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aristocracy (ărˌĭstŏkˈrəsē) [Gr.,=rule by the best], in political science, government by a social elite. In the West the political concept of aristocracy derives from Plato's formulation in the Republic. The criteria on which aristocracy is based may vary greatly from society to society. Historically, aristocracies have usually rested on landed property, have invoked heredity, and, despite frequent conflicts with the throne, have flourished chiefly within the framework of monarchy. Aristocracy may be based on wealth as well as land, as in ancient Carthage and medieval Venice, or may be a theocracy like the Brahman caste in India. Other criteria can be age, race, military prowess, or cultural attainment. The best example of a modern landowning aristocracy that conducted government was in England from 1688 to 1832. A resurgence by the French aristocracy in the 18th cent. was ended by the French Revolution, which abolished most of the privileges on which it was based. Inflation, which cut into the fixed income of the aristocracy, the loss of the traditional military role of the aristocracy, and the rise of industry and decline in the importance of landed property have all worked against the aristocracy. Today the political power of traditional western aristocracy has all but disappeared.


See J. H. Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (1982).

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  1. (in classical Greece) ‘the rule of the best’.
  2. a hereditary élite or noble class, e.g. the noble class in FEUDALISM. In most large-scale, premodern societies a tendency existed for the ruling or dominant classes to transform themselves into a hereditary noble class, but counter tendencies also existed in which such claims could be resisted. See also PATRIMONIALISM.
While sense 2 is more usual, the term may be used in something like its earlier Greek sense, e.g. as in LABOUR ARISTOCRACY. aristocracy of labour see LABOUR ARISTOCRACY.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) A form of government under which state power is retained by a privileged noble minority. As a form of government, aristocracy stands in opposition to monarchy and democracy. “A monarchy is the power of a single person, a republic is the absence of any nonelected authority, an aristocracy is the power of a relatively small minority, and a democracy is the power of the people. . . . All these differences arose in the epoch of slavery. Despite these differences, the state of the slave-owning epoch was a slave-owning state, irrespective of whether it was a monarchy or a republic, aristocratic or democratic” (V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 479). In the history of political ideas, the concept of aristocracy as the designation of one form of state government originated with Plato and Aristotle; later Polybius, Spinoza, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Kant, and others favored the aristocratic form of government. As a rule, the justification for aristocracy propounded by its adherents comes down to the idea of the political inferiority of the majority of the people over whom the aristocratic elite is called to rule. In ancient times aristocratic republics included Sparta, Rome (from the sixth to first centuries B.C.), and Carthage; in medieval Europe, Venice and the Pskov and Novgorod feudal republics.

The composition and order of formation of the highest bodies of state power and the interrelation between them varied in different aristocracies. For example, in Sparta state power was in the hands of two hereditary kings, the gerusia (council of elders elected by the popular assembly), and the ephors. In Rome members of the senate were appointed by the censor from among former high officials and members of distinguished families; the elite provided “elected” magistrates (the consuls, praetors, censors, and aediles). In Carthage two elected suffetes and an elected council of elders held the real power. In Novgorod and Pskov the council of lords was made up of the town patriciate.

In aristocracies the power of the popular assemblies was curtailed and their role was slight. The populace did not participate actively in state life. Elections were largely for show, and officials were the henchmen of the elite (the Spartiatai in Sparta, the patricians in Rome, and the patriciate in the medieval republics). In the formation of the organs of state power in an aristocracy from a circumscribed elite, there was a very strong tendency toward the principle of hereditary rule.

(2) The nobility; the privileged part of any class (the patricians in Rome, the eupatridae in Athens, the dvorianstvo [nobility or gentry], and others); or a social group (for example, the financial aristocracy) which enjoys special rights and benefits. The political influence of the aristocracy and the circle of people belonging to it is determined by the concrete historical conditions and peculiarities of the country in question. For example, the Junker class in 19th-century Prussia included only individuals from the old nobility related to royal, ducal, and other such families. In France and Great Britain, where many powerful feudal lords perished during internecine wars or bourgeois revolutions or else were destroyed by the policy of absolutism, the aristocracy was composed of less high-born nobility.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Almanach de Gotha
German social register. [Ger. Lit.: Benét, 26]
Beaucaire, Monsieur
portrays English aristocracy as shallow, inept snobs. [Am. Lit.: Monsieur Beaucaire, Magill I, 616–617]
blue blood
said to flow in the veins of the nobility. [Western Cult.: Brewer Dictionary]
appellation accorded members of old, “aristocratic” New England families. [Am. Hist.: EB, II: 226]
Cabala, The
portrays wealthy esoterics, mysteriously influential in governmental affairs. [Am. Lit.: The Cabala]
First Families of Virginia
elite families of prestigious rank. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
Four Hundred,
the social elite; the number of people Mrs. Astor could accommodate in her ballroom. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
gold on white
symbol of elite class. [Chinese Art: Jobes, 357]
Junkers Prussian
elite. [Ger. Hist.: Hitler, 387]
Social Register
book listing names and addresses of social elite. [Am. Usage: Misc.]
St. Aubert, Emily
young French woman of wealth and position. [Br. Lit.: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Magill I, 635–638]
English upper-class family; America’s parliamentary governors. [Am. Hist.: Hart, 937–938]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a privileged class of people usually of high birth; the nobility
2. such a class as the ruling body of a state
3. government by such a class
4. a state governed by such a class
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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