Enlightened Absolutism


Enlightenment was a time of radical rationalization and liberalization of the Western thought in the 18th century. With the religion rapidly fading away from the intellectual circles of the continent, Rationalism replaced it. According to the Enlightenment thought, an intellectual maturity and freedom were the central components of philosophy. These aspects of Enlightenment were especially apparent in the works of French philosophers of the time. Most of these intellectuals applied these contemporary ideas to the matters of state and society, which resulted in the emergence of many new and unusual political ideologies. Freedom, probably the most visible characteristic of Enlightenment philosophy, was the common material in most of these new theories.

In the German Enlightenment thought, however, the concept of freedom was not consistently thought of as political freedom. Although Kant, probably the most important and influential philosopher of the German Enlightenment, was influenced by Rousseau and Locke and advocated freedom of religion, thought and expression, the separation of powers and representative government form; he never criticized the his ruler and state – rather, he revered Frederick II of Prussia as a pioneer of the Enlightenment.

The transition from traditional absolutism of the old ages to the enlightened absolutism can be observed in the reigns of Frederick II the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria. They, unlike their ascendants, did not require divine blessings or feudal approval to legitimize their rules – rather they built their power on the rational laws of nature. The state became an association of free individuals, rather than noble aristocrats with chunky lands. The ruler as “the first servant of the state” was bound to the “contract” with the subjects that he had to provide peace, security and welfare. This theory of the social contract emphasizes on the freedom of the individual. The ruler has the approval of these individuals to rule as long as he maintains the rights of freedom, security and property.

Frederick II saw himself as the first servant of the state. He managed the state, not the dynasty; he separated the dynasty and state. The administration of finance, politics, army and justice was his main concern. He set milestones with the abolition of torture and the mitigation of the death penalty. He also supported the improvement of the judiciary by simplifying the law and making it clear to the common folk. Nevertheless, despite progressive and enlightened thinking, there was a discrepancy in his actions. There were cases where he made the verdict and suspended the jurisdiction. His actions were acclaimed by the people, but with officials it often met with rejection and incomprehension. The Enlightenment calls for separation of powers and popular sovereignty, whereas absolutism seeks more efficient performance and administration of the state. These two different concepts often conflicted in such a way that one had to bow to make way for the other. Almost all the time, it was absolutism with some enlightenment elements coming out victorious.


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