1 See also
2 External links
3 Further reading: European aristocracy and gentry since 1870


The Ancient Greek term Aristocracy meant a system of government with "rule by the best". This is the first definition given in most dictionaries. The official breakdown is from the Greek word "Aristo" meaning the "best" and "Kratia" is "to rule". Because everyone has different ideas about what is "best", especially in relation to government, the term is tricky to apply in this sense. Aristocracies have most often been plutocracies (see below), where a sense of historical gravitas and noblesse oblige demands high minded action from its members.

As a government term, aristocracy can be contrasted with:

  • meritocracy- "rule by those who most deserve to rule". While this has on the surface a nearly similar meaning to "aristocracy", the term "meritocracy" has usually implied a much more fluid form of government in which one is not considered "best" for life, but must continually prove one's "merit" in order to stay in power.
  • plutocracy- "rule by the wealthy". In actual practice, aristocrats are often just plutocrats whose wealth allows them to portray their own virtues as the "best" ones.
  • oligarchy- "rule by the few". Whether an aristocracy is also an oligarchy depends entirely upon one's idea of what are a "few".
  • monarchy- "rule by a single individual". Historically, those considering themselves aristocrats have been the greatest threat to an absolute monarch or dictator. Someone who considers themselves part of "the best" will be hard to control. The absolute monarchy of Louis XIV relied on commoners holding actual power while "aristocrats" were distracted with ceremonies of prestige. In modern times, military dictators have often wiped out a nation's traditional aristocracy through exile or murder upon coming to power, in order to remove the potential threat which an aristocracy poses.


The term "aristocracy" was first given in Athens to young citizens who led armies from the front line with their swords up. Since military bravery was such a highly regarded virtue in ancient Greece, 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 made them see themselves as the most "noble", or "best". Both aristocracies relied upon an established church to back up their claims of being "best" in the society.

One of the key causes of the French Revolution was the idea that the traditional aristocracy no longer represented the "best" of its society. The army had been modernized by Louis XIV to a degree that aristocrats no longer rode at the front of their troops, but directed movements from a safe distance in many cases. It was difficult to abide the aristocracy's traditional privileges when they didn't earn them in the traditional way.

Rhetoric of the French Revolution focused on aristocrats as people who had achieved their status by birth rather than by merit, such unearned status being considered an affront to the bourgeoisie and new liberal norms. The term thus became symbolic of people who claim luxuries and privileges as a birthright, rather than people who claim the chance to die on the front lines as a birthright, a far cry from the original meaning of the term. In the United Kingdom and other European countries in which hereditary titles are still recognized, "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 an hereditary military caste, aristocracy has taken on a more stylistic meaning. In most cases, the usage is perjorative and refers to purveryors of snobbery, but "aristocrat" can also refer to an elegant person with a gracious lifestyle and strong sense of duty. This last meaning takes the term back to its original roots as someone who embodies the best of their society.

See also

External links

Further reading: European aristocracy and gentry since 1870

  • Beerbohm, Max, Zuleika Dobson.
  • Cannadine, David, 1998 Aspects of Aristocracy (series Penguin History) ISBN 0140249532. Essays on class issues, aristocratic family norms, careers.
  • Channon, Sir Henry. Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon Robert Rhodes James, editor. Excerpts from the diaries of a privileged observer, 1934–53.
  • Country Life Magazine, Documenting houses, gardens, pictures, horses, local history, debutantes since 1897.
  • Cannadine, David, 1992.The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy
  • (DNB) Prochaska, F.K., editor, 2002. Royal Lives ISBN 0198605307 (Lives series) Excerpted official biographies from the DNB
  • (Curzon, etc.) Bence-Jones, Mark. The Viceroys of India
  • Forster, E.M., Howard's End.
  • Galsworthy, John. The Forsyte Saga
  • Girouard, Mark. Life in the English Country House : A Social and Architectural History
  • Halperin, John. Eminent Georgians: The Lives of King George V, Elizabeth Bowen, St. John Philby, & Nancy Astor
  • James, Henry. The novels.
  • (Marlborough) Brough, James. Consuelo: Portrait of an American Heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt's marriage to the Duke of Marlborough.
  • (Mitfords) Lovell, Mary S. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family
  • Mitford, Jessica. Hons and Rebels. ISBN 1590171101
  • Mitford, Nancy, Love in a Cold Climate
  • Montagu of Beaulieu, Lord, Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu. More equal than others: The changing fortunes of the British and European aristocracies by Montagu of Beaulieu
  • (Montesquiou) Jullian, Philippe. Prince of aesthetes: Count Robert de Montesquiou, 1855-1921. The Decadent movement and the original of Proust's Baron de Charlus.
  • (Rothschild)Morton, Henry. The Rothschilds
  • (Sackville-West/Nicholson) Nicholson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage : Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
  • (Sitwell) Pearson, John. The Sitwells: A Family's Biography
  • Proust, Marcel, The Guermantes' Way', Sodom and Gomorrah. The closed circle of French aristocracy after 1870.
  • Sutherland, Douglas, The Fourth Man: The story of Blunt, Philby, Burgess, and Maclean The double career of Sir Anthony Blunt, Keeper of the Queen's Works of Art and spy.
  • The Tattler Magazine.
  • Trollope, Anthony The Plantagenet Palliser series of Parliamentary novels.
  • Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited
  • Waugh, Evelyn, Decline and Fall.

Film: Gosford Park The Perfect Husband A Room with a Viewda:Aristokrati de:Aristokratie es:Aristocracia fr:Aristocratie it:Aristocrazia he:אריסטוקרטיה nl:Aristocratie pl:Arystokracja pt:Aristocracia ro:Aristocraţie sv:Aristokrati


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