What do you get when you take a pitcher full of 18th. century European police-State and stir in some vintage Enlightenment ideology all the rage in fashionable high-society circles at the time? You get what was called “Enlightened despotism”– an especially toxic cocktail in which the inflamed self-aggrandizing hubris of modern Statism at its worst combines with the technocratic and Utopian wish-fulfillment beliefs of modern intellectuals at their worst to create a new kind of sociological poison, which I rigorously term a sociolytic.

The following account of a sociological analogue to chemical warfare in the policy of one of the most (in)famous Enlightened despots, Joseph II of Austria, is taken from the obscure Restoration of Political Science by Karl Ludwig von Haller- one of the first wave of Reactionaries and a contemporary of the much more widely-read Louis de Bonald and Joseph Maistre. Owing to its length, I’ll post it without further comment other than the observation that it just isn’t a good idea for any Statesman to govern his own country as though some kind of weed patch to be sprayed over with pesticide in the hope of turning it into a beautiful Imperial garden. That just ain’t gonna happen.

(Rough but serviceable translation from the French mine (no software). I took the liberty of cleaning up some of his archaic punctuation, endless run-on sentences, and lack of paragraph breaks in order to make it more readable. I tried as best as I could to translate the Continental legal terms into recognizable English equivalents, but I’m no legal scholar. In any case, all problematic language is also provided in the original French in italicized brackets).

[…] Joseph II started, from his ascension to the throne, a war against the nobility and the clergy; something moreover remarkable, in that neither the one nor the other of these bodies had given him the slightest pretext. By a morass of decrees in rapid succession, he introduced religious indifference under the name of an edict of tolerance, destined to put the Christian Church on the same rung as the most fanatical sects, and the most detestable leagues of sophists, or rather a still-lower rung. He prohibited relations between religious orders and their superiors abroad; abolished funerary rites and Christian sepulchres; banned all convents of men and of women in 1781, with the confiscation of their goods; and reduced more than seven thousand innocent subjects to pauperism. He banned pilgrimages and processions, restricted the frequency of mass, commissioned a critique of sermons executed by ignorant writers; abolished or lowered honoraria (casuels), and lowered the salary of the poor clergy and village curates to a pittance for their work; he made the seminaries, that is to say, the institutes of higher learning of Christian doctrine, independent of bishops, in order to bring them under the purview of the civil power, and to transform them into schools of modern philosophy. To the same end, he created normal schools; expelled from Austria, without any form of due process, all of the Italian priests who wound up in Vienna in the capacity of instructors or otherwise; and confiscated all goods belonging to charitable establishments, even that of the inmates, and ordained that the amount of four percent be placed in public funds. Finally, he suppressed the most magnificent hospitals, in whose place he established lavish maternity hospitals or birthing centres, dedicated asylums for unwed mothers (asyles privilègies du débordement des moeurs), etc.

Not satisfied with all this, he furthermore enjoined bishops to temporarily suspend the ordination of priests. He abolished, by royal prerogative, religious holidays, and even bishoprics, and went as far as to prescribe the forms of worship, rites, the frequency of mass, of priests and clergy involved. All these attacks against the Church, inspired by the fanaticism of the new philosophy, all this persecution unprecedented by any prince hitherto, and that stood in such stark contrast with the much-vaunted principles of tolerance, were the fruit of the influence of the French Encyclopedists and the order of the Illuminati that, only four years after its birth, had already brought under its power the holder of the premier throne of all Europe. We will not dwell at length on this matter, which is just a detail here; it suffices to have indicated it to show the direct connection between the whole of these measures with the spirit of the century in general, and in particular with the pseudo-philosophical principles of public law.

The same principles of revolutionary leveling or hate against all personal power (except his own) inspired these political innovations in Joseph II, so that we can justly see them as the prelude to the French Revolution. Under this government of philosophy, there was no longer anything sacred, nor property, nor natural law, nor promises, nor contracts, nor private rights. It didn’t actually go as far as to abolish, by formal decree, the nobility, this tribute of consideration that men pay to real superiority. But the great landed proprietors, the first and foremost of the empire, were systematically persecuted, degraded, by means of secret orders, as well as open violence, stripped even of natural and civil rights, as though so many tyrants and enemies of the human race. An initial decree abolished servitude, without saying what that meant; it set free all the serfs, without asking them, and without giving them any property through which they could maintain their liberty. Soon afterwards, with all the ignorance of modern philosophy, the corvées and the feudal system were banned, as were feudal compacts, the temporary or hereditary concession of tenures in exchange for certain services or a specified share of the crops, the enjoyment of which was a crime against the human species. The Estates of Lower Austria (a Parliamentary-type assembly –DS) were also suppressed, since it was made up of noblemen and ecclesiastics, but the guilds of the most harmless and useful of trades didn’t escape from this destructive outbreak either.

Wills could no longer bequeath an undivided estate (les téstaments n’eurent plus aucune consistence). Notwithstanding the fine words of liberty and of property, repeated so pompously, there was no longer property, nor liberty to dispose of it at will. The fideiscommis and the majorats were abolished, although they formed the very basis of the Imperial throne, and on the contrary the equal division of allodial goods between brother and sister was ordained, which division not only stripped fathers of their testatory liberty, but is often impossible for freeholders (propriétaires fonciers), or harmful to entire families.

