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Catherine, Frederick and Louis – Unenlightened Despots in an Enlightened Age

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The Enlightenment is touted by modern historians as a time of intellectual and social advancement, an era of optimism and freedom unheard of in earlier times. The era of absolutism is seen as a time of mounting liberty that contributed to the rise of democracy in the Americas and elsewhere. In reality, the “Enlightened Despotism” of the absolutist leaders was more in keeping with the tyrannical rulers of the pre-reformation Holy Roman Empire than with the democratic republic of modern America. Three of the most prominent absolutist leaders were Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Louis XIV of France – these three leaders are perfect examples of the avarice, tyranny and lust for power that characterizes the Enlightened Despots.

Catherine the Great was an absolutist leader who preached the benefits of the Enlightenment but made policy decisions in complete contradiction to Enlightenment ideals. After the death of her husband, Peter III (which Catherine may or may not have instigated) she assembled a legislative commission to draft a document that would reform Russia’s code of laws. Not only were the serfs not represented at this meeting, but after the Pugachev uprising, Catherine dismissed the commission altogether, choosing to draft the code herself. Her reforms of the Russian government only reinforced to the power of the oppressive Russian nobility and increased serfdom within Russia and her newly conquered frontiers and colonies. Catherine’s reign was rife with cronyism at its most severe, friends and lovers were granted complete control over huge swathes of land and the people who lived within them, tens of thousands of people were forced into virtual slavery due to the mere fact that their new landlord was an ex-lover of the Empress.

The dissatisfaction of the majority of the Russian population is visible through the number of peasant rebellions throughout Catherine’s reign, the most important being the aforementioned Pugachev uprising of 1773 . Pugachev’s army consisted of the most disaffected and oppressed of Russian society, mainly Cossacks, Bashkirs, Tartars, and serfs of all religions and ethnicities . A great majority of the Russian population suffered greatly under Catherine, forced into slavery and trapped in a never ending cycle of poverty caused by crippling taxation, only the very rich could afford to attend her newly-constructed schools and universities. Liberty was non-existent for all but those in bed with Catherine and her militaristic, imperialist foreign policy left Russia with huge expanses of land but no money with which to develop it.

Unlike most other absolutist leaders, Frederick the Great actually developed his nation for the people, his policies actually benefited the government and the people it governed. The Prussian economy and population thrived under Frederick. He “did not rule by his own personal whims, but always under the guidance of what was most beneficial for Prussia… “. What was most beneficial for Prussia however was not necessarily beneficial for Europe or the world as a whole; Frederick was known as a brilliant military strategist and used his talents many times throughout his reign, invading and conquering territory in Austria, France, Russia, Poland and the German Empire.

While violent empire-building may have been more internationally accepted in the sixteenth century, Frederick’s policies of unprovoked invasions of sovereign nations is far from the ideals of the modern, relatively stable states that are said to have been inspired by Frederick and the other Absolutists. While a strong military and aggressive foreign policy is an important facet of any tyrannical, authoritative government, it is especially important for the Enlightened Despots, particularly Prussia under Frederick the Great, with fifty percent of the state’s revenues going straight into the army. This strong militarism started a tradition that will last for centuries in the German psyche, this is readily apparent in later conflicts, namely the two World Wars.

Louis XIV is widely known as one of the most extravagant of the Enlightened Despots. After being deeply affected by the Fronde in his youth, Louis went to great lengths to establish himself as the ultimate sovereign power in France, no matter the consequences to the state or its people. During Louis’ reign, the poorest of society suffered under very heavy taxation, which then went to fund France’s many foreign wars and giant public edifices. It is suspected that by the end of Louis’ life, more than half of France’s annual income went to the improvement and maintenance of the palace at Versailles . The nobility also suffered under Louis as he marginalized their importance and forced them to spend all of their time, energy and money on royal protocol and customs. The Sun King’s policies were also notorious for their religious intolerance, though this was due more to Louis’ need to control the people than his religious conviction (as he also diminished the power of the papacy within France).

With the issuance of the Edict of Fontainebleau in October of 1685, French Hugenots lost all rights of religious freedom granted by the Edict of Nantes (1598). All Protestant ministers were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism or face exile, Protestant churches and schools were demolished and Catholic priests forcibly baptized children born to Protestant parents. These new anti-Protestant policies augmented previous policies that quartered soldiers in Protestant homes and prevented Protestants from holding public office. As hard as he was on the Hugenots, Louis was even harder on France’s Jewish population as they were entirely barred from living in France or any of its colonies, a reflection of the ancient anti-Semitism that still exists today. Contrary to enlightened thinking of the time, Louis encouraged slavery with his “Code Noir” (Black Code), allowing French Catholics to hold slaves, as long as the slaves themselves were baptized by Catholic priests . Louis XIV proclaimed himself a “man of the enlightenment” and pledged to rule France according to Enlightenment ideals, but like most other absolutist leaders, his actual policies were purely unenlightened and intended only to keep the population in a state of blind servitude.

The Enlightenment was a great leap forward in the advancement of Western civilization; it flourished not because of the Absolutist leaders, but in spite of them. This is not to say that Absolutism did not leave a lasting impression on history; the tyrannical, oppressive leaders of the old world saw a changing Europe at the dawn of the Enlightenment and they evolved along with it, developing new ways to manipulate the population. The repercussions of the avarice, greed and tyranny of the Enlightened Despots can still be felt today in Europe, the Middle East, The Americas and elsewhere, people still suffer as a result of decisions made by the absolutists in the sixteenth century.

“If you think of yourselves as helpless and ineffectual, it is certain that you will create a despotic government to be your master. The wise despot, therefore, maintains among his subjects a popular sense that they are helpless and ineffectual.”

~ Frank Herbert

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