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Aristocracy (, ) is a
form of government A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generally a state. In the case of its broad associative definition, government normally consists of legislature, executive, and judiciary. Government ...
that places strength in the hands of a small, privileged
ruling class In sociology, the ruling class of a society is the social class who set and decide the political and economic agenda of society. In Marxist philosophy, the ruling class are the capitalist social class who own the means of production and by exten ...
, the
aristocrats Aristocracy (, ) is a form of government that places strength in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class, the aristocracy (class), aristocrats. The term derives from the el, αριστοκρατία (), meaning 'rule of the best'. At t ...
. The term derives from the el, αριστοκρατία (), meaning 'rule of the best'. At the time of the word's origins in
ancient Greece Ancient Greece ( el, Ἑλλάς, Hellás) was a northeastern Mediterranean Sea, Mediterranean civilization, existing from the Greek Dark Ages of the 12th–9th centuries BC to the end of Classical Antiquity, classical antiquity ( AD 600), th ...
, the Greeks conceived it as rule by the best-qualified citizens—and often contrasted it favorably with
monarchy A monarchy is a government#Forms, form of government in which a person, the monarch, is head of state for life or until abdication. The legitimacy (political)#monarchy, political legitimacy and authority of the monarch may vary from restric ...
, rule by an individual. The term was first used by such ancient Greeks as
Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. Taught by Plato, he was the founder of the Peripatet ...
and
Plato Plato ( ; grc-gre, wikt:Πλάτων, Πλάτων ; 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was a Greeks, Greek philosopher born in Athens during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. He founded the Platonist school of thou ...
, who used it to describe a system where only the best of the citizens, chosen through a careful process of selection, would become rulers, and hereditary rule would actually have been forbidden, unless the rulers' children performed best and were better endowed with the attributes that make a person fit to rule compared with every other citizen in the polity. Hereditary rule in this understanding is more related to
oligarchy Oligarchy (; ) is a conceptual form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. These people may or may not be distinguished by one or several characteristics, such as nobility Nobility is a social class foun ...
, a corrupted form of aristocracy where there is rule by a few, but not by the best.
Plato Plato ( ; grc-gre, wikt:Πλάτων, Πλάτων ; 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was a Greeks, Greek philosopher born in Athens during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. He founded the Platonist school of thou ...
,
Socrates Socrates (; ; –399 BC) was a Greeks, Greek philosopher from Classical Athens, Athens who is credited as the founder of Western philosophy and among the first moral philosophers of the Ethics, ethical tradition of thought. An enigmati ...
, Aristotle,
Xenophon Xenophon of Athens (; grc, wikt:Ξενοφῶν, Ξενοφῶν ; – probably 355 or 354 BC) was a Greek military leader, philosopher, and historian, born in Athens. At the age of 30, Xenophon was elected commander of one of the biggest Anci ...
, and the
Spartans Sparta (Doric Greek: Σπάρτα, ''Spártā''; Attic Greek: wikt:Σπάρτη, Σπάρτη, ''Spártē'') was a prominent city-state in Laconia, in ancient Greece. In antiquity, the city-state was known as Lacedaemon (, ), while the nam ...
considered aristocracy (the ideal form of rule by the few) to be inherently better than the ideal form of rule by the many (
democracy Democracy (From grc, δημοκρατία, dēmokratía, ''dēmos'' 'people' and ''kratos'' 'rule') is a form of government in which people, the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation ("direct democracy"), or to choo ...
), but they also considered the corrupted form of aristocracy (oligarchy) to be worse than the corrupted form of democracy (
mob rule Mob rule or ochlocracy ( el, ὀχλοκρατία, translit=okhlokratía; la, ochlocratia) is the rule of government by a mob or mass of people and the intimidation of legitimate authorities. Insofar as it represents a pejorative for majorit ...
). This belief was rooted in the assumption that the masses could only produce average policy, while the best of men could produce the best policy, if they were indeed the best of men. Later
Polybius Polybius (; grc-gre, Πολύβιος, ; ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period. He is noted for his work , which covered the period of 264–146 BC and the Punic Wars in detail. Polybius is important for his analysis of the mixed ...
in his analysis of the Roman Constitution used the concept of aristocracy to describe his conception of a
republic A republic () is a "sovereign state, state in which Power (social and political), power rests with the people or their Representative democracy, representatives; specifically a state without a monarchy" and also a "government, or system of gov ...
as a mixed form of government, along with democracy and monarchy in their conception from then, as a system of
checks and balances Separation of powers refers to the division of a state (polity), state's government into branches, each with separate, independent power (social and political), powers and responsibilities, so that the powers of one branch are not in conflic ...
, where each element checks the excesses of the other. In practice, aristocracy often leads to hereditary government, after which the hereditary monarch appoints officers as they see fit. In modern times, aristocracy was usually seen as rule by a privileged group, the aristocratic class, and has since been contrasted with
democracy Democracy (From grc, δημοκρατία, dēmokratía, ''dēmos'' 'people' and ''kratos'' 'rule') is a form of government in which people, the people have the authority to deliberate and decide legislation ("direct democracy"), or to choo ...
.


