We explain what enlightened despotism is and what its general characteristics are. Also, its consequences and importance.

What was enlightened despotism?

Enlightened despotism (also benevolent despotism or enlightened absolutism ) was called a political concept that emerged within the framework of the Old European Regime , in the second half of the 18th century, and that combined absolutism with the philosophical ideas of the French Enlightenment, such as faith in human reason, in a paternalistic model of government .

Enlightened despotism contributed to the cultural growth of their nations , insofar as the monarchs considered it their task to stimulate art and education among their subjects.

However, this did not mean in any way the renunciation of their aristocratic privileges or the narrowing of the gap between social classes , much less a voluntary transition towards a republican order.

His model of thought is summarized in the phrase "Everything for the people, but without the people" , which implied an order designed for the welfare of the masses, but led by the elite.

Origin of enlightened despotism

Origin of enlightened despotism

Enlightenment despotism had its beginning in the second half of the 18th century , as a consequence of the criticism of the enlightened philosophers of the monarchical regime that promoted inequalities and injustices.

These critics did not bet, however, on the arrival of a revolution and a violent court, but on the gradual change of structures towards a more modern and more rational society .

This represents the change from fear of innovation to faith in gradual development, which buried the last medieval strongholds that were preserved in the European monarchy and laid the foundations, unknowingly, for the coming French Revolution .


Absolutism is the name given to the form of total monarchy, which grants the King the indisputable powers of the State , sovereignty resides in his person and does not subject the decisions of the monarch to any form of control or public control.

It was the last form of monarchy assumed before the French Revolution of 1789, since it generated great inequalities and annoyances in the population , arbitrarily subjected to what the aristocracy decided.



For its part, the Enlightenment was a philosophical, artistic and scientific movement that emerged in post-Renaissance Europe , and whose faith was placed in human reason and progress as the way to overcome the difficulties existing in society .

It arose in France in the seventeenth century but had an enormous worldwide impact and constitutes the cornerstone of modern man's reasoning.

Pact between the Aristocracy and the Bourgeoisie

To achieve enlightened despotism, they had to agree to two antagonistic social classes: the aristocracy, the former holder of power since medieval times , and the bourgeoisie , a new rising social class thanks to the accumulation of capital.

The latter would end up revolutionizing social schemes and leading to capitalism . To avoid this, the monarchy sought a series of gradual changes for the benefit of the commoner masses, to provide them with a better standard of living and prevent them from demolishing the building of privileges that the aristocracy had held for centuries.

Modernization of the monarchy

Modernization of the monarchy

The modernization of the absolutist monarchy meant, basically, the concern of the monarchical elites for the well-being of the people , considering it an obligation (“ nobility obliges ”) of the powerful, implicit in a paternal vision of the political order: the elite had to make the decisions to lead the populace towards the most favorable scenario for the latter.

This modernization consisted of:

  • Promotion of the arts and sciences .
  • Concern for the cultural level of the nation and for the strengthening of education.
  • Religious tolerance and greater freedom of the press .
  • Creation of economic societies and reforms in public administration .
  • Modernization of cities .

Limitations of enlightened despotism

The main limitations of this model had to do with its failure in the social model , in contrast to its successes in administration, economics and education.

The failure of social reform is mainly due to the fact that the monarchy was willing to give in in some fields , but not to reformulate the caste society of the Old Regime, so it never really satisfied the aspirations of the plebs.

Consequences of enlightened despotism

Consequences of enlightened despotism

Enlightenment despotism provided an important boost to the sciences and arts of Europe during its time, spreading enlightened ideas that, ironically, would function as the fuse that lit the revolution.

In fact, in the same France in 1789 the popular rebellion would break out to the clamor for a more just and rationally constructed society .

Importance of enlightened despotism

The role of this system as a failed hinge between the monarchical feudal order and the new pre-capitalist society of the bourgeoisie was important, since it revealed the inability of the absolutist system to adapt to the world to come and incidentally sowed the seed of the Enlightenment among the masses who, otherwise, would have had more difficult access to the letter.

Main illustrated monarchs

Main illustrated monarchs

Among the main enlightened despots are the kings Carlos III of Spain and José I of Portugal , along with José II of Austria, Frederick II of Prussia (“the Great”) and, above all, Catherine II of Russia, famous for their patronage of art and education in Imperial Russia.

End of enlightened despotism

The end of enlightened despotism is considered the emergence in England of the Parliamentary Monarchy , anticipating the winds of change, and the Bourgeois Revolutions in the rest of Europe, the most important revolt being the French Revolution of 1789, in which the absolutist order violently and the monarchs were executed, among other important events such as the very first proclamation of the universal rights of man, born of the ideas of the Enlightenment and incompatible with the absolutist order.

The above content published at Collaborative Research Group is for informational and educational purposes only and has been developed by referring reliable sources and recommendations from technology experts. We do not have any contact with official entities nor do we intend to replace the information that they emit.


Luke is passionate about fostering student involvement and connection. He studied psychology for his major and likes learning about the past. Luke aims to specialize in artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. .

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