What Is Absolutism?

A Belief in Unlimited Power Held by a Sovereign

King Louis XIV with his son the Grand Dauphin from a painting by Nicolas de Largilliere.
King Louis XIV with his son the Grand Dauphin from a painting by Nicolas de Largilliere.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Absolutism is a political system in which a single sovereign ruler or leader holds complete and unrestrained power over a country. Typically vested in a monarch or dictator, the power of an absolutist government may not be challenged or limited by any other internal agency, whether legislative, judicial, religious, or electoral. 

Key Takeaways: Absolutism

  • Absolutism is a political system in which a single monarch, usually a king or queen, holds complete and unrestrained power over a country.
  • The power of an absolutist government may not be challenged or limited.
  • Absolutist monarchs inherit their positions as an undeniable benefit of their birth into a long family line of monarchs.
  • Absolutist monarchs claim their power is bestowed on them by God, according to the theory of the “Divine Right of Kings.”
  • Enlightened Absolutism describes absolute monarchies that were influenced by the social and political reforms of the Age of Enlightenment.
  • Enlightened Absolutism often led to the creation of constitutional monarchies.

While examples of absolutism can be found throughout history, from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler, the form that developed in 16th to 18th century Europe is typically considered to be the prototype. King Louis XIV, who ruled over France from 1643 to 1715, is credited with expressing the essence of absolutism when he reportedly declared, “L’état, c’est moi”—“I am the state.”

Absolute Monarchies

As prevalent in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, an absolute monarchy is a form of government in which the country is ruled over by an all-powerful single person—usually a king or queen. The absolute monarch had complete control over all aspects of society, including political power, economics, and religion. In saying “I am the state,” Louis XIV of France was proclaiming his total control over the society by stating that he ruled over all aspects of the country and therefore was the highest and most powerful authority of the state.

The "Sun" King Louis XIV, Of France, With His Brilliant Court', 1664.
The "Sun" King Louis XIV, Of France, With His Brilliant Court', 1664.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before the age of the monarchs, the governments of Europe tended to be weak and loosely organized. The fear among the people who had suffered repeated invasions by Vikings and other “barbarian” groups created a perfect environment for the rise of all-powerful monarchial leaders.

Absolute monarchies were most often justified by two factors; hereditary rule and divine right to power. Hereditary rule meant that the monarchs received their positions as an undeniable benefit of their birth into a long family line of monarchs. In medieval Europe, absolute monarchs claimed their power under the theory of the “divine right of kings,” meaning the monarchs’ power came from God, thus making it a sin to oppose the king or queen. The combination of hereditary rule and divine right served to legitimize the power of the absolute monarchies by demonstrating that since they had no say in selecting or empowering the king or queen, the people could not claim to have any control over the monarch’s rule. As an offshoot of divine right, the church, sometimes against the will of its clergy, came to support the absolute monarchy as a matter of self-preservation. 

In his classic 1651 book Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes unequivocally defended absolutism. Due to his pessimistic view of human nature and behavior, Hobbes contended that the only form of government strong enough to hold humanity's cruel impulses in check was an absolute monarchy, where kings or queens wielded supreme and unchecked power over their subjects. Hobbes believed that all constitutions, laws, and similar covenants were worthless without absolute monarchial power to force the people to adhere to them. “And Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all,” he wrote. 

Absolute monarchy as a form of government prevailed in Europe from the end of the medieval period through the 18th century. Along with France, as epitomized by Louis XIV, absolute monarchs ruled over other European countries, including England, Spain, Prussia, Sweden, Russia, and Hungary.

King Frederick William II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great, used the chaos from the Thirty Years’ War to consolidate his territories in northern Germany, while at the same time increasing his absolute power over his subjects. To achieve political unity he built what was to become the largest standing army in all of Europe. His actions helped to mold the militaristic Hohenzollern, the ruling dynasty in Prussia and Germany up to the end of World War I in 1918. 

The Czars of Russia ruled as absolute monarchs for over 200 years. Coming to power in 1682, Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) was determined to establish Western European absolutist practices in Russia. He systematically reduced the influence of the Russian nobility while strengthening his power by establishing a central bureaucracy and a police state. He moved the capital to Saint Petersburg, where his royal palace was meant to imitate and even rival King Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. The Czars would go on to rule over Russia until the nation’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905 forced Czar Nicholas II—the last czar—to establish a constitution and an elected parliament.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the popular acceptance of the ideals of individual rights and constitutionally limited government embodied by the Enlightenment made it increasingly difficult for absolute monarchs to continue to rule as they had. By questioning the traditional authority and right of absolute monarchs to rule, influential thinkers of the Enlightenment began a wave of change across much of the Western world, including the birth of capitalism and democracy.

