Enlightened Despotism: A General Survey

The term ‘enlightened despotism’ was probably coined by the Physiocrats and is known to have been used by Diderot in the 1760s. It implies a connection between the type of autocracy practised in certain parts of Europe in the eighteenth century and some of the ideas of the philosophers of the French and German Enlightenment. This was largely a marriage of convenience. On one side, French writers like Voltaire, the Encyclopédistes and the Physiocrats, found themselves out of favour with the establishment in France. They turned, therefore, to the rulers of Eastern and Central Europe, from whom they received greater sympathy. Voltaire observed to Diderot: ‘What a time we live in! France persecutes philosophers, while the Scythians protect them.’1 Some writers, however, had reservations about this association; d'Alembert, for example, considered that ‘they fawned with Lucifer to rid themselves of Beelzebub’. On the other side, Prussian, Russian and Austrian rulers found the Enlightenment a useful source of ideas for three main aspects of their policies: method, content and justification. They used a more logical and rational approach to identify their priorities, borrowed some of the philosophers’ ideas in drawing up their reforms, and liberally quoted Montesquieu and others, sometimes out of context, to justify their actions.

If this connection between kings and philosophers is taken as the basic requirement of enlightened despotism, identification is fairly simple. Peter the Great (1682–1725) and Frederick William I (1713–40) can be excluded; although they were reformers, they had no contacts with the Enlightenment in any of its forms. By contrast, Frederick the Great (1740–86), Catherine the Great (1762–96) and Joseph II (1780–90) had direct links with both the French and German channels. Other rulers deserving the title are Leopold of Tuscany (who became Emperor Leopold II in 1790) and Margrave Charles Frederick of Baden. Two countries came under the influence of the Enlightenment through ministers rather than rulers: Denmark under Struensee and Portugal under Pombal. Two rulers can be regarded as borderline cases: Maria Theresa (1740–80), who was advised by ministers directly associated with the Enlightenment but who distrusted new ideas herself, and Charles III of Spain (1759–88), who was influenced by the Physiocrats but remained too closely connected with the Church to allow this to have much effect.

This chapter will examine the three main exponents of enlightened despotism, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great and Joseph II, in the light of their theoretical justification of power, their administrative and judicial reform, their economic policies, and their attitudes to religion and culture. Where possible, comparisons will be drawn between these rulers and their predecessors, Frederick William I, Peter the Great and Maria Theresa. The third section will consider whether or not the Enlightenment had any real impact on the diplomacy of the enlightened despots.

Voltaire claimed that ‘The happiest thing that can happen to Man is for the prince to be a philosopher.’2 The connection of the three leading enlightened despots with philosophy was quite explicit. Frederick the Great, in fact, described himself as ‘philosophe par inclination, politique par devoir’,3 and believed that ‘A well conducted government must have a system as coherent as a system of philosophy.’4 Catherine the Great professed to be governed by ‘my heart and reason’, and Voltaire enthused: ‘Every writer in Europe ought to be at your feet.’5 Joseph II commented that he had made philosophy the law–giver of his empire.6

Their predecessors’ concept of kingship had been fundamentally different. Frederick William I combined a fervent Calvinism with an open assertion of autocracy which bordered on the irresponsible: ‘We are Lord and Master and can do what we like.’7 His contacts with the Enlightenment were negligible, and he even expelled the leading German philosopher, Wolffe, from Prussia. Peter the Great had an almost obsessive zeal for modernization, but this was in a utilitarian and technical sense; beneath the surface he remained a traditional autocrat, his power based on Divine Right, whatever his contempt for religion or the established institutions of the Church. Maria Theresa was greatly influenced by Austrian theorists like Sonnenfels, but feared direct contact with French ideas. She went along with certain reforms but refused to abandon religion as the basis of her power.

