The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: In 800 words, this entry defines absolutism, describes its historical origins, and discusses its political and philosophical significance.
Absolutism is government with plenary powers and free of legal constraints and constitutional controls. Governments of this type are usually monarchical.
Absolute government emerged in the early to middle sixteenth century as a result of elite activities and court consolidations. The first phase of absolutism relied heavily on religion as a legitimizing ideology. The eighteenth century marked the rise of modern absolute governments, which controlled large bureaucracies and armies. These absolute systems were usually justified as benefiting the public good rather than on religious grounds. The entry provides examples for both of these legitimizing tools.
Anarchy and fear of barbarism led to absolutism's construction as a political philosophical concept. Niccolo Machiavelli, Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes were absolutism's greatest champions, and the entry briefly introduces elements of each of these writer's thoughts. The entry concludes by distinguishing absolutism from a few other related concepts: despotism, autocracy and totalitarianism.