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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2024, from

Article Summary

The term ‘absolutism’ describes a form of government in which the authority of the ruler is subject to no theoretical or legal constraints. In the language of Roman law – which played a central role in all theories of absolutism – the ruler was legibus solutus, or ‘unfettered legislator’. Absolutism is generally, although not exclusively, used to describe the European monarchies, and in particular those of France, Spain, Russia and Prussia, between the middle of the sixteenth century and the end of the eighteenth. But some form of absolutism existed in nearly every European state until the late eighteenth century. There have also been recognizable forms of absolute rule in both China and Japan.

As a theory absolutism emerged in Europe, and in particular in France, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in response to the long Civil Wars between the Crown and the nobility known as the Wars of Religion. In the late eighteenth century, as the reform movement associated with the Enlightenment began to influence most European rulers, a form of so-called ‘enlightened absolutism’ (or sometimes ‘enlightened despotism’) emerged. In this the absolute authority of the ruler was directed not towards enhancing the power of the state, but was employed instead for advancing the welfare of his subjects.

Citing this article:
Pagden, Anthony. Absolutism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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