European History Pt. 30 — Enlightened Despotism, France

For a while now, the book has been content to do some overall period setting, talking about the age of science and now the age of enlightenment. lt’s trying to do something very difficult, which is to give a feel for a whole period. An entire way of life in seven or ten pages.

As an overview of enlightened despotism, the book emphasizes the religious aspect. All in all, the enlightened despot is tolerant, though he (she) is also interested in public welfare, construed as the modern notion of usefulness. The book gives the example of “draining swamps and building roads.” This is the monarch or sovereign tidying things up for the subjects.

An interesting side effect of the drive toward toleration is that “extremism” of some types were in remission. A shocking example that I had never heard of was that the Jesuit order was WIDELY banned in the late half of the 18th century, only to be revived by the church in 1814.

Now we turn to the enlightened despotisms of France, Austria, and Prussia. This post will be about France.

Louis XIV was just barely an enlightened despot. He didn’t care very much about government. His big problem was simple: taxes. France could not get a good tax system going. The nobles paid nothing and the church paid almost nothing. The peasants paid it all which made no sense since they didn’t have much to pay. As a result, France was prosperous but the government was poor and the nobles prevented any change from taking place.

A substantial step on this issue was taken in the form of the Maupeou parlements. They were salaried and unable to resist royal edicts. However, when Louix XV died in 1774, his son took over at 20 years old. He could not keep the pressure on the nobles and so the old parlements were put back in place. The preservation of noble power was a huge contributing factor to the French Revolution.


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