The new rationalism in autocracy was apparent in the ruler's willingness to justify his authority. He no longer sheltered behind the term ‘Divine Right’ or quoted the old maxim ‘a deo rex, a rege lex’ (‘From God, the King; from the King, the law’). Instead, he placed more emphasis on the monarch as a servant of the state. Only by total dedication could he hope to rule effectively and justify the absolute power which he had inherited. Hence Frederick the Great frequently referred to himself as Prussia's premier domestique. It followed that policies should be based on what seemed most ‘reasonable’. The best means of deciding this was for the ruler to acquaint himself with the works of the philosophes and Physiocrats so that he could acquire a more balanced picture of the needs of his subjects and the capacity to deduce the course of action needed. Frederick the Great, for example, believed: ‘My principal occupation is to combat ignorance and prejudice...to enlighten minds, to refine manners, to make people as happy as human nature and my means allow.’8

At no stage, however, was the rational examination of the purpose of autocracy intended as a criticism of autocracy itself. Frederick, Catherine and Joseph were all influenced, to some extent, by the concept that their power was based on a theoretical contract with their subjects, enlightened rule from above depending on total obedience from below. But there was no advance towards the theory of replacing one contract by another, or of safeguarding against inefficiency and tyranny. There could be no possibility of introducing representative institutions, and any intellectual challenge to the basis of autocracy was dealt with by the full arsenal of traditional powers. Catherine the Great, for example, overreacted wildly to the criticisms of Radishchev in 1790, and Joseph II developed a ruthless secret police force.

The enlightened despots emphasized the importance of efficient and rational administration, although their methods varied. Austria and Prussia possessed expanding bureaucracies, to which the enlightened despots added distinctive features, while keeping the base which had been constructed in previous reigns. Frederick the Great, for example, inherited the General Directory and the local government institutions known as the Kriegs–und–Domänen–Kammern. He refrained from abolishing any of his father's creations, although he added his own superstructure to form a new departmental system which increased his own personal authority. Joseph II streamlined Maria Theresa's bureaucracy for the Hereditary Lands but concentrated his attention on those areas which Maria Theresa had avoided—Hungary, Belgium and Milan. Catherine the Great, by contrast, gradually conceded that the maintenance of her authority was best served by minimal bureaucratic changes and a measured degree of decentralization in favour of the nobility. This, in effect, continued the winding down of Peter the Great's collegiate system which had started after his death in 1725.

The Enlightenment intruded more obviously into the development of judiciaries and the codification of law. The three major enlightened despots all expressed considerable personal interest in legal projects which their predecessors had either ignored or shelved. Frederick the Great, for example, encouraged the development of Prussia's first legal code by Cocceji, although the final results were not fully effective until after his death. Joseph II introduced the most advanced criminal and civil codes in Europe, and Austria was the only state on the Continent where the concept of equality before the law, fundamental to the aspirations of the philosophes, could be seen in practice. Catherine the Great made a great many more public statements about her desire to reform Russia's legal system along the lines mapped out by the Enlightenment, but she found that the forces of tradition in Russia were too powerful to allow anything radical to come out of the 1767 Commission. Each ruler, therefore, made an individual adjustment to the Enlightenment. Frederick presided over gradual infiltration of ideas in the construction of a legal code which was carefully controlled and circumscribed by the monarch. Joseph II acted more quickly, ignoring opposition and depending on his own judgement. Catherine's association was largely verbal and her plagiarism of Montesquieu in her Instructions had few practical results.

