Empress Catherine II the Great of Russia (r. 1762-1796) was also a close friend and lifelong pen-pal of Voltaire.  Born a German princess, the enlightened despot claimed the Russian throne by her own right via a coup d’état: seizing power from her husband and second cousin the incompetent Tsar Peter III.  


Russia thrived under its German empress.  Catherine embodied the Age of Enlightenment; highly educated, well-read, and well versed in the history of her people.  The Empress attempted to govern in the same styling as the great “westernizer” of Russia, the grandfather of her late husband, Tsar/Emperor Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725).


Catherine issued legal reform, relaxed censorship law, and expanded Russian territory by means of warfare.  Though she often romanticized the idea of emancipation, Russia adhered to its fascist social structure of feudal serfdom under Catherine and would remain so until the 1860s.


Catherine also created a delegation composed of officials from each province and social class in Russia (except the serfs) in order to truly rule on the advice of her people.   Counter to enlightened ideals, Catherine heavily favored her noble class: serfdom sustained out of fear of its abolishment crippling Russia’s agrarian economy.


Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire and Austria

enlightened despots maria theresa portrait
Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa of Austria by Martin van Meytens,  18th century, via Princeton University Art Museum


Empress Maria Theresa (r. 1740-1780) was a Habsburg Holy Roman Empress and served as Queen of Austria, Hungary, and Croatia (among many others) in addition to giving birth to sixteen children during her lifetime (wow).  Though the Empress ruled as a co-monarch alongside her husband and her eldest son, Maria Theresa reserved absolute control of her state herself.


Maria Theresa grew up interested in the arts over politics.  Early on in her reign, her contemporary Frederick the Great of Prussia invaded her realm. The ambitious attack sparked a lifelong rivalry and enmity between the two German sovereigns.  Frederick being Protestant and Maria Theresa being Catholic, this event elicited Maria Theresa to serve her enlightened despotism in defense of her church and her familial dynasty – conservatively.


Under Maria Theresa, Vienna became the cultural capital of northern Europe and epitomized the Age of Enlightenment.  The enlightened despot curtailed the power of the church in her domain, separated the church from (and expanded) the educational system, and broadened the role of her central government to reduce the role of her landed nobility.  By reducing the authority of landowners, Maria Theresa thought she was favoring the serfs.


Maria Theresa was fervently intolerant of other faiths and sought above all to bolster her Catholic Church in the face of a threat from Prussia.


Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire and the Age of Enlightenment 

enlightened despots selim ottoman portrait
Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire by Joseph Warnia-Zarzecki, 1850, via Google Arts & Culture 


The Ottoman Empire in the Age of Enlightenment was expansive enough to border with the Russian Empire to its northeast, and the Habsburgs to its northwest.  The Muslim Empire had a European foothold in Greece and the Balkans which it held until 1913.


The Empire was headed by the enlightened despot Selim III (r. 1789-1807) in the Age of Enlightenment.  Selim was an avid musician and poet and possessed a deep appreciation for literature and the arts.


The Sultan was regularly in and out of a war with his European counterparts in the Age of Enlightenment: specifically, with Russia and the Holy Roman Empire.  The heightened state of warfare (which existed on the peripheral borders of the Turkish Empire more-or-less until the rise of Napoleon) led Selim III to issue a series of reforms.


The enlightened despot introduced enlightened tenets in a military reform (based on western European military tactic), as well as the importation of western written work translated into Turkish, and a broader compulsory education system.  The Ottoman Empire has a long history of religious tolerance as the empire was so expansive at its height.


King Charles III of Spain

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King Charles III of Spain by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1765,  via Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen


King Charles III of Spain was an enlightened despot and proponent of regalism: the doctrine of the secular authority of a monarch overpowering ecclesiastical faculty.  A central tenet of the Age of Enlightenment was an emphasis on humanism.  If the Spanish crown, headed by Charles III, reduced the power of the church, it was done for the people of Spain.


The enlightened reforms of Charles III took on a similar rational humanist policy to his enlightened despot contemporaries.  The Spanish reforms included economic and social reform in which the authority of the church was reduced in the sphere of public life.  The Spanish state took enlightened policy a step further by totally suppressing monasteries, confiscating their land, and even exiling the Jesuits from Spain.


Though the enlightened despot managed to shift his political operation to a more humanist outlook, his harsh treatment of his clergy dealt a massive blow to his noble class.  Charles is widely seen by scholars as the savior of a drowning Spanish crown.


Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire

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Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire, c. 1780, via Alte Pinakothek, Munich


Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire (r. 1765-1790) – often also referred to as “Kaiser”, the German pronunciation of the Ancient Roman autocratic title “Caesar” – was the eldest son and heir of Maria Theresa.  He is often viewed as the quintessential enlightened despot.


Much of the enlightened reforms promulgated by his mother were instigated by Joseph.  Though his early reign was eclipsed by his mother, Joseph did not hesitate to further issue enlightened reform when he succeeded the throne himself.


In 1781, Joseph II issued both the Serfdom Patent and the Edict of Toleration: feudal indentured servitude right was redefined and more equality rights were bestowed to those of religious minorities within the empire’s borders.


Joseph II fought to abrogate the power of both the clergy and the aristocracy.  The enlightened despot was also an immense patron of the arts.


In the symbolism of his sweeping liberal reforms, the Emperor famously remarked, “everything for the people, nothing by the people” – phrasing cited in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address four score and two years later in 1863.


The Altruism of the Enlightened Despots

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Portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller, 1697, via National Review website


The political philosophy behind the Age of Enlightenment was one of romantic altruism.  Absolutist enlightened despots sought to govern benevolently for the betterment of their people.  With a firm autocratic grip on political power, the guise of governmental reform that strengthened the government, in turn, strengthened the sovereign.


The humanism highlighted in the Age of Enlightenment exemplified monarchs as human beings responsible for the other human beings in their domain, rather than divinely appointed leaders.  John Locke was the first to (radically) suggest: if our human rulers cannot adequately protect our human rights, we the people have the power to change that ruler.


The Age of Enlightenment sits nestled in our historical narrative on the eve of the Age of Revolution: in 1776, the United States revolted; in 1789, France revolted.  Put so eloquently by Joseph II, the enlightened policy is conducted for the people, but never by the people – the self-government of the young United States being the remedy.  As Aristotle famously puts it: “he who is unable to live in society (…) must be either a beast or a god.”

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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.