The Problem of Enlightened Despotism

The Catholic need not be told that all power, political or otherwise, comes from God and God alone. Our Lord says as much to Pilate during his passion (cf. Jn. 19:11). The Catholic also needs no reminder that this very root of his politics suffered severe abuse at the hands of radicals, culminating in the French Committee of Public Safety. However, the actions of the monarchs before the French Revolution unfortunately led to such a travesty, meaning that they unknowingly helped to foster the radicalism that led to their destruction.

Enlightened Despotism was an idea amongst the crowned heads of Europe that held that the rulers of the state, being the principle patrons of the arts and sciences, should encourage the Enlightenment, as it seemed to promise to bring about benefits for the nation as a whole.1 Hence, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, Joseph II of Austria, and many others, encouraged the Enlightenment for that end. The problem of such a policy, however, should be obvious: the blatant contradiction between Enlightened ideas and the actual governments that promoted them.

The monarchs that sought the best for their people usually did so by employing the same people that pushed Enlightened ideas, simply because they belonged to a vocal majority. This usually meant bringing them to their own palaces and having them produce works of philosophy, literature and the like. Frederick the Great more than any other monarch at the time did this effectively, employing at one point Leonhard Euler, the founder of graphing theory and pioneer in practically all fields of mathematics, Pierre Maupertuis, who invented integral calculus, Voltaire, the great rogue and popularizer of “philosophy,” and at least for a day Johann Sebastian Bach, whose son Carl Philipp Emanuel was the court composer. To add to this, the king himself belonged to the local Lodge, and practiced the Craft until his dying day.2 Practically, this meant that the nation (in theory) would benefit. That there was some immediate benefit, no one can deny (the Jesuits were not suppressed in Prussia and the king built St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, in addition to allowing for the free practice of the Faith), though a brief look at European history since 1780 might make someone second guess the cyanide pill that these monarchs took. Indeed, some of these monarchs knew the dangers of what they were doing. Catherine the Great herself limited Enlightened thinking after the French Revolution.3 One would be hard pressed to find fault with such a decision when looking at the politics of the Enlightenment.

Enlightened thinking itself held that if a government did not protect the rights of the citizens, then it should be altered or abolished. Thus, the mixing of the “enlightened” ideal with the monarchs could not have ended well. That the subject at hand was practiced by almost every European court did not help either. It ensured the spread of Enlightened ideas and thus helped the Masonic republic spring itself up in an act of revolution, culminating in our own day with the likes of the United Nations and the IMF. Indeed, because of the reckless actions of these monarchs, the Catholic world order, or at least what was not touched by the heresy of Luther, disappeared.

Portrait of Emperor Joseph II (right) and his younger brother Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany (left), who would later become Holy Roman Emperor as Leopold II. Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787). Detail of oil on canvas by Pompeo Batoni  (1708–1787).

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  1. The Editors, “Enlightened Despotism”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 30 October 2019, accessed 22 May 2020. The entry gives a list of the monarchs that contributed to the Enlightenment Of note are Frederick the Great and Joseph II.
  2. Frederick the Great joined the Lodge before becoming the King of Prussia in 1740.
  3. Zoe Oldenbourg-Idalie, “Catherine the Great”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 28 April 2020, accessed 22 May 2020. In 2006, PBS released a two part series on Catherine the Great (I cannot recommend it); her distrust of the Enlightenment is discussed in the second part.