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What was Absolutism?

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Absolutism is a political theory and form of government where 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 about whether Europe saw any true absolutist governments, or how far certain governments were absolute, but the term has been applied – rightly or wrongly - to various leaders, from the dictatorship of Hitler, to monarchs like Louis XIV of France, to Julius Caesar.

The Absolute Age / Absolute Monarchies

When talking about European history, the theory and practice of Absolutism is generally spoken about with regards to the ‘absolutist monarchs’ of the early modern age (16th to 18th centuries); it is much rarer to find any discussion of the twentieth 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 – 1715, although there are dissenting views – such as Mettam - suggesting that this was more a dream than a reality. Indeed, by the late 80s, the situation in historiography was such that a historian could write “…there has emerged a consensus that the absolutist monarchies of Europe never succeeded in freeing themselves from restraints on the effective exercise of power…” (Miller, ed., The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought, Blackwell, 1987, pg. 4).

What we now generally believe is that Europe’s absolute monarchs still recognised – still had to recognise - lower laws and offices, but maintained the ability to overrule them if it was to benefit the kingdom. Absolutism was a way central government could cut across the different laws and structures of territories which had been acquired piecemeal through war and inheritance, a way of trying to maximise the revenue and control of these sometimes disparate holdings. The absolutist monarchs had seen this power centralise 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.

This develop into a new style of state had been aided by new tax laws and centralised bureaucracy allowing standing armies reliant on the king, not nobles, and with concepts of the sovereign nation. Indeed, the demands of an evolving military is 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, honours 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…” (Miller, ed., Absolutism in Seventeenth Century Europe, Macmillan, 1990, p. 19-20)

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 End of Absolute Monarchy

The age of absolute monarchy came to an end in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, as popular agitation for more democracy and accountability grew. Many former absolutist (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.

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. This claimed that monarchs held their authority directly from God, that the king in his kingdom was as God in his creation, and enabled the absolutist monarchs to challenge the power of the church, effectively removing them as a rival to the sovereigns and making their power more absolute. It also gave them an extra layer of legitimacy, although not one unique to the absolutist era. The church came, sometimes against their judgement, to support absolute monarchy and to get out of its way.

There was a different train of thought, espoused by some political philosophers, that of ‘natural law’, which held there were certain immutable naturally occurring laws which affected states. In work by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, absolute power was seen as an answer to problems caused by natural law, the answer being that members of a country gave up certain freedoms and put their power in the hands of one person in order to safeguard order and give security. The alternative was a violent mankind driven by basic forces like greed.

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