1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aristocracy

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ARISTOCRACY (Gr. ἄριστος, best; κρατία, government), etymologically, the “rule of the best,” a form of government variously defined and appreciated at different times and by different authorities. In Greek political philosophy, aristocracy is the government of those who most nearly attain to the ideal of human perfection. Thus Plato in the Republic advocates the rule of the “philosopher-king” who, in the social scheme, is analogous to Reason in the intellectual, and alone is qualified to control the active principles, i.e. the fighting population and the artisans or workers. Aristocracy is thus the government by those who are superior both morally and intellectually, and, therefore, govern directly in the interests of the governed, as a good doctor works for the good of his patient. Aristotle classified good governments under three heads—monarchy, aristocracy and commonwealth πολιτεία, to which he opposed the three perverted forms—tyranny or absolutism, oligarchy and democracy or mob-rule. The distinction between aristocracy and oligarchy, which are both necessarily the rule of the few, is that whereas the few ἄριστοι will govern unselfishly, the oligarchs, being the few wealthy (“plutocracy” in modern terminology), will allow their personal interests to predominate. While Plato’s aristocracy might be the rule of the wise and benevolent despot, Aristotle’s is necessarily the rule of the few.

Historically aristocracy develops from primitive monarchy by the gradual progressive limitation of the regal authority. This process is effected primarily by the nobles who have hitherto formed the council of the king (an excellent example will be found in Athenian politics, see Archon), whose triple prerogative— religious, military and judicial—is vested, e.g., in a magistracy of three. These are either members of the royal house or the heads of noble families, and are elected for life or periodically by their peers, i.e. by the old royal council (cf. the Areopagus at Athens, the Senate at Rome), now the sovereign power. In practice this council depends primarily on a birth qualification, and thus has always been more or less inferior to the Aristotelian ideal; it is, by definition, an “oligarchy” of birth, and is recruited from the noble families, generally by the addition of emeritus magistrates. From the earliest times, therefore, the word “aristocracy” became practically synonymous with “oligarchy,” and as such it is now generally used in opposition to democracy (which similarly took the place of Aristotle’s πολιτεία), in which the ultimate sovereignty resides in the whole citizen body.

The aristocracy of which we know most in ancient Greece was that of Athens prior to the reforms of Cleisthenes, but all the Greek city-states passed through a period of aristocratic or oligarchic government. Rome, between the regal and the imperial periods, was always more or less under the aristocratic government of the senate, in spite of the gradual growth of democratic institutions (the Lat. optimates is the equivalent of ἄριστοι). There is, however, one feature which distinguishes these aristocracies from those of modern states, namely, that they were all slave-owning. The original relation of the slave-population, which in many cases outnumbered the free citizens, cannot always be discovered. But in some cases we know that the slaves were the original inhabitants who had been overcome by an influx of racially different invaders (cf. Sparta with its Helots); in others they were captives taken in war. Hence even the most democratic states of antiquity were so far aristocratic that the larger proportion of the inhabitants had no voice in the government. In the second place this relation gave rise to a philosophic doctrine, held even by Aristotle, that there were peoples who were inferior by nature and adapted to submission (Φύσει δοῦλοι); such people had no “virtue” in the technical civic sense, and were properly occupied in performing the menial functions of society, under the control of the ἄριστοι. Thus, combined with the criteria of descent, civic status and the ownership of the land, there was the further idea of intellectual and social superiority. These qualifications were naturally, in course of time, shared by an increasingly large number of the lower class who broke down the barriers of wealth and education. From this stage the transition is easy to the aristocracy of wealth, such as we find at Carthage and later at Venice, in periods when the importance of commerce was paramount and mercantile pursuits had cast off the stigma of inferiority (in Gr. βαναυσία).

It is important at this stage to distinguish between aristocracy and the feudal governments of medieval Europe. In these it is true that certain power was exercised by a small number of families, at the expense of the majority. But under this system each noble governed in a particular area and within strict limitations imposed by his sovereign; no sovereign authority was vested in the nobles collectively.

Under the conditions of the present day the distinction of aristocracy, democracy and monarchy cannot be rigidly maintained from a purely governmental point of view. In no case does the sovereign power in a state reside any longer in an aristocracy, and the word has acquired a social rather than a political sense as practically equivalent to “nobility,” though the distinction is sometimes drawn between the “aristocracy of birth” and the “aristocracy of wealth.” Modern history, however, furnishes many examples of government in the hands of an aristocracy. Such were the aristocratic republics of Venice, Genoa and the Dutch Netherlands, and those of the free imperial cities in Germany. Such, too, in practice though not in theory, was the government of Great Britain from the Revolution of 1689 to the Reform Bill of 1832. The French nobles of the Ancien Régime, denounced as “aristocrats” by the Revolutionists, had no share as such in government, but enjoyed exceptional privileges (e.g. exemption from taxation). This privileged position is still enjoyed by the heads of the German mediatized families of the “High Nobility.” In Great Britain, on the other hand, though the aristocratic principle is still represented in the constitution by the House of Lords, the “aristocracy” generally, apart from the peers, has no special privileges.