The popularity of absolute monarchy declined sharply after the French Revolution of 1789 promoted theories of government based on the sovereignty of the people rather than of the monarch. As a result, many former absolute monarchies, such as England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, have become constitutional monarchies or parliamentary republics

England, for example, experienced the irrevocable erosion of the monarch’s powers as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. By signing the English Bill of Rights in 1689, King, William III, was compelled to accept limited powers within the framework of a constitutional monarchy.

The Enlightenment and its ideals of liberty greatly impacted the ability of absolute monarchs to continue to rule as they had.  Influential Enlightenment thinkers questioned the traditional authority and right to rule of monarchs and began a wave of change across much of the Western world, including the birth of capitalism and democracy.  

Today, only a handful of nations such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Brunei continue to exist under the rule of an absolute monarch.

Enlightened Absolutism

Enlightened Absolutism—also called Enlightened Despotism and Benevolent Absolutism—was a form of absolute monarchy in which monarchs were influenced by the Age of Enlightenment. In a bizarre historical contradiction, enlightened monarchs justified their absolute power to rule by adopting Enlightenment-era concerns about individual liberty, education, art, health, and legal order. Instead of basing their absolute authority in religious autocracy as before, these mainly European monarchs drew on 18th and early 19th philosophers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Hobbes.

Frederick the Great of Prussia may have expressed it best in a letter to Voltaire:

“Let us admit the truth: the arts and philosophy extend to only the few; the vast mass, the common peoples and the bulk of nobility, remain what nature has made them, that is to say savage beasts.”



In this bold statement, Frederick represented how enlightened absolutists felt about the monarchy. Enlightened monarchs often expressed the belief that the “common peoples” required a benevolent absolute leader to see to their needs and to keep them safe in a world dominated by chaos. 

These newly enlightened absolute monarchs often encouraged freedom of expression and more democratic participation within their realms. They decreed laws to fund education, encourage the arts and sciences, and even occasionally liberate the peasants from serfdom. 

However, while their intent was to benefit their subjects, these laws were often implemented according to the monarch’s beliefs alone. Their ideas about royal power were typically similar to those of pre-Enlightenment absolute monarchs, in as much as they believed they were entitled to govern by right of birth and generally refused allow their powers to be limited by constitutions. 

Emperor Joseph II of Germany

Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor of the German Habsburg Monarchy from 1765 to 1790, may have most fully embraced the ideals of Enlightenment. In the true spirit of the movement, he explained his intentions to better the lives of his subjects when he said, “Everything for the people, nothing by the people.”

An outspoken proponent of Enlightened Absolutism, Joseph II undertook ambitious reforms including the abolishment of serfdom and the death penalty, the spread of education, freedom of religion, and the compulsory use of the German language instead of Latin or local languages. However, many of his reforms faced stiff opposition and either failed to last or were taken back by his successors. 

Frederick the Great of Prussia

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, a keen musician, playing his flute.
Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, a keen musician, playing his flute.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Often considered a trend-setter among the Enlightenment absolutists, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and close friend of Voltaire sought to modernize his country by improving the lives of his subjects. In hopes of doing so, he tried to create a sophisticated state bureaucracy capable of managing the massive number of people he governed. In actions that would have struck previous generations of Prussian monarchs speechless with fear, he implemented policies that encouraged acceptance of religious minorities, allowed freedom of the press, encouraged the arts, and favored scientific and philosophical endeavors. 

Catherine the Great of Russia

A contemporary of Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great ruled Russia from 1762 to 1796. Despite her wholehearted belief in Enlightened Absolutism, she struggled to implement it. Throughout its history, Russia’s sheer size has made this a recurring theme. 

