What Was Absolutism?

A Belief in Unlimited Power Held by a Sovereign

Adolf Hitler
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Absolutism is a political theory and form of government in which unlimited, complete power is held by a centralized sovereign individual, with no checks or balances from any other part of the nation or government. In effect, the ruling individual has absolute power, with no legal, electoral, or other challenges to that power.

In practice, historians argue whether Europe saw any true absolutist governments, but the term has been applied—rightly or wrongly—to various leaders, from the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler to monarchs including Louis XIV of France and Julius Caesar.

Absolute Age/Absolute Monarchies

Referring to European history, the theory and practice of absolutism are generally spoken about with regard to the "absolutist monarchs" of the early modern age (16th to 18th centuries). It is much rarer to find any discussion of the 20th century dictators as absolutist. Early modern absolutism is believed to have existed across Europe, but largely in the west in states such as Spain, Prussia, and Austria. It is considered to have reached its apogee under the rule of French King Louis XIV from 1643 to 1715, although there are dissenting views—such as that of historian Roger Mettam—suggesting that this was more dream than reality.

By the late 1980s, the situation in historiography was such that a historian could write in "The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought" that “there has emerged a consensus that the absolutist monarchies of Europe never succeeded in freeing themselves from restraints on the effective exercise of power."

What is now generally believed is that Europe’s absolute monarchs still had to recognize lower laws and offices but maintained the ability to overrule them if it benefited the kingdom. Absolutism was a way in which the central government could cut across the laws and structures of territories that had been acquired piecemeal through war and inheritance, a way of trying to maximize the revenue and control of these sometimes disparate holdings.

The absolutist monarchs had seen this power centralize and expand as they became rulers of modern nation-states, which had emerged from more medieval forms of government, where nobles, councils/parliaments, and the church had held powers and acted as checks, if not outright rivals, on the old-style monarch.

A New Style of State

This developed into a new style of state that had been aided by new tax laws and centralized bureaucracy allowing standing armies reliant on the king, not nobles, and concepts of the sovereign nation. The demands of an evolving military are now one of the more popular explanations for why absolutism developed. Nobles weren’t exactly pushed aside by absolutism and the loss of their autonomy, as they could benefit greatly from jobs, honors, and income within the system.

However, there is often a conflation of absolutism with despotism, which is politically unpleasant to modern ears. This was something absolutist era theorists tried to differentiate, and modern historian John Miller takes issue with it, too, arguing how we might better understand the thinkers and kings of the early modern era:

“Absolute monarchies helped to bring a sense of nationhood to disparate territories, to establish a measure of public order and to promote prosperity…we need therefore to jettison the liberal and democratic preconceptions of the twentieth century and instead think in terms of an impoverished and precarious existence, of low expectations and of submission to the will of God and to the king."

Enlightened Absolutism

During the Enlightenment, several "absolute" monarchs—such as Frederick I of Prussia, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Habsburg Austrian leaders—attempted to introduce Enlightenment-inspired reforms while still strictly controlling their nations. Serfdom was abolished or reduced, more equality among subjects (but not with the monarch) was introduced, and some free speech allowed. The idea was to justify the absolutist government by using that power to create a better life for the subjects. This style of rule became known as "Enlightened Absolutism."

The presence of some leading Enlightenment thinkers in this process has been used as a stick to beat the Enlightenment by people who would like to go back to older forms of civilization. It's important to remember the dynamics of the time and the interplay of personalities.

End of Absolute Monarchy

The age of absolute monarchy came to an end in the late 18th and 19th centuries as popular agitation for more democracy and accountability grew. Many former absolutists (or partly absolutist states) had to issue constitutions, but the absolutist kings of France fell the hardest, one being removed from power and executed during the French Revolution.

If Enlightenment thinkers had helped the absolute monarchs, the Enlightenment thinking they developed helped destroy their later rulers.

Underpinnings

The most common theory used to underpin the early modern absolutist monarchs was "the divine right of kings," which derived from medieval ideas of kingship. These claimed that monarchs held their authority directly from God and that the king in his kingdom was as God in his creation, enabling the absolutist monarchs to challenge the power of the church, effectively removing it as a rival to the sovereigns and making their power more absolute.

It also gave them an extra layer of legitimacy, although one not unique to the absolutist era. The church, sometimes against its judgment, came to support absolute monarchy and to get out of its way.

A different train of thought espoused by some political philosophers was "natural law," which held that there are certain immutable, naturally occurring laws that affect states. Thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes saw absolute power as an answer to problems caused by natural law: that members of a country gave up certain freedoms and put their power in the hands of one person to safeguard order and give security. The alternative was violence driven by basic forces such as greed.

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