Concept

The concept evolved in
ancient Greece Ancient Greece ( el, Ἑλλάς, Hellás) was a northeastern Mediterranean Sea, Mediterranean civilization, existing from the Greek Dark Ages of the 12th–9th centuries BC to the end of Classical Antiquity, classical antiquity ( AD 600), th ...
in which a council of leading citizens was commonly empowered. That was contrasted with
representative democracy Representative democracy, also known as indirect democracy, is a types of democracy, type of democracy where elected people Representation (politics), represent a group of people, in contrast to direct democracy. Nearly all modern liberal democr ...
in which a council of citizens was appointed as the "senate" of a
city state A city-state is an independent sovereignty, sovereign city which serves as the center of political, economic, and cultural life over its contiguous territory. They have existed in many parts of the world since the dawn of history, including ci ...
or other political unit. The Greeks did not like the concept of monarchy, and as their democratic system fell, aristocracy was upheld. In his 1651 book '' Leviathan'',
Thomas Hobbes Thomas Hobbes ( ; 5/15 April 1588 – 4/14 December 1679) was an English people, English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book ''Leviathan (Hobbes book), Levi ...
describes an aristocracy as a commonwealth in which the representative of the citizens is an assembly by part only. It is a system in which only a small part of the population represents the government; "certain men distinguished from the rest". Modern depictions of aristocracy tend to regard it not as the ancient Greek concept of rule by the best, but more as an
oligarchy Oligarchy (; ) is a conceptual form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. These people may or may not be distinguished by one or several characteristics, such as nobility Nobility is a social class foun ...
or
plutocracy A plutocracy () or plutarchy is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income. The first known use of the term in English dates from 1631. Unlike most political systems, plutocracy is not rooted in any established ...
—rule by the few or the wealthy. The concept of aristocracy according to
Plato Plato ( ; grc-gre, wikt:Πλάτων, Πλάτων ; 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was a Greeks, Greek philosopher born in Athens during the Classical Greece, Classical period in Ancient Greece. He founded the Platonist school of thou ...
has an ideal state ruled by the
philosopher king The philosopher king is a hypothetical ruler in whom political skill is combined with philosophical knowledge. The concept of a city-state ruled by philosophers is first explored in Plato's ''Republic (Plato), Republic'', written around 375 BC. ...
. Plato describes "philosopher kings" as "those who love the sight of truth" (''
Republic A republic () is a "sovereign state, state in which Power (social and political), power rests with the people or their Representative democracy, representatives; specifically a state without a monarchy" and also a "government, or system of gov ...
'' 475c) and supports the idea with the analogy of a captain and his ship or a doctor and his medicine. According to him, sailing and health are not things that everyone is qualified to practice by nature. A large part of the ''Republic'' then addresses how the educational system should be set up to produce philosopher kings.


Differentiation

In contrast to its original conceptual drawing in
classical antiquity Classical antiquity (also the classical era, classical period or classical age) is the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 5th century AD centred on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ...
, aristocracy has been associated in the
modern era The term modern period or modern era (sometimes also called modern history or modern times) is the period of history that succeeds the Middle Ages (which ended approximately 1500 AD). This terminology is a historical periodization that is applie ...
with its more general and degenerated form of
oligarchy Oligarchy (; ) is a conceptual form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people. These people may or may not be distinguished by one or several characteristics, such as nobility Nobility is a social class foun ...
, specifically an aristocracy class based oligarchy, with entitled
nobility Nobility is a social class found in many societies that have an aristocracy (class), aristocracy. It is normally ranked immediately below Royal family, royalty. Nobility has often been an Estates of the realm, estate of the realm with many e ...
as in
monarchies A monarchy is a government#Forms, form of government in which a person, the monarch, is head of state for life or until abdication. The legitimacy (political)#monarchy, political legitimacy and authority of the monarch may vary from restric ...
or aristocratic merchant republics. Its original classical understanding has been taken up by the modern concepts that can be loosely equivalent to
meritocracy Meritocracy (''merit'', from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latiu ...
or
technocracy Technocracy is a form of government A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generally a state. In the case of its broad associative definition, government normally consists of legislature, ...
.


