Thursday, October 27, 2011

Enlightened Absolutism

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Enlightened Absolutism can be viewed as a streamed lined style of monarchical government that relies on a single branch of governmental decision making, which is founded on sound logical reason. Frederick the Great, who ruled the eastern German state of Prussia from 1740-1786, was a catalyst for this new style of government.

The enlightened absolutists such as Frederick justified their absolute authority by proclaiming themselves servants of the state or the people. Frederick believed that he had a special tie or ‘social contract’ with the people he ruled. “The citizens only granted pre-eminence to one of their fellows in return for serves which they expected from him”. Frederick believed in this partnership and believed it was his duty to protect the interest of his public and in doing so took a direct responsibility for every decision made regarding it. In serving the people Frederick was an advocate for social reform, which comprised of an important component of enlightened absolutism. By actively pursuing reform Frederick believed government would be able to stamp out unequal treatment before the law and preserve rights and property. Frederick eliminated the use of torture in judicial proceedings and judicial punishments, abandoned capital punishment and greatly reduced corruption in the judicial system. He passed a series of measures to protect religious minorities and abolished the serf system, which tied tenant farmers to certain properties for life.

Aside from social reform, Frederick believed that a ruler (especially of a small State) should be ever so inclined to rule his people directly, by assuming complete control over political decision-making. He disliked the approach France took in its political make-up, entrusting the political decisions to appointed ministers, who in turn were responsible for the state’s affairs in finance, war, marine and foreign affairs. Frederick believed delegating responsibility furthers to complicate the decision making process. “They must all be coordinated simultaneously, and their joint effect, if operated according to sound rules of policy will bring the greatest benefit to States ”. Individual ministers become self-serving, interested only in matters, which benefit them, and promoting their own careers, thus making it increasingly more difficult to come to an agreement on matters, which affect the state.

According to Frederick, all actions taken must be well reasoned, and all financial, political and military matters must flow towards one goal, which is the strengthening of the state and the furthering of its power, and for Frederick this means action must come from a single authority. In France and Britain internal and foreign affairs were debated and argued amongst ministers, which Frederick contended as being the direct consequence of separating the affairs of government. This is in part why Frederick argued in favour of enlightened absolutism, it streamlines the political decision making process. Furthermore, it eliminates self-serving corrupt individuals and places the interest of the people back in the hands of its rightful owner, that being the ruler.

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This leads itself into Frederick final account on enlightened absolutism. As stated Frederick believed that an absolute monarch for smaller States was essential for their survival. “For larger kingdoms advance together with their abuses and maintain themselves by their weight and their intrinsic strength, while small states are quickly crushed unless they are active vigorous and dynamic”. Enlightened absolutism offers fluidity in decisions and actions that must be taken in both internal and foreign affairs, and helps to protect the state against selfishness and jealousness of delegated authority.

Is it possible for Frederick to be both a philosophe and an absolute monarch? There is no question that Prussia under the leadership of Frederick the Great was governed by an absolute monarch. Frederick was in complete control of every political move and action under his state and did so as the sole power. Can a ruler of an absolute monarch also be a member of the philosophes, which included journalists, activists, academics, and intellectuals who were seeking to change the world as well as understand it? Most of the philosophes believed in monarchical government. In general they had a utilitarian approach for society. They were by and larger concerned with the happiness and well being of the people. They fought against tyranny, advocated social reform, and were activist of toleration and justice for all. They were also opposed to established forms of institutions, especially the church. As already stated, Frederick was a champion of social reform, and was consistent with the values and principles proposed by the philosophes. One is led to believe that Gibbon would argue that Frederick is and can be a philosophe and an absolute monarch. In doing so he would refer to the example of the Roman Empire, in his book ‘The decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ Gibbon states that “ The vest extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the gaudiness of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hands of fours successive emperirors, whose characters and authority, commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by, Nerva, Trajan, and the Atoninus, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.”

Under the right circumstances one is led to believe that in theory it would be possible for Frederick to be both a philosophe and an absolute monarch, and this would seem to be true of Frederick given the accounts of his actions. What must be taken into consideration are Frederick’s motives. Is he acting out of humanitarian concern or political ambition and state security? Larger and more powerful enemies namely France and Russia surrounded Prussia during his rule; therefore it was paramount to maintain social order and stability. Frederick needed a strong industry and economy, as well as support of the people to maintain a large enough army to defend its boarders.

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