All this still wasn’t enough, and there broke out amongst the peasants of Transylvania and the Bannat of Temeswar, insurrections against the noblemen of the country, insurrections from the outset tolerated by the emperor Joseph, possibly fomented by entrusted sophists, and which were directed, not against the abuses of the nobility, but against the nobility itself; not to redress grievances, but to slaughter persons and destroy property. Finally, it happened once again, with the burning of the castles in France in 1789- which bore a striking resemblance- that the insurgent peasants pretended to act by virtue of superior orders.

After having reduced all to the level of equality, it was similarly necessary to subject all to the same taxes, to the same orders and to the same human laws. In keeping with the false notion that monarchy is a public establishment, and that all the revenues of the Emperor are nothing but the contributions of citizens, the nobility, the clergy, and the peasants had to be subjected to the same impositions; that is to say, that serfs weren’t to be given liberty, but all free men were to be reduced to servitude. Under the denomination of a new executive order (réglement) concerning State royalties (subsides), a gigantic reform project (opération) was undertaken, which promptly became an abolition of debts and an imposition of taxes, by a rule or a regular determination of existing contributions. Pursuant to this project, and following physiocratic principles, all freeholds were to be officially surveyed (devaient subir l’opération du cadastre), assessed according to their net product, and charged exclusively with an imposition equal to forty per cent of revenue, in lieu of whatever other obligation, that is to say, all particular royalties were abolished. As in the Prussian code, things here once again proceed from the principle that there is no Natural law, superior and known to all; that it isn’t in the power of man to give forms and positive determinations to this law; that conventions, documents, and titles are in no way a law for the parties, nor a binding rule for judges; but that all private right must derive from the State alone.

In consequence, and to conform to the spirit of the century, Emperor Joseph II took to author with the greatest haste a general civil code (1786), and just as promptly a general criminal code (1787). This latter sought above all to distinguish itself by the abolition of the death penalty (for which was substituted the stocks, flogging, the rod), and by an equality of punishments, as revolting as contrary to Nature, for all ages, all classes and all conditions; as though, on the one hand, the facts were always the same and accompanied by the same circumstances, or as if, on the other, it was the mode or form of the punishment, and not the punishment itself, that constitutes in this respect the essential thing; or finally as though this form wasn’t given over to the will or to the discretion of him who had the power to punish in his own name.

The civil code, wholly laid out in a few printed pages, and amongst the inhabitants of Vienna given, out of derision, the sobriquet of “the blue book“, contains some incredible principles that, on the one hand, systematically establish the most unheard-of despotism, and on the other, confounds all natural justice, all morality, and destroys the most sacred private relationships. It holds that among other things, the Sovereign has the right to abolish all customs (as though he were their author), and that they will all be banned. This code permits no interpretation of the law, and refers judges to the letter exclusively; a principle that authorizes taking the first working-class slob that comes along (le premier charretier) on as a judge, as long as he can read, and which renders superfluous all studies, all knowledge. Promises of marriage, in case of a woman’s pregnancy, no longer required taking her as a wife; promises or engagements were thus no longer obligatory. “The community of goods in a marriage changes nothing with respect to ownership of the assets of one or the other of the parties; each of them conserves an unlimited power over what belongs to them, and can alienate it despite the wishes of the other party”. Children born out of wedlock and of unmarried parents are placed on the same level as legitimate children, and partake of all the rights of the latter, etc.

Finally, all these acts of violence and more held themselves up as philosophical principles of public law, which had been inculcated in Joseph II himself; hence the several of his edicts authored in a style that makes the French Revolution no longer seem surprising. In a famous Cabinet resolution, which appeared in 1783 (in which, to note in passing, the Emperor treats his employees as beasts of burden, in which he allows them no rest, nor leisure, and is indifferent to whether they’re even properly dressed (bottés et peignés) or not, as long as work gets done), the following principles are established: “The good is only, and nothing other than, that which is useful to the greatest number; the good of the great masses outweighs that of each particular, and even that of the Sovereign”. All the provinces of the monarchy make up nothing than one and the same body, [and] the revenues of the emperor are nothing but the contributions of citizens. On the occasion of a new set of rules on land taxes and royalties (tailles et subsides) (rules whose injustice cannot be disguised) once again one hears phrases of this genre. The landholders having complained about these innovations, the response is: “That superiors would have never existed without subjects in the first place”.