History

Aristocracies dominated political and economic power for most of the medieval and modern periods almost everywhere in Europe, using their wealth and land ownership to form a powerful political force. The
English Civil War The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of civil wars and political machinations between Parliamentarians ("Roundheads") and Royalists led by Charles I ("Cavaliers"), mainly over the manner of Kingdom of England, England's governanc ...
involved the first sustained organised effort to reduce aristocratic power in Europe. In the 18th century, the rising
merchant class The bourgeoisie ( , ) is a social class, equivalent to the middle class, middle or upper middle class. They are distinguished from, and traditionally contrasted with, the proletariat by their affluence, and their great Cultural capital, cultu ...
attempted to use money to buy into the aristocracy, with some success. However, the
French Revolution The French Revolution ( ) was a period of radical political and societal change in France France (), officially the French Republic ( ), is a country primarily located in Western Europe. It also comprises of Overseas France, ...
in the 1790s forced many French aristocrats into exile and caused consternation and shock in the aristocratic families of neighbouring countries. After the defeat of
Napoleon Napoleon Bonaparte ; it, Napoleone Bonaparte, ; co, Napulione Buonaparte. (born Napoleone Buonaparte; 15 August 1769 – 5 May 1821), later known by his regnal name Napoleon I, was a French military commander and political leader who ...
in 1814, some of the surviving exiles returned, but their position within French society was not recovered. Beginning in Britain, industrialization in the 19th century brought urbanization, with wealth increasingly concentrated in the cities, which absorbed political power. However, as late as 1900, aristocrats maintained political dominance in Britain, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Russia, but it was an increasingly-precarious dominion. The
First World War World War I (28 July 1914 11 November 1918), often abbreviated as WWI, was List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll, one of the deadliest global conflicts in history. Belligerents included much of Europe, the Russian Empire, ...
had the effect of dramatically reducing the power of aristocrats in all major countries. In Russia, aristocrats were imprisoned and murdered by the communists. After 1900, liberal and socialist governments levied heavy taxes on landowners, spelling their loss of economic power.


See also

*
Elitism Elitism is the belief or notion that individuals who form an elite—a select group of people perceived as having an intrinsic quality (philosophy), quality, high intellect, wealth, power (social and political), power, notability, special Skill ...
*
Gentry Gentry (from Old French ''genterie'', from ''gentil'', "high-born, noble") are "well-born, genteel and well-bred people" of high social class, especially in the past. Word similar to gentle imple and decentfamilies ''Gentry'', in its widest ...
*
Nobility Nobility is a social class found in many societies that have an aristocracy (class), aristocracy. It is normally ranked immediately below Royal family, royalty. Nobility has often been an Estates of the realm, estate of the realm with many e ...
* Old money *
Timocracy A timocracy (from Greek τιμή ''timē'', "honor, worth" and -κρατία ''-kratia'', "rule") in Aristotle Aristotle (; grc-gre, Ἀριστοτέλης ''Aristotélēs'', ; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath du ...
*
Tyranny A tyrant (), in the modern English language, English usage of the word, is an autocracy, absolute ruler who is unrestrained by law, or one who has usurper, usurped a legitimate ruler's sovereignty. Often portrayed as cruel, tyrants may defen ...


References


Further reading

* Bengtsson, Erik, et al. "Aristocratic wealth and inequality in a changing society: Sweden, 1750–1900." ''Scandinavian Journal of History'' 44.1 (2019): 27–52
Online
* Cannon, John. ''History'', Oxford University Press, 1997, * Liu, Jia. "Study on the Decline of the British Aristocracy from the Perspective of Modernization." ''2018 4th International Conference on Economics, Management and Humanities Science'' (2018)
Online
* Schutte, Kimberly. ''Women, Rank, and Marriage in the British Aristocracy, 1485-2000: An Open Elite?'' (Springer, 2014). * Wasson, Ellis. ''Aristocracy in the Modern World'', Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.


External links

*
Aristocracy
at Encyclopedia Britannica {{DEFAULTSORT:Aristocracy (Government) Ancient Greek government Oligarchy Social classes Social groups