History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 2014: Q.5 (c)

History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 2014: Q.5 (c)

Q.5 (c) “Enlightened despots (Europe) were not necessarily politically liberal.” Critically examine.


In the later years of the Enlightenment, absolute monarchs in several European countries adopted some of the ideas of Enlightenment political philosophers and inspired by Enlightenment ideas. They were called Enlightened despots.

Enlightened monarchs especially embraced its emphasis upon rationality. In many cases they tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, and the right to hold private property. Most fostered the arts, sciences, and education.

Some examples of Enlightened despots

(1) Catherine the Great

In Russia, empress Catherine the Great decried torture while greatly improving education, health care, and women’s rights, as well as clarifying the rights of the nobility. She also insisted that the Russian Orthodox Church become more tolerant of outsiders.

(2) Maria-Theresa and Joseph II

In Austria, monarchs Maria-Theresa and Joseph II worked to end mistreatment of peasants by abolishing serfdom and also promoted individual rights, education, and religious tolerance.

(3) Frederick the Great

An admirer of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, supported the arts and education, reformed the justice system, improved agriculture, and created a written legal code.

Limitations of Enlightened despots

However, although some changes and reforms were implemented, most of these rulers did not fundamentally change absolutist rule. In many cases, their poilicies were not politically liberal because:

(1) Catherine the Great continued to imprison many of her opponents and maintained censorship and serfdom.

(2) Joseph was over-enthusiastic, announcing so many reforms that had so little support, that and his regime became a comedy of errors and revolts broke out and all his programs were reversed.

(3) Although reforms strengthened and streamlined the Prussian state, the tax burden continued to fall on peasants and commoners.

(4) There was difference between the “enlightenment” of the ruler personally, versus that of his or her regime. For example, Frederick the Great was tutored in the ideas of the French Enlightenment in his youth, and maintained those ideas in his private life as an adult, but in many ways was unable or unwilling to effect enlightened reforms in practice.

(5) Others rulers like the Marquis of Pombal, prime minister of Portugal, used the enlightenment not only to achieve reforms but also to enhance autocracy, crush opposition, suppress criticism, further colonial economic exploitation, and consolidate personal control and profit.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. aj says:

    The 18th century,it may be said was the period of enlightenment deposition.Great changes if beneficent kinds were carried out by the concentration of all powers in the hands of well-intentioned monarch’s.It was still despotism.
    German state appeared to be most fertile ground for enlightened despotism.Fredrick abolished landlord rights to punish serfs,relaxed censorship and abolished capital punishment.But when he freed serf’s of royal domains,it was because he needed them in army.
    Austrian queen abolished serfdom and peasant could even take lord to court.However,peasant now own state even more taxes and were subjected to longer term of military services.peasants though legally free remained indebted to their lord’s.
    Catherine confine security of property,the rights to hold serf’s and immunity from arrest and confiscation by the state.But the empress imprisoned those with whom she disagreed.
    Although it was realised that government existed for the good of the people,it was denied that it should be directed by the people.None of enlightened rulers gave up any of his or her monarchical prerogative.


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