form of government in which power is in the hands of a small, privileged, ruling class
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Aristocracy is a form of government that places power in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class. The term derives from the Greek ἀριστοκρατία, "rule of the best." It is often contrasted with democracy (rule of the many) and monarchy (rule of one). Aristotle equated the term with meritocracy.
- European history provides a vivid example of the consequences of creative destruction. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, the governments of most European countries were controlled by aristocracies and traditional elites, whose major source of income was from landholdings or from trading privileges they enjoyed thanks to monopolies granted and entry barriers imposed by monarchs. Consistent with the idea of creative destruction, the spread of industries, factories, and towns took resources away from the land, reduced land rents, and increased the wages that landowners had to pay their workers. These elites also saw the emergence of new businessmen and merchants eroding their trading privileges. All in all, they were the clear economic losers from industrialization. Urbanization and the emergence of a socially conscious middle and working class also challenged the political monopoly of landed aristocracies. So with the spread of the Industrial Revolution the aristocracies weren’t just the economic losers; they also risked becoming political losers, losing their hold on political power. With their economic and political power under threat, these elites often formed a formidable opposition against industrialization.
- Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (2012)
- There is no form of rational and assured government save an aristocracy. A monarchy or a republic, based upon democracy, are equally absurd and feeble. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions.
- Charles Baudelaire, Mon cœur mis à nu (1864)
- Critical theory was sometimes teased for its aristocratic components, its disinclination to praise popular culture, jazz or Americanism, its sometimes overwhelming sense of cultural pessimism, and all these sentiments echo the larger and older traditions of aristocratic radicalism, for which the old world, in general, was better than the brashness and shock of the new. The European critique of modernity was born as a critique of the mass, mass society, mass production, mass migration, the mass man, the image of life based on the factory, on its regimentation and yesmen, the conformism of following orders.
- Peter Beilharz, "The Marxist Legacy," in Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory (2011)
- ARISTOCRACY, n. Government by the best men. (In this sense the word is obsolete; so is that kind of government.) Fellows that wear downy hats and clean shirts -- guilty of education and suspected of bank accounts.
- Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic's Dictionary (1906); republished as The Devil's Dictionary (1911).
- The United States is in sore need today of an aristocracy of intellect and service. Because such an aristocracy does not exist in the popular consciousness, we are bending the knee in worship to the golden calf of money. The form of monarchy and its pomp offer a valuable foil to the worship of money for its own sake. A democracy must provide itself with a foil of its own and none is better or more effective than an aristocracy of intellect and service recruited from every part of our democratic life.
- Nicholas Murray Butler, addressing students of the University of California, March 23, 1907, as reported in The New York Times, March 24, 1907
- Aristocrats need not be rich, but they must be free.
- Robertson Davies, Osbert Sitwell (1945)
- Aristocracy of the mind … is the only true aristocracy in my opinion. It is the essence, the very life of a well-built society.
- Georges Duhamel, In Defense of Letters (1937) p. 41
- The defect of democracy is its tendency to put mediocrity into power; and there is no way of avoiding this except by limiting office to men of "trained skill". Numbers by themselves cannot produce wisdom, and may give the best favors of office to the grossest flatterers. The fickle disposition of the multitude almost reduces those who have experience of it to despair; for it is governed solely by emotions, and not be reason. Thus democratic government becomes a procession of brief-lived demagogues, and men of worth are loath to enter lists where they must be judged and rated by their inferiors. Sooner or later the more capable men rebel against such a system, though they be in a minority. Hence I think it is that democracies change into aristocracies, and these at length into monarchies; people at last prefer tyranny to chaos.
- Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World's Greatest Philosophers (1926)
- Today, the mere idea of aristocracy is incompatible with the dominant ideology. But every people needs an aristocracy. It's an integral part of human nature and can't be dispensed with. The question then is not 'For or against aristocracy?' but 'What kind of aristocracy?'
- Guillaume Faye, Why We Fight (2001)
- Aristocracy's only an admission that certain traits which we call fine – courage and honor and beauty and all that sort of thing – can best be developed in a favorable environment, where you don't have the warpings of ignorance and necessity.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned (1922)
- I believe in aristocracy, though – if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.
- E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)
- I pointed out that Nietzsche was not a social theorist, but a poet, a rebel, and innovator. His aristocracy was neither of birth nor of purse; it was of the spirit. In that respect Nietzsche was an anarchist, and all true anarchists were aristocrats, I said.
- Emma Goldman, Living My Life (1931), p. 194
- It is not for nothing that 'democracy' is opposed to 'aristocracy', for this latter word, at least when taken in its etymological sense, means precisely the power of the elite. The elite can by definition only be the few, and their power, or rather their authority, deriving as it does from their intellectual superiority, has nothing in common with the numerical strength on which democracy is based, a strength whose inherent tendency is to sacrifice the minority to the majority, and therefore quality to quantity, and the elite to the masses.
- René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World (1927), p. 78
- Aristocracy in general does not favour individualism; it bases its claim to privilege upon virtues which are common to the whole class or at least to whole clans.
- Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Volume 1: From Prehistoric Times to the Middle Ages (1951)
- I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents... The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society...
