World Cultures General Glossary
Aristocracy

Ancient Greece
Aristotle
Plato
General Glossary
Democracy
   Like many terms used to describe government structures, aristocracy is impossible to define. Founded on the Greek word, aristos , which means "best," at its heart aristocracy means "rule by the best." Its theoretical foundation begins with the political works of Plato and Aristotle, the two central figures in Greek and European philosophy. Both felt that Greek democrac> had been a disaster; their fundamental problem with democracy was that it put government in the hands of people who were the least capable of making sound decisions. For Plato, the general run of humanity was driven by its selfish passions and desires; this was a poor foundation for deliberate, considered, and selfless decision-making. While Plato and Aristotle were familiar with an infinite variety of possible governments, they believed that government should be in the hands of the most capable members of society. Above all, people in government should be moral and selfless; they should be highly intelligent and educated, as well as brave and temperate. This was "rule by the best."


   This is not, however, what we think of when we use the term aristocracy. In early modern Europe and modern Europe, the aristocracy consisted of the nobility or ruling classes of society. Membership in the aristocracy was not through achievement, intelligence, or moral growth, but solely hereditary (sometimes it was given out). How did the Greek idea of "rule by the best" turn into something more closely resembling a hereditary oligarchy or just simply an upper class?


   The answer can be found in part in theories of the monarchy in the Middle Ages. In order to legitimate ta hereditary monarchy, the medieval Europeans theorized that the virtues which made a monarch suitable for the job were hereditary . This led to a segregation of virtues: the monarch and his noble bureaucrats were by nature and heredity more moral and civilized than the rest of the population. They were, then, the "best" morally and intellectually. In this way, the notion of "aristocracy," as "rule of the best," eventually translated into a concept of a hereditary aristocracy. So ingrained is this notion in the European world view, that we still assume a hereditary superiority in the upper classes.


   The founders of American democracy turned back to the original, philosophical definition of aristocracy when they built American government. Very conscious of Plato's and Aristotle's criticisms of democracy, the founders of American government wanted to avoid putting the government into the hands of the worst members of society. They also, however, wanted to avoid the dangers of a hereditary aristocracy, for European history proven amply that the hereditary aristocracy is many things but it rarely consists of the "best" members of society either in moral or intellectual terms (look at the royal family in England, for instance). So the framers of American government created representative democracy, in which the people collectively decide who the "best" people are to run the government. In this way, a democracy (a limited democracy) is allowed to co-exist seamlessly with a government that is primarily ruled by the most qualified people morally and intellecturally (well, sometimes).

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97