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Definition: aristocracy from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1561) 1 : government by the best individuals or by a small privileged class 2 a : a government in which power is vested in a minority consisting of those believed to be best qualified b : a state with such a government 3 : a governing body or upper class usu. made up of a hereditary nobility 4 : the aggregate of those believed to be superior


Summary Article: Aristocracy from Encyclopedia of Political Theory

The term aristocracy derives from the ancient Greek aristokratia, or “rule by the best.” In modern usage, it normally designates a ruling elite whose political powers and wealth are invested with titles and privileges and transmitted through hereditary succession. Modern parlance reflects the term's original meaning insofar as it plays on a moral contrast between aristocratic powers, legitimated by the responsibility and self-restraint supposedly attendant on good breeding, and oligarchic powers, acquired through ambition, calculation, eager new money, and similar vices, which are thought to prevail in self-appointed or otherwise illegitimate regimes.

In ancient Greece, however, no actual group of people or government was known officially under the designation aristocracy. Exclusive gentile clans of the kind familiar from later European history, with hereditary status and landholdings that depended on royal grant or sanction, never existed, despite the longevity and pretence of some prominent families. The term aristocracy was coined no earlier than the fifth century BCE to denote a type of political system or constitution in which authority and moral excellence were inherently connected and attainable by few. Its usage probably was uncommon outside the sphere of theory, notably the debates on the relative merits of different constitutions, which had been triggered by the twin Athenian innovations of radical democracy at home and empire over Greek communities in the Aegean. Accordingly, although ancient aristocracy could not have had a real institutional legacy, the concept itself enjoyed a rich afterlife in both political analysis and polemic. This entry considers the three contrasting and complementary conceptions of aristocracy prevalent in different forms and periods from antiquity to the present—aristocracy as a constitution, a class, and a theory of elite leadership.

Aristocracy as a Constitution

The term aristocracy can be traced back in classical literature to the Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404 BCE, a prolonged conflict between two interstate leagues led by the two foremost powers of the Greek world, democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta. Our main source for the period, Thucydides, was surely not alone in trying to explain this conflict in terms of the political organization and interests of the two polities involved, although the flaws that the crisis revealed on either side were too numerous to permit praise and blame along ideological lines. As a result, it became necessary to supplement the existing quantitative classification of constitutions into monarchy (rule by one man), oligarchy (rule by few), and democracy (rule by the people) with a qualitative scale, either (as in Thucydides) through the use of adjectives or (in Plato) through the invention of new compound words, such as plutocracy (rule by the wealthy), timocracy (rule by the ambitious), and cheirocracy (rule by the worst).

The precise meaning of aristocracy could vary according to author or context: (1) In literary records of Socrates's dialogues (Xenophon, Memorabilia 4. 6. 12), the term denotes a positive variant of oligarchy, in which the “few” rich and powerful prioritize consistently the well-being of the whole community; (2) In Plato's work (e.g., Republic 4. 445d), aristocracy features as an ideal constitution alongside, and closely akin to, monarchy, or rule by a single “best” man; (3) According to Thucydides (2. 37. 2) and the fourth-century BCE orator, Isocrates (Panathenaicus 131-2), aristocracy was in fact a subspecies of democracy, in which the masses had voted the best men into office and willingly submitted to their rule, a state of affairs that was widely thought to have prevailed sometime in Athens's glorified past, under the “ancestral constitution,” and to persist among more traditional societies, such as the Spartans and the Carthaginians.

In Aristotle's works, all three meanings occur: Aristocracy can be defined absolutely, as an ideal constitution on a par with monarchy, or in relation to oligarchy and democracy. In comparison to his predecessors, however, Aristotle elaborates more systematically the sociological factors that give rise to actual aristocratic governments (especially in Politics 1293b). As actual governments, these are necessarily of the relative rather than absolute kind: a mixed constitution in which the negative tendencies of oligarchy and democracy have been tempered by greater numbers of citizens and by wealth, or rather the good judgment and moderation resulting from good education and the leisured lifestyle of the landowning citizen. This combination of free birth, landed property, and moral excellence, subsumable under eugeneia (good birth), ensured according to Aristotle an altruistic interest in the common good that could be expected neither from the poor many nor from the newly rich, who having gained their wealth through commerce had no real stake in the community. The major difference in political procedure between aristocracy and democracy concerned the methods employed to allocate offices: Whereas selection by lot and pay for office were the key features of radical democracy (as practiced in classical Athens), election was by nature aristocratic, for it introduced an element of deliberate choice that was inevitably in favor of the “best” (Politics 1300b4-5).

