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Definition: absolutism from Philip's Encyclopedia

Government with unlimited power vested in one individual or group. Absolutism is used primarily to describe 18th-century European monarchies that claimed a divine hereditary right to rule.


Summary Article: absolutism from Political Philosophy A-Z
Fig eh5 1
Image from: During the reign of Charles V, the king of Spain... in Encyclopedia of World Trade From Ancient Times to the Present

A system of rule in which there are no legal or authoritative limits on the reach of the ruler. The ruler may be an individual or the holder of an office – as is the case in an absolute monarchy. An absolute power will be practically limited, but not limited by rival institutions or agencies which claim political authority. Again, an absolute authority may choose not to intervene in wide areas of social life, but faces no legal obstacles if it does so choose to intervene (and in this way, a totalitarian government – which does intervene in all aspects of social life – can be seen as a subset of absolutist rule).

Key advocates of absolutism include Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes, as well as those such as Filmer who believed that monarchs ruled by divine right. The arguments for absolutism varied accordingly. For divine right theorists, God’s agent on earth ought not to be hampered by merely man-made laws; for Hobbes, division and limitation of state power was too conducive to a strife that would unravel back to the state of nature to be countenanced.

Monarchical absolutism has been on the wane for centuries, but arguments over the nature and justification of limits on popular sovereignty are still live. Ought popular sovereignty to override the public/private divide, and what limits ought there to be on how a state can act in respect of minorities? What role is there for judicial review of government decisions? In each of these cases, an argument arises for restrictions on the power of the state. In each case, there can be an absolutist response: by what right is the will of the people restricted?

See divine right; Hobbes, Thomas; tyranny of the majority

Further reading
  • Skinner, Quentin (1978), The Foundations of Modern Political Thought 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • © Jon Pike, 2007

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