CHY 4U - Modern Western Civilization - The West and the World
Catherine, Frederick and Louis - Unenlightened Tyrants in an Enlightened Age
It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.
-- Niccolo Machiavelli, - The Prince
The Enlightenment is touted by modern historians as a time of intellectual and social advancement, an era of optimism and freedom unheard of in earlier times. The era of absolutism is seen as a time of mounting liberty that contributed to the rise of democracy in the Americas and elsewhere. In reality, the "Enlightened Despotism" of the absolutist leaders was more in keeping with the tyrannical rulers of the pre-reformation Holy Roman Empire than with the democratic republic of modern America. Three of the most prominent absolutist leaders were Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Louis XIV of France - these three leaders are perfect examples of the avarice, tyranny and lust for power that characterizes the Enlightened Despots.
Catherine the Great was an absolutist leader who preached the benefits of the Enlightenment but made policy decisions in complete contradiction to Enlightenment ideals. After the death of her husband, Peter III (which Catherine may or may not have instigated) she assembled a legislative commission to draft a document that would reform Russia's code of laws. Not only were the serfs not represented at this meeting, but after the Pugachev uprising, Catherine dismissed the commission altogether, choosing to draft the code herself. Her reforms of the Russian government only reinforced to the power of the oppressive Russian nobility and increased serfdom within Russia and her newly conquered frontiers and colonies. Catherine's reign was rife with cronyism at its most severe, friends and lovers were granted complete control over huge swathes of land and the people who lived within them, tens of thousands of people were forced into virtual slavery due to the mere fact that their new landlord was an ex-lover of the Empress. The dissatisfaction of the majority of the Russian population is visible through the number of peasant rebellions throughout Catherine's reign, the most important being the aforementioned Pugachev uprising of 1773 . Pugachev's army consisted of the most disaffected and oppressed of Russian society, mainly Cossacks, Bashkirs, Tartars, and serfs of all religions and ethnicities . A great majority of the Russian population suffered greatly under Catherine, forced into slavery and trapped in a never ending cycle of poverty caused by crippling taxation, only the very rich could afford to attend her newly-constructed schools and universities. Liberty was non-existent for all but those in bed with Catherine and her militaristic, imperialist foreign policy left Russia with huge expanses of land but no money with which to develop it.
Unlike most other absolutist leaders, Frederick the Great actually developed his nation for the people, his policies actually benefited the government and the people it governed. The Prussian economy and population thrived under Frederick. He "did not rule by his own personal whims, but always under the guidance of what was most beneficial for Prussia... ". What was most beneficial for Prussia however was not necessarily beneficial for Europe or the world as a whole; Frederick was known as a brilliant military strategist and used his talents many times throughout his reign, invading and conquering territory in Austria, France, Russia, Poland and the German Empire . While violent empire-building may have been more internationally accepted in the sixteenth century, Frederick's policies of unprovoked invasions of sovereign nations is far from the ideals of the modern, relatively stable states that are said to have been inspired by Frederick and the other Absolutists. While a strong military and aggressive foreign policy is an important facet of any tyrannical, authoritative government, it is...
Bibliography: Nov. 2004
Donald Stark, "Pugachev"
[http://www.donaldstark.co.uk/essays/1715-99/pugachev.pdf], Sept. 2004
Paul Halsall, Modern History Sourcebook "Catherine the Great"
[http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/18catherine.html], Aug. 1997
Ursula Grosser Dixon, "Catherine the Great"
[http://members.tripod.com/~Nevermore/CGREAT.HTM], Nov. 1996
Gerhard Rempel, "Catherine and Pugachev"
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