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Absolutism is a historical term for a form of government in which the ruler is an absolute authority, unrestricted by any other institution, such as churches, estates, a constitution, laws, or opposition.
The Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries caused erosion of monarchical power and the rise of libertarian democratic sentiment in feudal Europe. Political philosophers of the period reacted by introducing concepts of the natural law or the divine right of kings. Although contradictory, both concepts claimed that unquestionable rule by a single person was the best form of government. According to Thomas Hobbes, human beings ceded authority to a ruler in exchange for security, which kept society together. Jacques Benigne Bossuet argued that God vested the monarch with the right to rule in order to protect society and that rebelling against the monarch would mean challenging God.
Absolutism is characterized by the end of feudal partitioning, unification and centralization of the state, rise of professional standing armies and professional bureaucracies, and the codification of state laws. The general rise of state power was demonstrated by expensive lifestyles of absolute monarchs who identified with the state (“L’État c’est moi” claimed Louis XIV of France). Absolutist monarchs attempted to intervene personally in every area; welfare of the state was therefore determined by their (in)competence.
Absolutist monarchs held nobility under political control by keeping them permanently at luxurious courts and arbitrarily distributing payable honorary duties and titles, while noble estates were managed by exploitative officials. The enormous increase in state expenses was addressed by modernization of tax systems and mercantilism that favored the emerging bourgeoisie. Monarchs considered absolute rulers include Louis XIII (reigned 1610–1643) and Louis XIV of France (r. 1643–1715), Ivan the Terrible (r. 1547–1584) and Peter the Great of Russia (r. 1682–1725), Leopold I of Austria (r. as Holy Roman Emperor 1658–1705), and Charles XI (r. 1660–1697) and Charles XII of Sweden (r. 1697–1718).
Absolutism went through several historical stages, such as early absolutism, confessional absolutism, court absolutism, and Enlightened absolutism. Frederick I of Prussia (r. 1740–1786), the Hapsburg emperors of Austria (Marie-Therèse, r. 1740– 1780, and her son Joseph II, r. 1780–1790), and Catherine the Great of Russia (r. 1762–1796) ruled as absolute monarchs in eastern Europe while implementing reforms based on Enlightenment ideas. Enlightened absolutism was commonly justified as a provider of better living conditions for its subjects.
Following bourgeois revolutions in America and France, absolutism and constitutionalism became principal opposing political concepts in the West. The Jacobin terror during the French Revolution (1789–1799) demonstrated that political freedom was threatened also by democratic absolutism. To early-nineteenth-century rightist political thinkers, the French Revolution, instead of abolishing absolutism, was therefore rather a struggle between the monarch and the people over sovereignty, and French Republicanism, Napoleon’s imperialism, and constitutionalism were merely forms of absolutism.
Mid-nineteenth-century liberals considered the rising proletariat as another dangerous form of absolutism and argued against radicals’ demand of universal suffrage. By 1848, a general consensus on constitutionalism was reached, and the method of its implementation became the principal matter of political controversy. While the term absolutism remained a commonly used pejorative, especially in France and England, in Germany the Hegelian Idealism relegated it to historiography from the 1830s on.
In the early twentieth century, research on absolutism as a historical concept was conceived in contemporary terms. Historians’ views on the extent of absolutism among European monarchs vary. Some argue that a considerable number of monarchs achieved absolutist control over their states. Others question the very existence of absolutism, arguing that most absolutist monarchs had comparable power over their subjects to any other rulers, and they point to the gap between the absolutist rhetoric and the reality, especially to many absolutist monarchs’ incapability to successfully address their constant financial difficulties.
- Blänkner, Reinhard. “Absolutismus” und “moderner Staat”: Eine begriffsgeschichtliche Studie zur Geschichtswissenschaft und zur politischen Theorie in Deutschland 1830 bis 1890. Göttingen, Germany:Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1993.
- Böing, Günther, ed. Die Weltgeschichte. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 1971.
- Davies, Norman. Europe, a History. London: Pimlico, 1997.
- James, Alan. The Origins of French Absolutism, 1598–1661. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.
- Treasure, Geoffrey, and Russell Richards. The Making of Modern Europe: 1648–1780. New York: Routledge, 2003.
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