Also known as benevolent despotism, the form of government in which absolute monarchs pursued legal, social, and educational reforms inspired by the ideals and philosophy of the Enlightenment, enlightened despotism spread throughout Europe during the 18th century. 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, or her, subjects better than they themselves. Therefore, his responsibility to them thus precluded their political participation for the state. Among the most prominent Enlightened Despots were Frederick II of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, and Catharine II of Russia.
“The great” as he is often referred to, Frederick II (born January 1712, died august 1786) was one of the great leaders of the militaristic state of Prussia. Frederick generally supported religious toleration through his reign (1740-1786), including the retention of the Jesuits as teachers in some of the major regions of Prussia. He recognized the educational skills the Jesuits had as an asset for the nation. Frederick the great also encouraged the movement of Jewish citizens from the cities to the Polish border where they would be completely free to trade under the protection of the state. In addition to religious tolerance, the enlightened despot was also renowned for modernizing the nation of Prussia from a small relatively insignificant country into an economically strong and politically reformed state, basing its political significance to a militaristic society.
Frederick II’s personal life almost reflected the enlightenment directly through his education, musical and artistic interests. A gifted musician who played the flute, composed over a hundred different sonnets and four symphonies, Frederick could speak French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian; he also understood Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and Hebrew. A man of philosophy and sophistication, he preferred the French culture and writing over that of his native land of Germany. Though his strict military leadership revolutionized the role of Prussia in European affairs, his enlightened despotism led the citizen of Prussia into a new era of freedoms
Joseph II, (born March, 1741 – died February, 1790), is often given the title of “enlightened despot” for his search to introduce administrative, legal, economical, and ecclesiastical reforms to his homeland of Austria. Joseph was crowned Holy Roman emperor from 1765–1790, at first co-ruling with his mother, Maria Theresa (1765–1780), and then obtaining the position of ruler (1780–90) of the Austrian Habsburg dominions. He accepted and maintained religious toleration was anxious to reduce the power of the church, and to relieve the peasantry of feudal burdens. Joseph also removed restrictions on trade in Habsburg lands, and opened philosophical knowledge and discussion, propionates of the Enlightenment.
Joseph II created scholarships for talented poor students, and allowed the establishment of schools for Jews and other religious minorities, increasing the average literacy and education rate within the territories he ruled over. One of his most famous resolutions imposed was the failed attempt to reform the highly traditional Roman Catholic Church. Though Joseph II’s planned reforms to help improve the society he is also often described as being a very expansionistic leader, who sought to make the Habsburg monarchy the greatest of the European powers. Opposed to the nations of Prussia and Turkey, the Habsburg’s military power was often directed to acquiring lands along the borders of the two nations, such as Bavaria. However, Joseph II soon became involved with a very expensive war against the Turks, and had to look to his ally of Russia for assistance as to protect the security of his people.
Renowned for her progressive attitude and being the longest ruling female in Russia, Catherine the Great changed the course of history drastically with her reign. Catherine ruled from about 1762-1796, encompassing a great deal of Western European philosophy and understanding, which not only boosted Russia’s knowledge and technology, but allowed the gargantuan nation to grow into one of the most powerful nations in the world. When Catherine was a young girl her mother, Elizabeth (Empress of Russia from 1741-1762), had died leaving the throne for Peter III to succeed to. Peter III was renounced for his immature and child-like characteristics. The new Czar’s eccentricities and policies alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. One such policy was for the admiration of the Prussian king Fredrick II whom his mother had fought during her reign.
Peter’s lust for power and half-wit characteristics caused Catherine to start a coup against his reign, resulting in his death. Catherine succeeded the throne, becoming the new czarina. Catherine’s rule is most strongly characterized by her expansion foreign policies and philosophical, enlightened despotism which began to take hold during her reign. Catherine saw the potential for the mainly landlocked Russian empire. She expanded the giant nation in all directions attempting to gain access to ice-free waters in the Baltic Sea and build trading ports along the Black Sea. The quick expansion was met by violence and bloodshed as the Russian Armies fought both the Turks to the South and the Prussians to the West. Catherine’s ambitious views and policies finally won over, allowing the motherland to grow to an exponential size.
Catherine’s policies, internally took a form of the enlightenment that had been happening in Western Europe, roughly the same time. She led her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Europe, carrying on the work begun by Peter the Great. Catherine gained a reputation as a patron of the arts, literature, and education. Obtaining a good sense of the cultural and philosophical ideals of Western Europe from the Enlightenment added to Catherine’s physique and philosophical understanding. Catherine also believed education could change the hearts and minds of the Russian people and turn them away from the so called “backwardness” often described as by Peter I. Catherine’s desire and passion fueled Russia into a new era that would change the course of history for years to come.
Of the Enlightened Despots of Europe the most significant and influential were Frederick II of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, and Catharine II of Russia. All helped to change and empower their homeland nations to the state that it is today, and each revolutionized the philosophical, political, and social ideals brought forward from the Enlightenment. My personal favorite ruler to hold the title as enlightened despot would probably have to be Catharine the great of Russia. For her unmatched devotion to bring her country into full participation in the political and cultural life of Western Europe, Catharine provided Russia with the revolutionary, enlightenment ideals that would help spark a remarkable change to northern, titanic nation’s history.