What Is Aristocracy? Aristocratic Advantages & Disadvantages

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There is no shortage of formats for governmental structures — in regard to today and throughout history. Nowadays, various forms of democratic republics, where elected officials represent the voice of the people, are common. But this wasn’t the case centuries ago when aristocracies were the most common form of government. So, have aristocracies actually become extinct — and what would it have been like to live in one?

What Is Aristocracy & What Are Features of an Aristocratic Government?

Aristocratic governments are named after Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who came up with the idea, which posits that the wealthiest, or most beloved, members of society are the “best” people in society and, therefore, should be rulers. However, in reality, these folks often represented just a fraction of the population.

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Throughout history, many believed that the rich were blessed by God, and ancient civilizations even believed that the mightiest men with the most military prowess were gods incarnate. Furthermore, they believed it was right that these rulers pass their money and power to their descendants or to other wealthy people.

Aristocracy Government Examples

The feudal systems that existed in much of Europe in the Middle Ages are examples of aristocracies. When India used caste systems, Brahmans and other high-ranking castes were also aristocrats. In both of these societies, the wealthiest people controlled the allotment of land, the law, and the government.

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In many ancient aristocracies, owning land meant one could also enslave people and control military power by employing mercenaries. A person who was wealthy enough could literally build a small economy and government on their own land, meaning that their word became law because of that level of control.

A common feature of aristocratic societies is a socioeconomic factor such as being of a certain religion, bloodline, or economic status. Often, these “prerequisites” were deemed necessary for holding any form of political or social power. Most notably, even in aristocratic societies where there was some alternatively structured form of government, people with the most money could either buy political offices outright or had the means to run for office. In contrast, poorer members of society could not do this, thus perpetuating the aristocracy.

Modern-Day Aristocracies

Currently, the closest thing we have to the dictionary definition of aristocrats are the modern vestiges of ancient monarchies that exist in Europe. These began when the wealthy few in feudal societies became the ruling class. Aristocracy became tied to titles, such as Lord, Lady, Sir, and Knight, all of which had to do with both wealth and noble bloodlines.

Mid-19th century costumes of the Chinese aristocracy, engraving from L’album, giornale letterario e di belle arti, October 2, 1841, Year 8. Credit: Dea/Biblioteca Ambrosiana/De Agostini/Getty Images

In addition to these examples, modern-day aristocrats commonly bestow titles of nobility on notable members of society, making them noble too. Examples of this include Sir Elton John and Dame Helen Mirren. The ability for everyone from athletes and celebrities to Nobel Prize-winners to reach some level of aristocracy shows how the definition of aristocracy has transformed.

Modern aristocracy has more to do with status than it does with simply having money. There are plenty of celebrities who meet the definition of an aristocrat, but there are also less-known royals in countries like Britain, Denmark, Japan, and Jordan where individuals of noble birth have at least a title and a figurehead role. Some, but not all, have governmental authority as well.

Today, there are both titled aristocrats and people who have money and extreme levels of privilege in society. While some are first-generation, self-made success stories, many of the ruling class are descendants of the historically wealthy. For this reason, many argue that even in democratic countries like the U.S., these rulers can be considered modern-day examples of aristocrats.

What Does It Mean to Be an Aristocrat?

At different times and different cultures, aristocrats exact roles in society have changed, but suffice it to say that these are the people who have the most power, money, and attention. In ancient Greek and Roman society, aristocrats were commanders who embarked upon military conquests. They were well-paid and well-loved by the public because they expanded the footprint of their nations. In some tribes located throughout the African continent, aristocrats traditionally became priests because those tribes highly valued a connection with the spiritual world.

Women from the Kampala aristocracy, Uganda. Photograph from L’Illustrazione Italiana, Year XXXIII, No 26, July 1, 1906. Credit: Dea/Biblioteca Ambrosiana/De Agostini/Getty Images

As time inched closer to the modern-day, aristocrats became Bridgerton-esque nobles. These were the people who had large homes and threw lavish parties in a time when most of the world was struggling to survive. They also passed on their wealth and privilege to their descendants in succeeding generations.

How Does an Aristocracy Differ from an Oligarchy?

Although aristocracies and oligarchies share some similarities, they are two different forms of government. By its simplest definition, an oligarchy is a government where a few people rule over many. In connotation, oligarchy is usually a negative word associated with the powerful using their influence to maintain their power and having a self-serving way of rule. That is, oligarchies are often associated with corruption.

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The key similarity between oligarchies and aristocracies is that the most powerful people in society are the rulers. While there are variances, the root of power in an oligarchy is often related to the military while the root of power in an aristocracy is more often financial. Aristocracies have some sense of nobility, real or imagined, associated with the ruling class. In an oligarchy, the rule is solely based on power.

For example, the royal family in England is a modern-day equivalent of an aristocracy. Members of the family are expected to follow etiquette standards and be a good influence on society, even as figureheads. The ancient city-state of Sparta was a military oligarchy that praised its ruthless warriors; in fact, the more ruthless a person was, the better of a ruler they were thought to be.

Today, aristocracies are considered a fairly dated form of government. Yet, society still dotes upon the rich and famous in a way that gives them power — not unlike the aristocrats of yesteryear.