1.20 Enlightened Despots?

The Enlightenment

Historians like to use labels to categorize and discuss people, events, places, and even eras. One term that is used in the latter half of the 18th century is the term “Enlightened Despot.” Enlightened despots, also called enlightened absolutists or enlightened monarchs, are defined by Lynn Hunt as: “Rulers – such as Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Joseph II of Austria – who tried to promote Enlightenment reforms without giving up their own supreme political power.”3

Key Takeaways

Watch these films on some of the Enlightened despots and consider how they incorporated their interpretation of Enlightenment ideas into their monarchies and states. By the time you finish, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is the definition of the term “Enlightened Despotism”?
  • Who are three examples of enlightened despots in the eighteenth century? Why were they given this title? Are they good examples of the Enlightenment?
  • What were the events and personalities that moved Britain during the eighteenth century from absolute to limited monarchy? Why did the same process not occur in France?

Perhaps the most notable “enlightened monarch” was Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia (r. 1740 – 1786). A great lover of French literature and philosophy, he insisted only on speaking French whenever possible (he once said that German was a language only useful for talking to one’s horse), and he redecorated the Prussian royal palace in the French style, in which he avidly hosted Enlightenment salons. Frederick so impressed the French philosophes that Voltaire came to live at his palace for two years until the two of them had a falling out. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas, he freed the serfs on royal lands and banned the more onerous feudal duties owed by serfs owned by his nobles. He also rationalized the royal bureaucracy, making all applicants pass a formal exam, which provided a limited path of social mobility for non-nobles.


Another ruler inspired by Enlightenment ideas was the Tsarina Catherine the Great (r. 1762 – 1796) of Russia. Catherine was a correspondent of French philosophes and actively cultivated Enlightenment-inspired art and learning in Russia. Hoping to increase the efficiency of the Russian state, she expanded the bureaucracy, reorganized the Russian Empire’s administrative divisions, and introduced a more rigorous and broad education for future officers of the military. She also created the first educational institution for girls in Russia, the Smolny Institute, admitting the daughters of nobles and, eventually, well-off commoners. Her enthusiasm for the Enlightenment dampened considerably as the French Revolution began in 1789, however, and while Russian nobles found their own privileges expanded, the vast majority of Russian subjects remained serfs. Like Frederick of Prussia, Catherine’s appreciation for “reason” had nothing to do with democratic impulses.


“Enlightened Monarch.” Age of Extremes: Empire of the Tsars. 2015. Films on Demand. 3:09.

One major political theme to emerge from the Enlightenment that did not require the goodwill of monarchs was the idea of “the rights of man” as they were known at the time. Emerging from a combination of rationalistic philosophy and what historians describe as new “sensibilities” – above all the recognition of the shared humanity of different categories of people – concepts of human rights spread rapidly in the second half of the eighteenth century. In turn, they fueled both demands for political reform and helped to inspire the vigorous abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement that flourished in Britain in particular. Just as torture came to be seen by almost all Enlightenment thinkers as not just cruel, but archaic and irrational, so slavery went from an unquestionable economic necessity to a loathsome form of ongoing injustice. Just as the idea of these rights of man would soon inspire both the American and French Revolutions in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the antislavery movements of the time would see many of their objectives achieved in the first few decades of the nineteenth (Britain would ban the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833, although it would take the American Civil War in the 1860s to end slavery in the United States).


  1. Hunt, 605. image


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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