According to Le Mercier, government policy should aim at ‘the greatest possible increase of production and population and assure the greatest possible happiness to those living in society’.9 The Physiocrats were convinced that these ends could be achieved by reducing restrictions on economic activity, encouraging free trade, emancipating the serfs, and introducing a common land tax (impôt unique) to spread the burden of taxation more evenly. The enlightened despots were conscious of these broad principles, although each adapted them to the conditions of their states and usually fell far short of total implementation. Joseh II went furthest; he abolished serfdom in 1781 and made preparations to introduce a land tax. Such reforms were subsequently imitated by several lesser rulers within the Holy Roman Empire. Frederick the Great adopted a more systematic approach to economic planning than that of Frederick William I, and no longer regarded Crown land merely as the personal property of the Hohenzollerns. Catherine the Great included a substantial section on the economy in her Instructions, much of it influenced directly by the Physiocrats. In the long term, however, the pull of the past was decisive, and experimentation with the ideas of the Enlightenment was considerably diluted in two ways. First, all three rulers continued to pursue traditional mercantilist policies which, at times, degenerated into heavy–handed state interference. Second, social changes were inevitably restricted by the power of the nobility. Frederick the Great realized from the start that he could not deprive the Prussian Junkers of their serf– owning rights if he hoped to keep them as one of the props of Hohenzollern absolutism. Catherine the Great was, at first, favourable to emancipating the serfs, but came round to the view that the hostility of the Russian Dvorianstvo would be so intense that she would run the risk of being deposed. Only Joseph II attempted radical social change. His edict of emancipation, however, was never successfully enforced and, under pressure of the nobility, was eventually repealed after his death.

Voltaire maintained: ‘We ought to bless a crowned head who makes religious toleration universal throughout 135 degrees of longitude.’10 He was referring to Catherine the Great's more lenient attitude towards Protestants and Catholics, which was fully in accord with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Frederick the Great held that each of his subjects should ‘get to heaven in his own way’ and Joseph II expressed open contempt for divisions based on religion. Frederick was an agnostic, Catherine a practising Russian Orthodox and Joseph a devout Catholic. Yet they had a common awareness that the foundation of the monarchy must be fully secular and that state control over the Church should be extended.

The enlightened despots were culturally far in advance of their predecessors. Frederick William I, the ‘drill sergeant’ of Prussia, was surpassed in philistinism only by Peter the Great, who was sometimes referred to as ‘the barbarian who civilized Russia’. Maria Theresa, although far less uncouth than the other two, had one eye permanently fixed on the political implications of all literature and even banned the use of English in Austria. Vienna during her reign was a cultural backwater of Europe. By contrast, Frederick the Great created in Berlin a late eighteenth–century rival to Paris as a literary centre. Joseph II removed the stifling censorship of Maria Theresa and made possible a flood of French literature into Austria. Catherine the Great brought the Russian mind into contact with the West for the first time. There were, however, notable anomalies and shortcomings in this hectic activity. Frederick the Great, referring to German as ‘that uncouth speech’, became an ardent Francophile, thus laying himself open to Goethe's charge that he was ‘bound in intellectual vassalage to Voltaire’. Catherine became increasingly aware of the political side–effects of literature emanating from France, and concentrated all western influences on developing a politically stable élite, imbued with a politically neutralized form of French culture. Joseph II discovered, to his horror, that Austria was open to extensive radical influences and felt obliged to restore heavy censorship towards the end of his reign. On the whole, however, there was less distortion of the Enlightenment in Austria than in Russia and Prussia, where it changed shape as it was absorbed into the system, adapted to the different social environment and, in some cases, trivialized.

It would be difficult to establish any direct connection between the Enlightenment and the aims of any of the eighteenth–century monarchs in diplomacy and warfare. All of the philosophers condemned warfare, regarding it as the ultimate form of irrational behaviour in a world which they believed could be ruled by reason. But none of the monarchs, whether clients of the Enlightenment or not, paid the slightest heed to pacific principles. Indeed, the most aggressive of all the eighteenth–century statesmen were precisely those rulers who claimed to be philosophers themselves, or those ministers, like Kaunitz, who had close connections with the En lightenment. Frederick the Great set the tone by attacking Silesia in 1740. He subsequently invaded Saxony in 1756 and brought about the First Partition of Poland in 1772. Catherine the Great acquired huge areas of Poland in three Partitions and tried to dismember the Ottoman Empire as well. Even Joseph II became involved in this search for territory, committing Austria to the side of Russia against Turkey. There was no difference between the policies of the enlightened despots and their contemporaries; all pursued territorial expansion through dynastic claims. Their ambitions were often quite explicitly stated. Frederick the Great observed: ‘Of all states, from the smallest to the biggest, one can safely say that the fundamental rule of government is the principle of extending their territories.’111Catherine the Great believed that ‘he who gains nothing loses’.11

