The second half of the eighteenth century is the turning point in East European history. It was the age when the states of the region reaped the legacy of earlier backwardness; the age of the dismemberment of Poland, the humiliation of Austria and Turkey, the germination of the anti-feudal and pro-nationalist sentiments of later generations; and it was the age of enlightened despotism.
Enlightenment and its associated images are the constant refrain of the eighteenth century. ‘We, nurtured on our sweet dreams of enlightenment, will scarce credit that in the purportedly so enlightened eighteenth century all this priestcraft really still exists’, cried the Prussian traveller Nicolai in Vienna in 1780. ‘At last’, exulted the Austrian ambassador to Berlin in 1774 on news that general primary education was to be introduced in Austria, ‘the time has come when the truth is emerging in new splendour from the dark clouds which have enveloped it, and is entering upon its rights.’ What underlay the rhetoric? The light of Enlightenment was the light of human reason, exalted as the tool of intellectual inquiry by Descartes, employed to reveal the secrets of the physical universe by Newton and applied to problems of human society by Locke. The achievement of the eighteenth-century philosophes was chiefly to popularize the insights of these great predecessors and, by applying them to fresh fields, to build up a systematic body of knowledge. Political thinkers gave ideas of the sovereign’s responsibility, even accountability, for the good of his subjects a new meaning. The physiocrat economists advocated tax reforms and an improvement in the position of the peasants. Voltaire and others stressed freedom of conscience and intellectual inquiry as a condition of progress. Greater humanity was urged in education, in the treatment of the sick and infirm and in prison reform. The philosophes’ attack on the traditions of the ancien regime in the name of rationally conceived ‘Laws of Nature’ reflected Western Europe’s long evolution away from exclusively feudal norms.