Enlightened despots believed that political change could best come from above; from the ruler. However, they were encouraged by the philosophers to make good laws to promote human happiness. How did these monarchs differ from earlier unenlightened monarchs of the past? The difference lay in tempo. These new despots acted abruptly and desired quicker results. They were impatient with all that stood in the way of their reforms. In addition, they justified their authority on the grounds of usefulness, not divine right. These new monarchs were rational and reformist and they regarded political change as possible and desirable. Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, and Joseph II are good examples of Enlightened Despots.
Frederick II (Frederick the Great), the most famous Prussian absolute monarch and a military genius, pursued an aggressive foreign policy. In 1740 he seized from Austria the province of Silesia. His action culminated in a major European conflict, the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), in which he was pitted against a powerful European coalition of Austria, Russia, and France. Frederick, aided only by England, barely managed to retain Silesia. In 1772 Frederick shared in the first partition of Poland by annexing western Poland.
Frederick the Great was an almost perfect example of the enlightened despot. He was familiar with the ideas of the eighteenth-century reformers and a friend of Voltaire. Many of the philosophers, including Voltaire, felt progress could come faster if the government were directed by a reasonable, benevolent, enlightened despot, who would make his state's welfare his/her highest aim. Frederick the Great was just such a man.
Frederick the Great was a dazzling military and administrative success. His passion for military victory and his concern for his subjects provide the (almost) perfect example of the Enlightened Despot.
Catherine the Great was the German wife of Peter III. She corresponded actively with Voltaire and other prominent eighteenth-century thinkers, and paid lip service to their liberal ideas; but she did little to reform or modernize Russia. She introduced such western ideas as pleased her, at the same time increasing Russian autocracy and military power. In addition, she...