"Enlightened Despots" Essay

799 words - 4 pages

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rulers adopted basic enlightenment principles, like religious toleration, freedom of speech and press, and the right to hold and maintain private property. According to Kant, in his What is Enlightenment? of 1784, “A prince who…prescribes nothing to men in religious matters but to give them complete freedom while renouncing the haughty name of tolerance, is himself enlightened and deserves to be esteemed by the grateful world and posterity.” Many rulers accepted these newfound ideas; however, when it came time to actually implement them, rulers were often too scared of losing power. This, in turn, led to the idea of an “enlightened despot,” who reflected the principles of the Enlightenment, yet continued to exercise the basic ideals of despotism.
In Frederick II’s Political Testament of 1752, he acknowledges and accepts the idea of religious tolerance. He even goes so far as to say that, “If the sovereign…declares himself for one religion or another…the religion persecuted will leave the fatherland, and millions of subjects will enrich our neighbors by their skill and industry.” Basically, Frederick believes that religious intolerance only leaves the country disabled. In his work, Essay on Forms of Government, Frederick attacks the luxury, pomp, and debauchery perpetrated by an inadequate sovereign. He also believes that a ruler should act on behalf of the common advantage. To top it all off, Frederick lists supposed indispensable characteristics of a dutiful sovereign, which included, “…they must be active, hard-working, upright and honest and concentrate all their strength upon filling their office worthily…” Almost all of the ideas he presents in these documents stem from the great enlightenment thinkers of the years prior; however, in many ways Frederick mirrored the “unenlightened” rulers he criticized. The ruler prior to Frederick II, Frederick William, had helped contribute to the disintegration of the strict adherence to social classes in Prussia; however, once crowned ruler, Frederick II instated an even stricter adherence to the estates system. This shift in ruling styles is often viewed as a fearful ploy to regain the power he so desperately longed for.
Like Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine II of Russia upheld enlightened ideas, yet when it came between revolutionizing or maintaining and accumulating power, she chose the latter. In her Proposals for a New Law Code in 1767, it became apparent that Catherine believed in working for the supreme...

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