Explain with examples the reformative impact of the age of enlightenment in Europe on the despotic rulers of that period. (15 marks)
- Introduce with what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment in Europe
- Explain how the rulers were influenced by the philosophy of Enlightenment – like Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russiaand Joseph II of Austria etc.
- Conclude appropriately
Due to the growing emphasis on reason, the period of the 18th century of European history is called as the age of reason or the age of Enlightenment. In the 18th century, there were many kings and rulers who endeavored to adopt new ideas in the political, economic and social systems of their countries. Thegeneral impact of enlightenment can be seen clearly in the administrative reforms carried out by some of the rulers.
Rulers who were greatly influenced are as follows:
Emperor of Austria:
- One of the rulers of Europe who was influenced by the great ideas of Enlightenment philosophers was Emperor Joseph II of Austria.
- The impact of enlightenment was felt in evolving his administrative system.
- He was a great admirer of Voltaire and Rousseau. He declared, “I have made philosophy the legislator of my empire; its logical principles shall transform Austria”.
- His religious reforms were based on his secular attitude. Jews and Protestants were accorded equal rights with Catholics.
- He removed all privileges enjoyed by the nobles and the clergy, and compelled them to share the burden of taxes like the rest in the society.
- His greatest act was abolition of serfdomin his empire.
Empress of Russia:
- Catherinethe Great of Russia was also influenced by the ideas of enlightenment. She considered herself as an enlightened despot.
- She declared that she was a student of the works of Montesquieu and Blackstone.
- She was influenced by the writings of Voltaire. She invited Diderot, the famous author of French Encyclopedia, to visit her court.
- During her time, Russia witnessed the birth of an intellectual class. She founded the famous Smolny Institute in St Petersburg.
The king of Prussia
- The influence of enlightenment also was felt upon Frederick II the Great of Prussia.
- He earned fame not only as a great ruler but also as a great intellectual. He was fond of poets, artists and philosophers, and some of these men visited his court.
- He was immensely influenced by Voltaire and French literature.
- Frederick restored the glory of the Berlin Academy of Science.
- He extended religious tolerance despite being a protestant.
Other rulers of Europe:
The Spanish king, Charles III and the Portuguese ruler Joseph I were also influenced by the new trends. Among the other progressive kings of Europe in that period, the remarkable names are Gustav III the king of Sweden and Charles Emmanuel III the king of Tuscany. Those kings were also influenced by the new wave of Enlightenment.
These rulers strove hard for reforms and the establishment of good government. However, they did not propose reforms that would undermine their sovereignty or disrupt the social order.