Portrait of Empress Catherine II, 18th century. Catherine the Great (1729-1796), who came to the throne in 1762.
Portrait of Empress Catherine II, 18th century. Catherine the Great (1729-1796), who came to the throne in 1762.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Catherine made modernizing the Russian cities that bordered the rest of Western Europe a priority issue. Because many influential landowners refused to comply, her attempts to implement new legal rights for the serf class were largely unsuccessful. However, her most important contributions were in the promotion of art and education. Along with creating Europe’s first state-funded higher education institution for women, propelled the Russian Enlightenment by encouraging music, painting, and architecture. On the other hand, she largely ignored religion, often selling church lands to help fund her government. Then again, after her earlier attempts to reform the feudal system were thwarted, Catherine remained indifferent to the plight of the serf class, resulting in a variety of rebellions throughout her rule.

Serfdom

The Enlightenment also helped stir open debate on the problem of serfdom—the feudal practice forcing peasants into indentured servitude to the lords of estates. Most of the publicists of the day considered the immediate abolition of serfdom premature, arguing instead for reducing the serfs’ required length of servitude while improving the schools at the same time. In this, they reasoned that the task of providing the serfs with an enlightened education should precede their emancipation. 

The French Revolution from the 1790s to the 1820s brought an end to serfdom in most of Western and Central Europe. However, the practice remained common in Russia until being abolished by enlightened reformist Tsar Alexander II. in 1861.

Theories of Absolutism

Absolutism is based on a theory of legislative authority holding that monarchs have exclusive and total legal authority. As a result, the laws of the state are nothing but expressions of their will. The monarchs’ power can only be limited by natural laws, which in practical terms, presents no limitation at all. In ancient Rome, emperors were legally considered to be the “legibus solutus” or “unfettered legislator.”

In its most extreme form, such as that practiced in France, Spain, and Russia, between the 15th and 18th centuries, absolutism holds that this unrestrained power of the monarch is derived directly from God. According to this “Divine Right of Kings” theory, the monarchs’ authority to rule is granted by God rather than by their subjects, the nobility, or any other human source. 

According to a more moderate form of absolutism, as explained by Thomas Hobbes, the legislative power of the monarchs is derived from a “social contract” between ruler and subjects, in which the people irreversibly transfer power to them. While the people have no right or means to replace the monarchs, they may openly resist them in rare extreme circumstances.

Differences from Other Theories 

While the terms absolute monarchy, autocracy, and totalitarianism all imply absolute political and social authority and have negative connotations they are not the same. The key difference in these forms of government is how their rulers take and hold power. 

While absolute and enlightened absolute monarchs typically assume their positions through ancestral inheritance, rulers of autocracies—autocrats—usually come to power as part of a larger nationalist, populist, or fascist political movement. The rulers of totalitarian military dictatorships typically come to power after the previous civilian government has been overthrown in a coup d'etat.

Absolute monarchs also inherit all legislative and judicial powers. Once in power, autocrats systematically eliminate all competing sources of authority in the country, such as judges, legislatures, and political parties. 

Compared to a monarchy, in which power is held by an individual hereditary monarch, power in an autocracy is concentrated in a center, whether an individual dictator or a group such as a dominant political party or central party leadership committee. 

Autocratic power centers depend on force—often military force—rather than voluntary submission to a monarch’s “divine right” to suppress opposition and eliminate social changes that might result in opposition to its rule. In this manner, the power center of autocracies is not subject to effective control or limitation by any legislative or constitutional sanctions, thus making its power absolute. 

Sources

  • Wilson, Peter. “Absolutism in Central Europe (Historical Connections).” Routledge, August 21, 2000, ISBN-10: ‎0415150434.
  • Mettam, Roger. “Power and Faction in Louis XIV's France.” Blackwell Pub, March 1, 1988, ISBN-10: ‎0631156674.
  • Beik, William. “Louis XIV and Absolutism: A Brief Study with Documents.” Bedford/St. Martin's, January 20, 2000, ISBN-10: 031213309X.
  • Schwartzwald, Jack L. “The Rise of the Nation-State in Europe: Absolutism, Enlightenment and Revolution, 1603-1815.” McFarland, October 11, 2017, ASIN: ‎B077DMY8LB.
  • Scott, H.M. (editor) “Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe.” Red Globe Press, March 5, 1990, ISBN-10: 0333439619.
  • Kishlansky, Mark. “A Monarchy Transformed: Britain, 1603-1714.” ‎ Penguin Books, December 1, 1997, ISBN10: ‎0140148272.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Absolutism?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 29, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-was-absolutism-1221593. Longley, Robert. (2022, March 29). What Is Absolutism? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-absolutism-1221593 Longley, Robert. "What Is Absolutism?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-absolutism-1221593 (accessed June 25, 2022).