To truly understand what enlightened absolutism is, one needs to understand both the terms it is made up of i.e. absolutism and enlightenment, separately.
It can be defined as a monarchical power which is limitless. No institution of the society, be it church or intellectual elites, have any control over it. The age of absolutism prevailed in Europe when the society was transitioning from feudalism to capitalism. European absolute monarchs ruled it right from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century. During this time, the influence of the religion and the church on the society diminished greatly. The monarchs became all powerful and formulated certain state laws to govern the society.
This is a term which was coined by the French philosophers and social reformers for a type of government that would lead to economic growth, create an equal society, and at the same time prevent any kind of inefficiency or wastage on the part of the government. Such a government would function in a way that the society and its individuals benefit in all ways - socially, intellectually, creatively, and financially.
The Age of Enlightened Absolutism
This age prevailed in Europe in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. It was the age when absolutism got combined by enlightenment, i.e. the monarchs who ruled over Europe followed the philosophies of enlightenment, to bring about reforms in the society and to modernize it. Voltaire, a French philosopher is considered the main proponent of this type of government.
The enlightened monarchs, although, had absolute powers and believed that since they were born in the royal family, they had a birthright to rule over others, yet, they functioned very differently from the way the traditional monarchs did. Many of them patronized art and literature and thus gave impetus to creativity in society. Some laid great emphasis on education and modernizing the society through it. Freedom to people to give their opinions, the right to own property, practicing religious toleration were some of the other principles by which they governed the society. The absolute monarchs did not believe in being partial to any of their subjects. Everybody was treated equally and the laws were the same for everyone too.
Famous Enlightened Monarchs
There are many famous monarchs who ruled over Europe during the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century, who are known to bring about many social reforms by governing through the enlightenment principles. Some of the famous ones are - Friedrich II of Prussia (1740 - 1786), Catherine II of Russia (1762 - 1796), Charles III of Spain (1759 - 1788), Gustav III of Sweden (1771 - 1792), Napoleon I of France (1804 - 1815), Joseph II of Holy Roman Emperor (1765 - 1790), William I of the Netherlands (1815 - 1840), Leopold II of Holy Roman Emperor (1790 - 1792) and Maria Theresa of Austria (1740 - 1780).
This age did have a lot of positive effects on the society. For instance, serfdom, i.e. bonded peasants and bondage labor was completely abolished from the society due to the efforts of their leaders. This greatly diminished the authority of the landowners. Similarly, due to the various reforms introduced in the society by the enlightened monarchs, the power of the clergy and the nobility saw a downturn too. This automatically strengthened the authority of the monarchs.
In the end, if you look at European history, it can be said that the age of enlightened absolutism was a win-win for both the rulers as well as the subjects. The power of the rulers increased even more as the church, elites, and nobility were relegated to the background. At the same time, the lives of the people improved due to the various reforms initiated by the enlightened monarchs.