is a form of government
, where rule is established through an internal struggle over who has the most status and influence over society and internal relations. Power is maintained by a hereditary elite
, from a caste
, family (dynasty
or even some individuals).
Aristocracies have most often been hereditary plutocracies (see below), with a belief in their own superiority. Aristocracies often include a monarch who although a member of the aristocracy rules over the aristocracy as well as the rest of society. Aristocracy can also refer to the highest class in society even if they do not rule directly. They are usually under the leaders of the country in the ladder of status.
The term "aristocracy" is derived from the Greek language aristokratia, meaning 'the rule of the best'.
The term "aristocracy" (ἀριστοκρατία) was first given in Athens
to young citizens
(the men of the ruling class) who led armies from the front line. Because military
bravery was highly regarded as a virtue
in ancient Greece
, it was assumed that the armies were being led by "the best". From the ancient Greeks, the term passed on to the European Middle Ages
for a similar hereditary class of military leaders often referred to as the "nobility
". As in ancient Greece, this was a slave-holding class of privileged men whose military role allowed them to present themselves as the most "noble", or "best".
In India, these men are usually of the martial or Kshatriya caste such as the Rajputs, their sub-divisions and castes which claim Rajput origin.
The French Revolution attacked aristocrats as people who had achieved their status by birth rather than by merit, and this was considered unjust. The term had become synonymous with people who claim luxuries and privileges as a birthright. In the United Kingdom and other European countries in which hereditary titles are still recognised, "aristocrat" still refers to the descendant of one of approximately 7,000 families with hereditary titles, usually still in possession of considerable wealth, though not necessarily so.
In the United States and other nations without a history of a hereditary military caste, aristocracy has taken on a more stylized meaning. It also can refer to those, like the Roosevelts, whose families came to the United States early in its history, acquired large holdings and have been able to maintain their wealth through several generations. The term "Southern aristocracy" refers to families who acquired large land holdings in the American South before the American Civil War and remain wealthy landowners to this day, or to families that lost their wealth in the 19th century but continue to insist on deference. In some cases, especially the latter, the usage is pejorative and refers to purveyors of snobbery. This contempt is due to the fact that the Southern "aristocracy" was considered invalid, as there are no kings of America; additionally, they were considered parvenus without the governmental power that accompanies (or had accompanied) true nobles. In essence, money cannot buy a governmental form that does not exist in that country, and the elites who simply fancied the prestigious idea and named themselves the so-called Southern "aristocracy" gained no true status.
Comparison with other forms of government
As a government
term, aristocracy can be compared with:
- autocracy - "rule by a single individual", such as a dictator or absolute monarch.
- meritocracy - "rule by those who most deserve to rule". While this appears to be the same as the original meaning of "aristocracy", the term "meritocracy" has usually implied a much more fluid form of government in which one is, at most, considered "best" for life, but must continually prove one's "merit" in order to stay in power. This power is not passed on to descendants.
- plutocracy - "rule by the wealthy". In actual practice, aristocrats' wealth allows them to portray their own virtues as the "best" ones. Usually, this wealth is passed down through inheritance, and in countries like England may be kept intact through primogeniture, in which the oldest child (usually first male) inherits the bulk of the wealth and titles.
- oligarchy - "rule by the few". Whether an aristocracy is also an oligarchy depends entirely upon one's idea of what is a "few".
- monarchy - "rule by a single individual". Historically, the vast majority of monarchs have been aristocrats themselves. However, they have also been very often at odds with the rest of the aristocracy, since it was composed of their rivals. The struggle between a ruling dynastic family and the other aristocratic families in the same country has been a central theme of medieval history.
- democracy - "rule by the majority". Democracy and aristocracy are incompatible as forms of government due to the hereditary nature of power in an aristocratic system. An exception to this was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where a kind of "democracy of nobility" (szlachta) existed.
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Film: Gosford Park, The Perfect Husband, A Room with a View