Enlightened Despotism in Prussia

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  • Topic: Frederick II of Prussia, Enlightened absolutism, Despotism
  • Pages : 7 (2566 words )
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  • Published : April 16, 2011
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Assignment: 1

• Critically examine the main features of Enlightened Despotism in 18th century Prussia.

The Enlightenment refers to an important cultural and intellectual movement of the 18th century, whose goal was to establish knowledge based on an enlightened rationality. Enlightened Absolutism or Enlightened Despotism as it is more often called can be defined as a form of government strongly influenced by the wide propagation of ideas and the political philosophy of the Enlightenment. It is a term first used by the Philosophes in the second half of the 18th century that manifested to describe a particular phase in the development of absolutism. The term ‘Enlightened Despot’ refers to those 18th century monarchs who were familiar with the ideas of the Enlightenment and distinguished themselves from regular despots by the way they governed. The title of Enlightened Despot has been bestowed on many monarchs such as Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia and Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Austria. Their policies vary in general because each enlightened despot took very different views of their position and thought of enlightened rule in very different terms. However, there are certain distinctive features, which mark the regimes of almost all enlightened despots. These include the implementation of religious tolerance, reforms in the education system, improvements in legal procedure, rationalization and centralization of the administration, the raising of the standard of living of the working classes and the improvement of the economic situation of the country.

The first time that a debate was aroused on the essential character of Enlightened Despotism was not until 1928, when the French scholar M.Lheritier made a critical study of this term. He found that there was no special study of Enlightened Despotism in existence and regarded it as an urgent task that an investigation is made. His contribution was purely based on French conditions and according to him; Enlightened Despotism was born in the sixth decade of the 18th century as a programme of reform based on the doctrines of the Physiocrats. In his opinion, it acquired importance because its leaders had established contact with sovereigns of other countries like Catherine II of Russia and had influenced their methods of government. But even Lheritier was forced to admit that most of the rulers who are regarded as representatives of Enlightened Despotism were not really influenced by these theories. On the contrary, their activities for the most part occurred before the doctrine had been enunciated. Nevertheless, Lheritier’s arguments are not entirely satisfactory. The terms ‘Despotisme éclaire’ or ‘Despotisme legal’ were found in the writings of the Physiocrats from about 1760 onwards with the first to use it being Diderot. The characteristic doctrines of Enlightened Despotism developed in France as a political offshoot of the economic doctrines of the Physiocrats. They advocated a natural order, which was based on the liberty of the individual, particularly in its economic aspects. Any interference with the natural development of economic life through measures taken by the state were rejected on principle. In order to carry through this task, it was necessary that the executive power of the state should lie undivided in the hands of the monarchy. The Physiocrats advocated hereditary monarchy, without any restrictions and rejected-1) the division of power 2) parliamentary control. They also demanded the right to free discussion and even foreign policy came under the doctrine of Enlightened Absolutism. These theories of the Physiocrats did not remain completely unopposed and it was not easy to proclaim the advantages of enlightened despotism. Not only French scholars, but also German scholars developed similar principles resting on the same basis of Enlightened Absolutism. Though their ideas were not as revolutionary as those of the Physiocrats, their...
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