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The New International Encyclopædia/Aristocracy

ARISTOC’RACY (Gk. άριστοκρατια aristokratia, from άριστος, aristos, best + κρατος, kratos, power). A form of government in which the sovereign power is vested in a small number of citizens, as opposed to monarchy, in which the supreme authority rests with one man, or to democracy, where the ultimate authority is exercised by the entire body of freemen. Etymologically, the term denotes the rule of the "best," used, however, in the sense of the Greek aristos, which connoted high birth and the possession of wealth, as well as personal excellence. In an aristocracy, however, though the power of government was wielded by a few, theoretically the administration of government was carried on for the welfare of the many. Whenever the interests of the commonwealth were made subservient to the interests of the rulers, aristocracy degenerated into oligarchy. To the Greek mind aristocracy appealed as the most acceptable form of government, in that it was free alike from the dangers of despotism and mob rule. Athens, before the period of the Persian Wars, and Sparta, practically during the entire course of its history, were aristocracies in fact, since in both places the chief power was exercised by senates which represented only the noblest and wealthiest families of the state. The same was true of Rome for at least two hundred and fifty years before the establishment of the Empire. As pre-eminence in rank became less closely associated with the ownership of land, there arose aristocracies of wealth as well as of birth, typified by ancient Carthage and modern Venice. In the Middle Ages there was no aristocracy, strictly speaking, for though political power reposed in the hands of a very small portion of the people, each feudal lord in his own domain was sole master. It was only with the rise of the modern state that an aristocracy again became possible. It appeared, however, in quite a different form from the ancient aristocracy, and partook rather of the nature of a privileged social class. Where the sovereign power was vested in the king, as was the theory of monarchical government in early modern times, aristocracy referred rather to a monopoly of titles and offices than of actual political power. Still, the rule of powerful families was not rare in the history of Europe, especially at times when weak kings occupied the throne, as was the case with the Guises of France and the rulers of the House of Valois. In England the government, from the accession of the house of Hanover down through the Eighteenth Century, though parliamentary in form, was in fact an aristocracy, since King and Parliament alike were under the control of a few great Whig families. At present, however, though the aristocratic element is still strong in Great Britain and Germany so far as the enjoyment of public office is concerned, the term aristocracy has become almost entirely social in meaning, and is used loosely and in a great variety of combinations to denote a select few—as aristocracy of birth, of wealth, or of brains.