Nevertheless, the Enlightenment did have some influence over the diplomatic methods used by Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Joseph II and Maria Theresa's foreign minister, Kaunitz, who all showed a new assurance and self– confidence in handling foreign affairs. This came from a belief that diplomacy had a form of inherent logic which could be deduced by a mind in tune with the rationalist approach encouraged by the Enlightenment and accustomed to subjecting any problem to penetrating analysis. By contrast, Frederick William I had been far more cautious, wanting, in the words of Peter the Great, to fish without wetting his feet; Peter himself had led a massive struggle against Sweden, but encountered little success in his experiments with diplomacy. Louis XIV had acted on impulse as much as on consideration, and Charles XII of Sweden had shown no diplomatic finesse whatsoever.

What gave added scope for the intrigues of the enlightened despots was the unstable diplomatic scene in eighteenth–century Europe. This instability was due mainly to the absence of ideology in warfare. Ideological differences intensify divisions between states and create a degree of permanence in their conflict with each other. Before 1648 the main ideological influence had been religion, and there had been very little room for side–changing in, for example, the Thirty Years’ War. A similar form of ‘stability’ in conflict occurred when French revolutionary ideas spread through Europe after 1792, and the countries of the ancien régime combined in an attempt to stamp them out. But in the eighteenth century alliances could be made and broken without any consideration of underlying enmities or commitments. Catherine the Great, for example, signed an alliance with Prussia in 1764 but resumed an older contact with Austria in 1781. Between 1755 and 1757 Kaunitz played the game of the enlightened despots with consummate skill. He managed, in the Diplomatic Revolution, to bring about a complete reversal of the alliances of the War of the Austrian Succession, enticing former opponents into supporting Austria as part of a general strategy to build up a huge coalition against Prussia. A fluctuating diplomatic scene was essential for his success, and he welcomed a state of chaos from which he could reconstruct, to carefully devised plans, for Austria's benefit.

Such designs always presupposed a close connection between diplomacy and warfare; these were in greater harmony in the eighteenth century than at any other time in history. The purpose of diplomacy was to accumulate allies and military resources so as to apply pressure on a point which was likely to yield territorial concessions. Hence the normal pattern was the formation of the military alliance by diplomacy, followed by a round of warfare and the adjustment of territory by peace treaty. If the peace treaty proved unsatisfactory it might be necessary to change the alliance so as to be in a better position for the next round of warfare. The eighteenth century was, therefore, a period in which shifting relationships between states could be used empirically and with almost brutal calculation. It is ironical that the Enlightenment, opposed to war as the antithesis of Reason, should have provided rulers and statesmen with a means of deducing, by use of Reason, the most successful tactics of aggression.

The end of enlightened despotism came in the 1790s, when the continental autocracies were threatened by a rejuvenated and republican France. Confronted with the sweeping ideology of Jacobinism, the uneasy co-operation between autocracy and the earlier elements of the French Enlightenment finally collapsed. It had always been an artificial alliance; absolutism had reached that point in its history where it had abandoned its traditional justification by Divine Right, and had experimented with theories which owed their origin not to the feudal state but to the growing self–awareness of the middle class. As the eighteenth century drew to a close a direct clash occurred in France between the older forms of autocracy and the most revolutionary elements of the middle class. ‘Enlightened’ rulers, now embarrassed by their former association with the leading spokesmen of the bourgeoisie and its culture, hastened to confirm their support for tradition in a manner which was aggressively dogmatic, both in the elimination of internal dissent and in its prosecution of the war with France from 1792.

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