The term aristocracy refers to a form of government where power is held by a small number of individuals from a social elite or from noble families. The transmission of power is usually hereditary; and the term is often a synonym for the mainly hereditary nobility of Europe, and other parts of the world, regardless of how much political power they have. It is derived from two Ancient Greek words: "aristos" meaning the "best" and "kratein" "to rule" and so aristocracy originally meant "rule by the best". Aristocracies usually 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
In an aristocratic government, power is therefore confined to an elite drawn from a single social class, usually carrying titles awarded them by the monarch.
The term "aristocracy" was first given in Athens to young citizens (the men of the ruling class) 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 who were usually members of the nobility.
In India, these men are usually of the martial or Kshatriya caste such as Rajputs and their sub-divisions. In the Islamic world, the aristocratic caste of Sayyid belongs exclusively to the descendants of Muhammad and extends to all classes of society. This is usually distinguished from the ordinary use of "Sayyid" to mean 'Sir' or 'Lord'. In this sense, the Sayyid is a born aristocrat on account of his/her blood lineage to the person of the Muhammad and is usually synonymous with high morality, integrity, cleanliness, impeccable manners and deep courtesy.
The French Revolution attacked aristocrats as people who had achieved their status by birth rather than by merit, such unearned status being considered unjust by the Jacobins. The term had became synonymous with people who claim privileges as a birth-right. In the United Kingdom and other European countries where hereditary titles are still legal, "aristocrat" still refers to the descendant of one of approximately 7,000 families with hereditary titles, often still in possession of considerable wealth, (though not necessarily so).
Comparison with other government terms
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 rich". Plutocrats were usually also part of the meritocracy, and generally came from the middle classes, traders, manufacturers, bankers, inductrialists, usually self-made-men, etc. They differed from the nobility whose traditional interests and wealth came from their lands.
- 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. The struggles between ruling dynastic families and the other aristocratic families in the same country has been a central theme of medieval history.
- democracy - a fictitious and flawed system of "rule by the people". Democracy and aristocracy are incompatible as forms of government, due to the hereditary nature of power in an aristocratic system.
- 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, The Aristocracy: Born to Rule 1875-1914 (1997)
- Online Royal Genealogical Reference at Almanach de Saxe Gotha