This was the name given to the monarchs who in mid-18th century Europe took inspiration from the French Enlightenment and decided to loosen the reins of absolutism and improve the lot of their subjects. “Enlightened Despot” sounds like a contradiction in terms but that is because we are looking at it through a rear-view mirror and with today’s eye.
In their day, this was quite a novel idea. They sincerely wanted to institute reforms without in any way undermining their absolute power. They were familiar with the writers of the day and their ideas about religious tolerance, improved education and a measure of uncensored expression. This was political change from above, benevolent paternalism, which could be undone at their whim. They were also acting selfishly because they wanted to lessen the power of the landed aristocracy and that of the Church. Continue reading