Historians of the ancient world still use the term in its classical sense to describe political organizations in early Greece and republican Rome. Greek aristocracy is the conventional name for the regimes in early Greece that were dominated by a few prominent families, whose landed property and authority appear to go back to the relatively isolated and impoverished communities of the early Iron Age. Whether or to what degree political influence was guaranteed or institutionalized remains, however, open to question. While archaic poetry and the law codes known from inscriptions and later literary records may attest to conflicts between old lineages and new wealth, reconstructions of the preceding aristocratic period depend on problematic inferences from much later constitutional histories, which were prone to exaggerate the traditionalism of early societies (see, for instance, the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia 3, describing Athens's first constitution by Drako), and from terms of hereditary descent in the political organization of classical city-states, interpreted as relics of a past order controlled by great families.

Roman aristocracy refers to the nobiles (known men) from a restricted set of about 50 families, who ruled the republic practically among themselves through privileged access to the consulship. Although a relatively homogeneous group with status-defining lifestyles and forms of self-representation, the nobiles remained—despite their class-like character—primarily a political group: that is, a caste of “born leaders” who were compelled to serve the state by both high birth and social expectation.

The divergence of public authority and social standing, which aristocracy is now often taken to imply, manifested itself for the first time under the empire, as financial and military policy had become the preserve of the emperor, and executive posts in Rome and the provinces were allocated to members of a hereditary senatorial estate and a lower equestrian order, whose titles depended on imperial grant.

Outside classical scholarship, aristocracy retained its theoretical meaning until the Enlightenment. Thus, in Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws (1748), aristocracy still signified a republic in which privilege was the highest cause of liberty and the chief reason for entrusting legislative powers to the well-born. Later usage, however, focused by and large on social interpretation, as foreshadowed in Aristotle's concern with the economic sources of aristocratic virtue and the issue of rightful leadership in democracies.

Aristocracy as a Class

When modern historians and social scientists speak of aristocracy, they usually mean a class whose distinction from the rest of society is founded on a system of unequal distribution of privilege. This usage goes back to the Enlightenment and the political agitation of the run-up to the French Revolution, when aristocrat became a party designation balancing democrat. Used in an openly social and hostile sense, aristocracy implied undue accumulation of wealth and morally unjustifiable prerogatives—a closed establishment with hereditary titles and entitlements to landed property, goods, obligations and offices.

At the core of this perspective is the notion that aristocracy is a euphemism, forged by those who wished to obscure economic interests and give a favorable picture of oligarchy. The approach found its culmination in formalist economic analysis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably orthodox Marxism, according to which any given aristocracy is identifiable as a class and its cultural expression reducible to a system of labor organization and asymmetrical distribution of wealth.

The outcome of such egalitarian rationalism is probably right and wrong at the same time. On the one hand, the power elites commonly known as aristocracies, whether Greek, Roman, or European, were inclined to seriously downplay the significance of wealth in their formation. Even in the blood aristocracies of the Roman Republic and Europe, hereditary principles hardly ever amounted to complete closure to newcomers: Some system of recruitment was necessary, if only to offset the difficulties of succession and demographic self-replacement. Furthermore, at first sight, European aristocracy seems to lend itself quite well to economic analysis due to its shared historical origins in medieval feudalism—a socioeconomic system based on an entrenched perception of hierarchies and reciprocal obligations whereby a king or other overlord granted land to his followers in return for loyalty and services.

However, the persistence of aristocratic power long after the feudal system and serfdom had been abolished shows that the link between economy and society was not as straightforward as envisioned by Marxism. Indeed, different European aristocracies showed themselves surprisingly adaptable to new sources of commercial and industrial wealth and new forms of bureaucracy and administration, which opened alternative routes to power, despite loss in overall economic standing. The greatest shortcoming of formalist analysis is, however, that it fails to capture the cultural significance of wealth, above all leisure, and the scope it offered in fostering new forms of conspicuous display to mark social pre-eminence.

