Aristocracy – Concept, origin, characteristics and examples

We explain what the aristocracy is, its origin, characteristics and current examples. Also, differences with the oligarchy and the bourgeoisie.

The aristocracy ruled ancient and medieval societies.

What is the aristocracy?

With the word aristocracy, at present, we designate the nobility and upper classes (hereditary or traditional) of any society. It is a term of very ancient origin, with which the nobility (kings, princes, dukes, etc.) who ruled the ancient and medieval societies of Europe and the East identified themselves, until finally being displaced by the bourgeoisie as the dominant social class in the Modern Age.

The origin of the term aristocracy dates back to Ancient Greece, between the 8th and 4th centuries BC. C., when the new cops or city-states that would later become Classical Greece.

These new communities were governed, as understood by philosophers such as Plato (c. 427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC), or the historian Herodotus (484-425 BC), by the wisest and most experienced, most intelligent and virtuous individuals. That is why they called their governments “aristocracy”, that is, “the government of the best” (from the Greek aristos, “Excellence”, and Kratos, “can”).

For Plato, studious as he was of the forms of government, this was the best possible, although it could always degenerate into the timocracy, the government of the military, and therefore into the oligarchy, the government of a few.

However, for this philosopher, the ideal form of government (as explained in his book of 370 BC, Republic) should grant power to philosophers, capable of achieving “the absolute Good intellectual vision.” Something that differs greatly from what happened throughout history with the aristocracy, whose origins were mainly military.

Aristocracy could run organized society like a republic (just like the Roman Republic, in which the Patricians were the nobility), or like a monarchy, through a king of more or less absolute power (as were the Roman Emperors, or the European Christian kings after the fall of the empire), which was inherited from parents to children or relatives of the same blood line.

At present, the vestiges of the nobility in Europe, and the kings, emperors, emirs and other monarchs of the East are considered aristocrats. However, the absolute power that the aristocratic monarchy had during feudal times was long lost, once the bourgeois liberal republics were installed in the West and most of the modern world.

In many of these nations, the aristocracy occupies only a representative, diplomatic or cultural position, as is the case with today’s kings in Europe.

Characteristics of the aristocracy

aristocracy characteristics
The aristocracy can be accessed by birth, marriage or military merit.

The aristocracy is characterized by the following:

  • Grants political power to a group or a social class considered “the best”, that is, the one most apt to exercise power, depending on the criteria applied. In practice, this often resulted in power being in the hands of the families of military heroes, especially in periods when the population required continuous military protection against barbarians or other peoples perceived as invaders.
  • Nobility titles are necessary to demonstrate membership of the aristocracy and its privileges. Those titles are added to the name to show the noble origin of the person, such as “Duke of Orleans” or “Prince of Wales”. These titles were usually associated with a specific territory, although that did not guarantee that the person who carried them came from there, since these titles could also be inherited.
  • Not everyone can belong to the aristocracy, but must access the nobility from its very birth (that is, have noble blood, patricia or blue), or to earn his title of nobility through outstanding actions in the military field. It was also possible to “win” the nobility by marrying a noble citizen, which many wealthy commoners did when the European aristocracy fell out of favor in the late Modern Age.
  • Political power is inherited from one generation of aristocrats to another, especially in monarchical-type governments, such as those that flourished during feudal Europe in the Middle Ages. This led to numerous family clashes for access to the throne, but also to many marriage arrangements to relate noble families and thus end political or territorial disputes.
  • As a social class, aristocrats always distinguished themselves from workers and artisans, but also from ordinary warriors, thus conforming a caste of political and military leaders born among riches, generally owners of arable land. These aristocrats were known as feudal lords during the Middle Ages.

Origin of the aristocracy

The aristocracy as a social class arose in antiquity, probably in response to the need for military defense of primitive nations, which created a social class of warriors or soldiers. These had to be maintained by the peasantry and artisans, in exchange for timely defense and, at the same time, to guarantee the internal order of society.

Although in early humanity most kings and monarchs were also priests and spiritual leaders, placed on the throne by the divine hand, with the passage of time and the complexification of societies, the clergy (priests) and the nobility (the kings) were distinguishing among themselves, and from the latter the first aristocrats would have arisen.

Examples of aristocracy

aristocracy examples
The kingdom of Swaziland is ruled by an aristocracy, led by King Mswati III.

Examples of current aristocratic governments are:

  • The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by an absolutist monarch, whose power is limited only by the religious laws of the Qur’an (the Sharia). The King of Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the 21st century is Salman bin Abdulaziz.
  • The State of Brunei Darussalam, whose form of government is an absolutist Sultanate, at the head of which at the beginning of the 21st century is Sultan Muda Hassanal Bolkiah, the most recent monarch of a dynasty that has ruled the country since the 14th century.
  • The Kingdom of Swaziland, in South Africa, ruled since 1986 by an absolute monarch, the current King Mswati III, although the spiritual leader of the country and co-regent in some matters is the Indovuzaki (“Queen mother”) Queen Ntombi.
  • The State of Qatar, an absolutist emirate of the Middle East, ruled in the early 21st century by Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who has ruled since 2013 after the death of his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who in turn overthrew his father in 1995, Sheikh Khalifa Al Thani.

Aristocracy and oligarchy

The terms aristocracy and oligarchy should not be confused, especially with regard to the forms of government, as the philosopher Plato differentiated them. The aristocracy is considered as the government “of the best”, while the oligarchy is the government “of a few”.

Seen this way, every aristocracy is necessarily an oligarchy, but not every oligarchy is aristocratic. In fact, Plato saw the oligarchy as a corrupt or degenerate form of the aristocracy, in which a few, regardless of their preparation and suitability, jealously held political power.

Aristocracy and bourgeoisie

If the aristocracy was the social class that reigned during the medieval world in the West and East, the bourgeoisie was the one that shaped the world according to its interests at the end of the Modern Age. It was the social class of merchants and capitalists, that is, those who handled large amounts of money in a world that was barely advancing towards the Industrial Revolution.

Unlike the aristocratic world, the bourgeois world embraced democracy and liberalism, and proposed a model of social class that was not determined by lineage and birth, but for the monetary capacity of the people, that is, for their money.

These philosophical and cultural changes led to numerous ruptures with the aristocratic monarchy, the French Revolution of 1789 being the best known of all, and ended up displacing the aristocracy from political power, placing the industrial bourgeoisie as the new dominant social class.