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Enlightened absolutism (also called by later historians benevolent despotism or enlightened despotism) is a form of absolute monarchy or despotism in which rulers were influenced by the Enlightenment. Enlightened monarchs embraced the principles of the Enlightenment, especially its emphasis upon rationality, and applied them to their territories. They tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Most fostered the arts, sciences, and education.
Enlightened absolutists held that royal power emerged not from divine right but from a social contract whereby the ruler had a duty to govern wisely.
The difference between an absolutist and an enlightened absolutist is based on a broad analysis of how far they embraced the Age of Enlightenment. For example, although Empress Catherine II of Russia entirely rejected the concept of the social contract, she took up many ideas of the Enlightenment, being a great patron of the arts in Imperial Russia and incorporating many ideas of enlightened philosophes, especially Montesquieu, in her Nakaz, which was meant to revise Russian law.
In effect, the monarchs ruled with the intent of improving the lives of their subjects in order to strengthen or reinforce their authority. Implicit in this philosophy was that the sovereign knew the interests of his subjects better than they themselves; his responsibility to them thus precluded their political participation.
Voltaire was a prominent Enlightenment philosopher who felt enlightened monarchy was the only real way for society to advance.
However, historians debate the actual implementation of enlightened absolutism. They distinguish between the "enlightenment" of the ruler personally, versus that of his or her regime. For example, Frederick II, "The Great," of Prussia was tutored in the ideas of the French Enlightenment in his youth, and maintained those ideas in his private life as an adult, but in many ways was unable or unwilling to affect enlightened reforms in practice. Others rulers like Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the prime minister of Portugal, used the enlightenment not only to achieve reforms but also to enhance autocracy, crush opposition, suppress criticism, further colonial economic exploitation, and consolidate personal control and profit.
Government responses to the Age of Enlightenment varied widely. In France the government was hostile, and the philosophers fought against government censorship. The British government generally ignored the Enlightenment's leaders.
However in several nations with powerful rulers—called "enlightened despots" by historians—leaders of the Enlightenment were welcomed at Court and helped design laws and programs to reform the system, typically to build stronger national states. Frederick the Great--who ruled Prussia 1740–1786, was an enthusiast for French ideas (he ridiculed German culture and was unaware of the remarkable advances it was undergoing). Voltaire, who had been imprisoned and maltreated by the French government, was eager to accept Frederick's invitation to live at his palace. Frederick explained, "My principal occupation is to combat ignorance and prejudice ... to enlighten minds, cultivate morality, and to make people as happy as it suits human nature, and as the means at my disposal permit." Charles III, king of Spain from 1759 to 1788, tried to rescue his empire from decay through far-reaching reforms such as weakening the Church and its monasteries, promoting science and university research, facilitating trade and commerce, modernizing agriculture and avoiding wars. Spain relapsed after his death. Empress Catherine the Great, who ruled Russia 1762-1796 was enthusiastic. Emperor Joseph II, ruler of Austria 1780–1790, was over-enthusiastic, announcing so many reforms that had so little support that revolts broke out and his regime became a comedy of errors. Senior ministers Pombal in Portugal and Struensee in Denmark governed according to Enlightenment ideals.
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