Enlightened Absolutism: New Wine in Old Bottles?
Crook, Malcolm, History Review
Some twenty years ago historians were reading the last rites over the notion of Enlightened Absolutism, or Enlightened Despotism as it was more popularly known. Yet the obituaries have turned out to be premature. The concept is still alive, even kicking, as this brief re-examination of the relationship between monarchy and reform in eighteenth-century Europe will suggest. It was the late Betty Behrens who declared that Enlightened Despotism was a red herring, which had hindered rather than helped our understanding of the ancien regime.(1) According to her, the political history of this period was a case of old wine in old bottles; it was misleading to claim that a new type of monarchy emerged under the influence of the Enlightenment. A generation of historians subsequently foreswore to employ the term and banished it from the text-books, but the problem it addressed, as to why governments in the period immediately preceding the French Revolution displayed such reforming vitality, was never satisfactorily resolved by recourse to raison d'etat as sufficient explanation, still less to social and economic necessity.(2) Though there is still some reluctance to take Enlightened Absolutism, a much better way of putting it, out of the historical closet, there is certainly renewed interest in the extent to which the policies espoused by absolute monarchies were affected by the Enlightenment in the second half of the eighteenth century.
A discredited concept?
Of course, the relationship between ideas and reform is a complex one and Enlightened Despotism has been dogged by a rather simplistic view of both the Enlightenment and eighteenth-century government. If the former boiled down to the origins of modern liberalism and heralded the revolutions which occurred later in the century, as it did for an influential writer like Peter Gay, then Enlightened Despotism was a contradiction in terms. Efforts by monarchs to deck out their policies in the trappings of enlightened thought could be dismissed as a propaganda exercise of little consequence. Indeed, the term itself was allegedly anachronistic. It was only employed by one or two obscure writers, while despotism in any guise was vehemently denounced by Montesquieu and Rousseau, the major political philosophers of the day. When scholars began searching for hard evidence of reforms inspired by enlightened texts, they discovered that similar policies had been attempted before. Later efforts, though cast in the appropriate terminology, frequently ended in failure too.
Attention usually fixed upon three leading absolutist rulers who freely acknowledged their affinities with the Enlightenment: Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia and Joseph II of the Habsburg Empire. Charles III of Spain and Gustavus III of Sweden were sometimes thrown in for good measure, but it seemed that all of them flattered to deceive. Frederick, whose cultural pretensions had appalled his boorish father, declared war on the Habsburgs as soon as he came to the throne in 1740, earning the title `the Great' for his military prowess, not his enlightened credentials. Catherine, whose sexual activities have always aroused considerable interest, was speedily despatched as a hypocritical tyrant. Despite publishing a Nokaz, or Instruction, which drew heavily upon Enlightenment writings, the philosophical tsarina proceeded to oppress the Russian people, who were weighed down by the chains of serfdom and exploited by an increasingly privileged nobility. Joseph, the least successful of the trio on the diplomatic front, is often credited with greater sincerity and labelled 'the only truly enlightened despot', yet some of his most famous utterances have now been proved false and many of his reforms produced political disasters.
The intellectual flabbiness surrounding notions of Enlightened Despotism was rightly criticised, for they assumed that a coherent package of reforming ideas was available, which rulers were free to adopt and implement at will. …