In the later years of the Enlightenment, absolute monarchs in several European countries adopted some of the ideas of Enlightenment political philosophers. However, although some changes and reforms were implemented, most of these rulers did not fundamentally change absolutist rule.
In Russia, empress Catherine the Great, a subscriber to the ideas of Beccaria and de Gouges, decried torture while greatly improving education, health care, and women’s rights, as well as clarifying the rights of the nobility. She also insisted that the Russian Orthodox Church become more tolerant of outsiders. However, she continued to imprison many of her opponents and maintained censorship and serfdom.
In Austria, monarchs Maria-Theresa and Joseph II worked to end mistreatment of peasants by abolishing serfdom and also promoted individual rights, education, and religious tolerance. An admirer of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia, supported the arts and education, reformed the justice system, improved agriculture, and created a written legal code. However, although these reforms strengthened and streamlined the Prussian state, the tax burden continued to fall on peasants and commoners.
Spain had a great deal of censorship in place during the early Enlightenment, but when Charles III ascended the throne in 1759, he implemented a number of reforms. During his tenure, Charles III weakened the influence of the Church, enabled land ownership for the poor, and vastly improved transportation routes.
Not all the aftereffects of the Enlightenment were productive. Despite the advances in literacy, thought, and intellectual discussion that accompanied the Enlightenment, middle- and upper-class citizens often mistakenly carried this open-mindedness to an excessive degree. In many cases, this open-mindedness manifested itself in pure gullibility, as supposedly well-educated Europeans fell prey to “intellectual” schemes and frauds based on nothing more than superstition and clever speech.
For instance, during the eighteenth century, people who called themselves phrenologists convinced many Europeans that a person’s character could be analyzed through the study of the contours of the skull. Likewise, the quack field of physiognomy claimed to be able to predict psychological characteristics, such as a predisposition to violence, by analyzing facial features or body structure. Similar medical hoaxes were common throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some more dangerous than others, such as the continuing practice of bloodletting.