Aristocracy 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, class, 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 Oxford Companion to British History", John Cannon (Editor), Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 9780198661764]


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.

External links

* [ BBC series on recent history of European aristocracy]


Further reading

*Beerbohm, Max, "Zuleika Dobson."
*Bence-Jones, Mark. "The Viceroys of India". Curzon family.
*Brough, James. "Consuelo: Portrait of an American Heiress" Consuelo Vanderbilt's marriage to the Duke of Marlborough. Marlborough family.
*Bush, Michael L. "The English Aristocracy: a Comparative Synthesis". Manchester University Press, 1984. Concise comparative historical treatment.
*Bush, Michael L. "Noble Privilege". (The European Nobility, vol. 1) Manchester University Press, 1983.
*Cannadine, David, 1998 "Aspects of Aristocracy" (series "Penguin History") ISBN 0-14-024953-2. Essays on class issues, aristocratic family norms, careers.
*Cannadine, David. "The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy". Yale University Press, 1990.
*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.
*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.
*Jullian, Philippe. "Prince of aesthetes: Count Robert de Montesquiou, 1855-1921". Montesquiou family; the Decadent movement and the original of Proust's Baron de Charlus.
*Lacey, Robert. "Aristocrats". Little, Brown, 1983.
*Lampedusa, G., "The Leopard" novel.
*Lovell, Mary S. "The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family".
*Mitford, Jessica. "Hons and Rebels". ISBN 1-59017-110-1
*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". St. Martin, 1970.
*Morton, Henry. "The Rothschilds".
*Nicholson, Nigel. "Portrait of a Marriage : Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson"
*Pearson, John. "The Sitwells: A Family's Biography"
*Pine, Leslie G. "Tales of the British Aristocracy". Burke Publishing Co. 1956.
*Prochaska, F. K., editor, 2002. "Royal Lives" ISBN 0-19-860530-7 ("Lives" series) Excerpted official biographies from the "Dictionary of National 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 Tatler" Magazine.
*Trollope, Anthony The Plantagenet Palliser series of Parliamentary novels.
*Wasson, Ellis, "Aristocracy and the Modern World", Palgrave Macmillan 2006.
*Waugh, Evelyn. "Brideshead Revisited"
*Waugh, Evelyn, "Decline and Fall."
*Winchester, Simon. "Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain". Faber & Faber, 1981.

*British TV series shown on PBS in the United States, "Upstairs, Downstairs", "The Jewel in the Crown", "Brideshead Revisited", " 1875-1914" (1997)Film: "Gosford Park", "The Perfect Husband", "A Room with a View"

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