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Aristocracy (Greek ἀριστοκρατία aristokratía, from ἄριστος aristos "excellent," and κράτος kratos "power") is a form of government in which power is in the hands of a small, privileged, ruling class. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning "rule of the best". At the time of the word's origins in Ancient Greece, it was conceived as rule by the best qualified citizens and was often contrasted favourably with monarchy, the rule of a single individual. In later times, aristocracy was usually seen as rule by a privileged group, the aristocratic class, and was contrasted with democracy.
The concept evolved in Ancient Greece, whereby a council of leading citizens was commonly empowered and contrasted with direct democracy, in which a council of male citizens was appointed as the "senate" of a city state or other political unit. The Greeks did not like the concept of monarchy, and as their democratic system fell, aristocracy was upheld.
In Ancient Rome, the Republic consisted of an aristocracy as well as consuls, a senate, and a tribal assembly. In the Middle Ages and early modern era, aristocracies primarily consisted of an influential aristocratic class, privileged by birth and often by wealth. Since the French Revolution, aristocracy has generally been contrasted with democracy, in which all citizens should hold some form of political power. However, this distinction is often oversimplified.
In his 1651 book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes an aristocracy as a commonwealth in which the representative of the citizens is an assembly by part. It is a government in which only a small part of the general population can represent it.
Modern depictions of aristocracy tend to regard it not as a legitimate aristocracy (rule by the best), but rather as a plutocracy (rule by the rich).
- "Aristocracy". Oxford English Dictionary. December 1989. Retrieved December 22, 2009.[dead link]
- The Oxford Companion to British History, John Cannon (Editor), Oxford University Press, 1962, ISBN 978-0-19-866176-4
- Thomas Hobbes (1 January 2010). Leviathan. Digireads.com Publishing. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-4209-3699-5.
- History, John Cannon (Editor), Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0-19-866176-4
- Aristocracy in the Modern World, Ellis Wasson, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.