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.