It is worthwhile to cast a backward glance at styles of thought and life that jostled one another on the late eighteenth-century German stage, at least among the educated, propertied, and empowered classes. One can make out three distinctive world-views (with corresponding “life-worlds”) that coexisted and competed with each other (and with a fourth, which began to take shape at the era’s end). The oldest among them was the social and religious traditionalism that might be called the “Christian vision of an estates-bound world.” Much in evidence after the Thirty Years War, adherents to this world-view clung to religious orthodoxy as it had crystallized in the conflicts leading up to the “great German war,” as it was called by some. Faith in one’s creed and loyalty to its clerics and officials alone promised salvation. As for worldly life, a conservative and hierarchical mentality accompanied religious orthodoxy. It saw in the received traditions of the late medieval and Renaissance-era “estates polity” [Ständestaat] the promise of social equilibrium. Each collective interest in society, peasantry and the poor included, deserved – and would gain – just consideration under the joint rule of the prince and the corporately organized elites.
Throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the Westphalian treaty’s modifications of the imperial constitution seemed to strengthen the longstanding ideal of harmonious power-sharing between the emperor and the Reich-level estates – particularly territorial rulers, both lay and ecclesiastical. Such a perspective on German life persisted into the Napoleonic era, when many of the political structures it valued – from the Empire itself to seigneurial and other small-scale forms of feudal lordship – collapsed or were abolished through conquest, impotence, and ideological delegitimization. Yet this mentality experienced rebirth in the form of nineteenth-century social and political conservatism, invoking the alliance of throne and altar and restamping the coin of old-regime lordship and liberties with the insignia of a patriarchally conceived modern market economy and property rights.
A second world-view emerged in the mid-seventeenth century, associated with the rise of military-bureaucratic monarchy. It can be imagined as “state-building realism.” Understanding itself to be bold and modern, it paid as much homage as inbred religiosity and self-interested appreciation of feudal privilege allowed to raison d’état, Machiavellian militarism and diplomacy, ruthless fiscalism, and bureaucratic and judicial rationalization. It redefined the subject population not by their prescriptive rights and liberties, but rather by their duties to the new and abstract “state” that was rising – or so adherents to this view hoped – into the human clouds. To many it seemed natural to ascribe this development to God’s will. Religious conservatives who loudly opposed it – like aristocrats who doggedly fought against state aggrandizement – suffered the sting of princely disgrace and sometimes even sharper sanctions.
This mentality also persisted through the eighteenth century, as it does, in more modern dress, to the present day. It was shared, then as now, by business entrepreneurs, especially those working profitably with the power-state. But in the mid-eighteenth century, it encountered a challenge in the form of a third world-view, which we may term “Enlightenment utopianism.” This was the broader outlook of which adherence to “enlightened absolutism” was one influential expression. Fundamental was the ambition to remake the human world in the image of the rationality of Nature which Galileo and Newton and other luminaries of the Scientific Revolution had discovered.