For the rest, Joseph II already attempted to introduce military conscription in all of his States- which wasn’t quite advantageous to the greatest number. But since citizens made up the State, since wars are by consequence their wars, and since the Emperor styles himself servant of the State, it was also just for them to furnish men and money for all wars, given that the Emperor’s mother did it already with enlisted soldiers and their pay. Joseph who pretended to belong to the country […]

[the next two pages are missing from my copy –DS]

What followed from all these reform projects is, in fact, well-known; but it’s helpful to say at least something for educational purposes. None of them ended well. The goods from the banned convents sold at bargain-basement prices, or better, the revenues were squandered by prodigal administrations; the imperial treasury impoverished itself in place of enriching itself from external benefit. Testaments were no longer respected, and the government seized, from its private authority, upon every pretext to dispose of them at its will. The heart of compassion closed up, donation to charitable foundations ceased; hospitals fell into penury from the moment the State took sole charge of their maintenance and administration. Serfs begged lords on their knees to be restored to their original condition, and to be delivered from a liberty that exposed them to starving to death. The enforcement of a great number of ordinances and court orders (arrêts) became absolutely impractical. Customs and natural relations of private law were conserved in spite of all efforts and all the decrees of sophists. The new civil and penal codes were not followed in their strange dispositions, neither by their authors, nor their subjects. The Nature of things proved stronger than the folly of philosophers, and the hearts of individuals held in higher regard than those of legislators. Particulars respected contracts and promises, even though the State allowed them to be arbitrarily broken. Persecution directed against the Church, [and] the whole troop of revolutionary writers and pamphleteers of Vienna, were neither able to destroy the reverence (considération) owed to respectable priests and scholars, nor the attachment of the people to their religion. It followed, from the new set of rules on taxes having cost an immense undertaking and millions of florins, not only that this enterprise had to be abandoned, but additionally that all the related paperwork had to be burned.

In the Brabant, the violation of all treaties and all privileges, the innovation in ecclesiastical matters, conscription, and what they called the new regulation of royalties, acted together to excite a general discontent; a formidable insurrection broke out in 1786, and for the second time in 1789. And since the Emperor and his lieutenants eventually wound up conceding all these points, it proved impossible to regain the confidence lost. Rebel Hungarians menaced the ports of Vienna; Bohemia and the Tyrol were equally at the point of uprising; the most serious discontent reigned right up into the capitol; and all this was additionally joined with two unfortunate wars with Holland and Turkey, which squandered finances and enfeebled the forces needed to sustain the great struggle that was preparing itself. The unfortunate emperor came to see it in the end, but too late, out of his blindness. In the last days of his life, he suppressed all the innovations introduced in the Tyrol and in Hungary- fake Enlightened philosophical superstars (lumières philosophiques) who led him and his people to the edge of the abyss be damned- and died just in time for his successor, heeding this example, to, in re-establishing traditional justice, [succeed at] calming minds and regaining the national confidence, despite the urgent circumstances in which he found himself.


2 thoughts on ““Enlightened Despotism” versus Society: An Episode in the History of Progressive Government

  1. Thank you for publishing a few good historic lessons about the smart and well educated enlightened tyrant, yet without any common sense and an ability of making reasonable judgment in practical matters.
    The last sentence mentions his successor, his younger brother Leopold II (September 30, 1790 – March, 1, 1972) in a rather positive way. While Leopold reversed many of his predecessor’s policies, he was by no means a reactionary or even any conservative. Actually, he was a very clever liberal, with a lot of common sense, a therefore much more dangerous.
    Leopold and Joseph’s father, Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor was Duke of Lorraine by birth. The Duchy was occupied by France and Francis received the Duchy of Tuscany as a compensation. Leopold succeeded his father in Tuscany in 1765. He abolished capital punishment and in 1786 he organized a synod in Pistoia, which was condemned by Pope in 1794. The synod (per la Wik):
    declared that the Roman Catholic Church has no right to introduce new dogmas, but only to preserve in its original purity the faith once delivered by Christ to His apostles, and is infallible only so far as it conforms to Holy Scripture and true tradition; the Church, moreover is a purely spiritual body and has no authority in things secular. Other decrees denounced the abuse of indulgences, of festivals of saints, and of processions and suggested reforms; others again enjoined the closing of shops on Sunday during divine service, the issue of service-books with parallel translations in the vernacular, a vernacularization of the Roman Rite and recommended the abolition of all monastic orders except that of St. Benedict, the rules of which were to be brought into harmony with modern ideas; nuns were to be forbidden to take the vows before the age of 40.
    Leopold was burried in a plain sarcophagus like his predecessor Joseph. Leopold, certainly, accommodated his deeds according to circumstances. In Tuscany he was much more absolute than in the various land of the Habsburg Monarchy, so he was more liberal in the former than in the letter. however, had he lived longer, and had the circimstances been more favorable to him, he would have been a much more dangerous person than his brahmin brother Joseph.
    Only with Emperor Francis II (Francis I of Austria), Leopold’s eldest son, who was tutored by the childless Joseph (unwlling of a third marriage) to become his successor once, would things go a little better. Fortunately, Francis was tutored by Joseph in Vienna, which made him grow an opposite of his uncle. The cunning Leopold may have turned him into an ardent liberal.


  2. Thanks for the additional detail. I previously had no idea how far these guys actually went in trying to interfere in religion; I had always just sort of assumed that “Enlightened despotism” only meant abolishing serfdom and the death penalty. The way things are going are in the USA right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton, if elected, will have a go at trying it for what will be the first time in that country’s history- but that’s another story.


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