Donald, the Dim Despot

Yes, that was too cute. But I’m sticking with it. I’ll explain (as you knew I would).

I’ve been reading “The History of the Modern World.” After I got through the Great Slog (pre-history up to the 16th century), I read the first line of Chapter VII, The Scientific View of the World: “The seventeenth century has been called the century of genius.”

OMG what a relief! From endless meaningless wars waged by forgettable characters and constantly shifting boundaries, I’d reached Galileo and Isaac Newton. Ideas, experimentation, evidence, knowledge. Now we’re getting into good stuff I could appreciate. (Hated Hobbes, loved Locke.)

Then Chapter VIII: The Age of Englightenment, when “the past was regarded as a time of barbarism and darkness.” Yes, but we’re now moving out of the dark to les philosophes,“not essentially philosophers in the usual sense of the word. They were rather popularizers or publicists.” OK with me.

Then I got to the sub-section called Enlightened Despotism.

Instinctively, I stiffened. Of course, given that I have read history, I knew of the concept but as I read it now, in my world today, the idea seemed to be an ancient monstrous statue dusted off and glossed up. How could anyone defined as a despot be “enlightened”? Is Putin “enlightened”? Could the bizarre Kim Jong Un be “enlightened”? Xi?

I know what a despot was in the Age of Enlightenment — an absolute ruler, emperor or king — but how and why would any absolute ruler become “enlightened”? And under such a rubric, what did he (or she) do with all that light?

I read on:

Characteristically, the enlightened despots drained marshes, built roads and bridges, codified the laws, repressed provincial autonom and localism, curtailed the independence of church and nobles, and built up a trained and salaried officialdom. All these things had been done by kings before. The typical enlightened despot differed from his “unenlightened” precedessor mainly in attitude and tempo. He said little of a divine right to his throne. He might even not emphasize his hereditary or dynastic family right. He justified his authority on grounds of usefulness to society, calling himself, as Frederick the Great did, the “first servant of the state.”

…enlightened despotism was secular; it claimed no mandate from heaven and recognized no especially responsibility to God or church.

…Enlightened despotism was also rational and reformist…

But why would absolute rulers want to be “the first person of the state”? The next sub-title gave me the answer: “The Failure of Enlightened Despotism in France.”

Hm, and that unlightened dynasty ended in 1792. But even before then, the American colonists rejected the relatively enlightened despotism of Great Britain entirely to establish an entirely new type of government and an elected “first servant of the state.”

Which sort of leads to Trump. He wants to be a despot, sure, but knows nothing of history. Despots reconstituted themselves as “enlightened” because they understood it was the only path to saving, at least temporarily, their own heads.

Donald is too dim to see the path.


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