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aristocracy

aristocracy (ărˌĭstŏkˈrəsē) [key] [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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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