Scholars from across the disciplines now prefer to consider aristocracies as dynamic elites rather than monolithic classes, a nonessentialist stance that provides greater opportunities in explaining the social energies and modes of distinction through which prestige was maintained. Ultimately, this view of aristocrats as masters of rarefied skills and symbolic capital is more accommodating to the fact that, throughout history, the majority of people readily accepted elite claims to special hereditary virtues as justifying the right to rule. Eugenicist views in the works by Plato and Aristotle (Republic 495d-e; Politics 1335b) indicate how easily experiences from animal breeding gave way to commonsensical explanations of noble birth and excellence.

Aristocracy as an Elite Theory

The idea developed by Socrates and Aristotle—that the voluntary adoption of aristocratic leadership could transform and enhance democracies—contained the seeds for an elite theory anticipating modern counterparts in some basic points. No doubt, this theory evolved from a conservative desire to explain how and why traditional wealth and privilege ought to translate into political preeminence, despite the rapidly changing circumstances under Athenian democracy. Our extant sources are fairly uninformative on how precisely this democratic challenge was formulated and dealt with, most likely because ancient democracy was never presented in a systematic theory.

Our only notable exception comes from Plato's literary record of a dialogue between his teacher

Socrates and the Sophist Protagoras. Protagoras argued that every freeborn man possessed an inborn capacity for political judgment (politike tekhne), which was different and independent from the technical expertise normally concentrated among the wealthy and well-connected. From this distinction followed logically the democratic maxim that every citizen should have a say in political debates, and no one should possess special privileges in government.

In his later Republic, Plato seems to deal with this kind of challenge when he argues that democratic government was systemically defective because it expected ordinary citizens to make judgments about what was good for the whole community. Such decisions required expert knowledge, which, he maintained, ordinary citizens did not possess and were indeed in no position to acquire, as they were lacking the very capacity to apprehend the Truth. In essence, Plato countered the challenge of radicals like Protagoras by contending that opinion was worthless without authoritative knowledge of the kind found among educated elites.

This distinction between opinion and expert knowledge is implicit in the policy making of most representative governments and nongovernmental organizations of the modern West. In standard practice, decisions on policy are left to experts, who are periodically checked by an election or shareholder meeting, when broader sectors of the public are canvassed and given a choice between competing groups of experts. It seems perfectly sensible that the greater complexity of modern institutions and technologies should call for ever greater numbers of experts and areas of expertise. In general, modern elite theory approves of this development, arguing that the formation of elites, for instance, in political parties and bureaucracies, is both inevitable and necessary for the successful functioning of complex organizations.

Yet, recent history has offered more than enough examples to illustrate the extravagant failures in store when policy developed by financial, military, and other experts is allowed to go unchecked by the voice of a public that has been given a chance to form its own opinion. The ancient debate on aristocracy and democracy has lost little of its relevance: Indeed, in its modern rendering in terms of mass and elite, the classical Athenian way of handling the relationship between knowledge and political authority has been seen as offering a possible model on which to reform modern practice. In this model, most forcefully presented by Josiah Ober, the key to Athens's success was the ability of her institutions to utilize the expertise of volunteer advisers, who were constantly competing for public recognition and approval for policy proposals put forward in open assemblies, rather than in the closed corridors of power in modern governments.

This model is attractively consistent with the evidence from epigraphy and prosopography attesting to the continued influence of elite networks and individuals from prominent families in, for instance, financial administration, diplomacy, and military policy. Other commentators are no less justified to identify this evidence with a de facto aristocracy, which dominated government through the defining upper-class skills of speech writing and delivery—a reminder that the classical taxonomy of institutions was developed to draw ideological distinctions between communities and provide orientation in a political landscape that was vastly more complicated than most ancient theorists wanted it to be.

See also

Ancient Democracy, Aristotle, City-State, Class, Elite Theory, Feudalism, Plato, Thucydides

Further Readings
  • Donlan, W. (1999). The aristocratic ideal and selected papers. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci.
  • Gelzer, M. (1969). The Roman nobility. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
  • Ober, J. (1989). Mass and elite in democratic Athens: Rhetoric, ideology, and the power of the people. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Powis, J. (1984). Aristocracy. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
  • Veblen, T. B. (1994). The theory of the leisure class. New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1899).
  • Meyer, Caspar
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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