Enlightened despotism

Enlightened despotism (also called benevolent despotism) referred to a leader's espousal of "Enlightenment ideas and principles" to enhance the leader's power.[1] The concept originated during the Enlightenment period in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

An enlightened despot is a non-democratic or authoritarian leader who exercises their political power for the benefit of the people, rather than exclusively for themselves or elites.

"Enlightened" despots distinguished themselves from ordinary despots by claiming to rule for their subjects' well-being. An enlightened despot may focus government priorities on healthcare, education, nonviolent population control, or physical infrastructure. The leader may profess a commitment to peaceful relations and/or allow some democratic decision-making, such as public referenda, but would not propose reforms that undermined their sovereignty or disrupted the social order. John Stuart Mill stated, "Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement."[2]

Enlightened despots' beliefs about royal power were typically similar to those of regular despots. Enlightened despots believed that they were destined to rule. To their credit, enlightened rulers may have played a part in the abolition of serfdom in Europe.[3]

A classic enlightened despot, Emperor Joseph II of Austria said, "Everything for the people, nothing by the people".[4]

Famous enlightened despots

Leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, Benito Mussolini (at least until the war against Ethiopia), António Salazar, Francisco Franco, Isaias Afwerki, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Augusto Pinochet, Lee Kuan Yew, Mao Zedong, Pervez Musharraf, Hugo Chavez, and the Medici dynasty adopted the title. Long-seated dictators are more likely to be regarded as enlightened because they acknowledge public interest in order to remain in power and to be regarded as legitimate.

In Spanish the word dictablanda is sometimes used for a dictatorship that preserves some of the liberties and mechanisms of democracy.

See also

Opposing theories:


  1. Perry, Chase & Jacob 2015, p. 442.
  2. Mill 1989, p. 13.
  3. "Disappearance of Serfdom. France. England. Italy. Germany. Spain.". www.1902encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2015-12-07.
  4. World of the Habsburgs. "Joseph II: The long-awaited son". Textmode. World of the Habsburgs. Retrieved 2015-10-21. ‘Everything for the people, nothing by the people’


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