History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 2012: Q.5 (a)

History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 2012: Q.5 (a)

Q.5 (a) “The despotic rulers of Europe were influenced by the philosophy of Enlightenment and begun to follow a benevolent policy towards their subjects.” Critically examine.


In the later years of the Enlightenment, despotic monarchs in several European countries were inspied by Enlightenment and adopted some of the ideas of Enlightenment with included benevolence towards their subjects. Though their despotic rule continued.

Benevolent policies of Enlightened despots

Enlightened monarchs tended to allow religious toleration, freedom of speech and the press, the right to hold private property etc.

(1) 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) 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) Charles III of Spain implemented a number of reforms. He weakened the influence of the Church, enabled land ownership for the poor, and vastly improved transportation routes.

(4) 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.

But not all policies of Enlightened despots were benevolent

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

(2)) Joseph II 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) During Frederick the Great, inspite of reforms, 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 who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, 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) Many Enlightened despots 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.

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