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams (28 October 1813)
- Every vigorous and independent aristocracy is "republican"; only a weakened and degenerate, or a very wise aristocracy stands for Monarchy. The American whiggish aristocracy of 1774 belongs to the first category, the vigorous and independent type. Needless to say that there were many squires who had a stronger sense for loyalty than love for independence. The clash between Whigs and Tories on American soil was a clash between the two noble passions — freedom and loyalty.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, The Menace of the Herd (1943), p. 48
- Dignity is naturally an "aristocratic" virtue, best demonstrated in adverse circumstances, in bearing of suffering, in facing death, childbirth, or the guillotine. Dignity as an attitude is also something personal and not collective. Democratism never liked dignity. Nothing infuriates the howling mob more than dignity.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, The Menace of the Herd (1943), p. 96
- Education is, after all, something thoroughly "aristocratic" in the intellectual sense.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, The Menace of the Herd (1943), p. 253
- [I]n proportion as slavery prevails in a State, the Government, however democratic in name, must be aristocratic in fact.
- James Madison, Influence of Domestic Slavery on Government
- At all times and in all places, the aristocracy commands. Whatever form is given to governments, birth and wealth always obtain the first rank, and nowhere do they rule more harshly than where their dominion is not founded on law.
- Joseph de Maistre, Against Rousseau (1795), p. 122
- She was simple, not being able to adorn herself, but she was unhappy, as one out of her class; for women belong to no caste, no race, their grace, their beauty and their charm serving them in place of birth and family. Their inborn finesse, their instinctive elegance, their suppleness of wit, are their only aristocracy, making some daughters of the people the equal of great ladies.
- Guy de Maupassant, A Piece of String/The Diamond Necklace (1884)
- Egalitarians adjust to aristocracies just fine, as long as they get to be the aristocrats.
- Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda (1995)
- An aristocracy in a republic is like a chicken whose head has been cut off: it may run about in a lively way, but in fact it is dead.
- Nancy Mitford, Noblesse Oblige (1956)
- Has it ever been really noted to what extent a genuinely religious life requires a leisure class, or half-leisure—I mean leisure with a good conscience, from way back, by blood, to which the aristocratic feeling that work disgraces is not altogether alien—the feeling that it makes soul and body common. And that consequently our modern, noisy, time-consuming industriousness, proud of itself, stupidly proud, educates and prepares people, more than anything else does, precisely for “unbelief.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, W. Kauffman, trans. (New York: 1992), § 58
- The essential characteristic of a good and healthy aristocracy, however, is that it experiences itself not as a function, whether of the monarchy or the commonwealth, but as their meaning and highest justification—that it therefore accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to partial and incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. Their fundamental faith simply has to be that society must not exist for society’s sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of human being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, § 258 (W. Kaufmann, trans.)
- What I have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.
- José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)
- History is a graveyard of aristocracies.
- Vilfredo Pareto, The Rise and Fall of Elites
- We [Americans] have no aristocracy of blood, and having therefore as a natural, and indeed as an inevitable thing, fashioned for ourselves an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth has here to take the place and perform the office of the heraldic display in monarchical countries. By a transition readily understood, and which might have been as readily foreseen, we have been brought to merge in simple show our notions of taste itself.
- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Philosophy of Furniture" in The Gentleman's Magazine (1840:6), p. 267
- Aristocrats don't notice philosophical conundra. They just ignore them. Philosophy includes contemplating the possibility that you might be wrong, sir, and a real aristocrat knows that he is always right. It's not vanity, you understand, it's built-in absolute certainty. They may sometimes be as mad as a hatful of spoons, but they are always definitely and certainly mad.
- Terry Pratchett, Snuff (2011)
- “Francisco, you're some kind of very high nobility, aren't you?"
He answered, "Not yet. The reason my family has lasted for such a long time is that none of us has ever been permitted to think he is born a d'Anconia. We are expected to become one.”
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)
- It is a curious fact that the more democratic a country becomes, the less respect it has for its rulers. Aristocracies and foreign conquerors may be hated but they are not despised.
- Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others: American Essays 1931-35 (1975)
- I like aristocracy. I like the beauty of aristocracy. I like the hierarchical feeling.
- James Salter, Interview Magazine (April 1, 2013)
- Aristocracies are of three kinds: (1) of birth and rank; (2) of wealth; and (3) of intellect. The last is really the most distinguished of the three.
- Arthur Schopenhauer, Counsels and Maxims, T. B. Saunders, trans., § 10
- It was once said that democracy is the regime that stands or falls by virtue: a democracy is a regime in which all or most adults are men of virtue, and since virtue seems to require wisdom, a regime in which all or most adults are virtuous and wise, or the society in which all or most adults have developed their reason to a high degree, or the rational society. Democracy, in a word, is meant to be an aristocracy which has broadened into a universal aristocracy. …
- There exists a whole science—the science which I among thousands of others profess to teach, political science—which so to speak has no other theme than the contrast between the original conception of democracy, or what one may call the ideal of democracy, and democracy as it is. …
- Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant.
- Leo Strauss, “What is liberal education,” Liberalism, Ancient and Modern (1968), pp. 4-5
- In aristocratic societies, enjoyments of the mind are particularly demanded of the sciences; in democratic, those of the body.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, H. Mansfield, trans. (2000), p. 437
- Even in the midst of material enjoyments, the members of an aristocracy often display a haughty scorn of these same enjoyments and find singular strength when they must at last be deprived of them. All revolutions that have troubled or destroyed aristocracies have shown with what facility people accustomed to the superfluous can do without the necessary, whereas men who have laboriously arrived at ease can hardly live after having lost it.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, H. Mansfield, trans. (2000), p. 506
- The territorial aristocracy of former ages was either bound by law, or thought itself bound by usage, to come to the relief of its serving-men and to relieve their distresses. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II (1840), Book Two, Chapter XX.
- Aristocracy naturally leads the human mind to the contemplation of the past, and fixes it there. Democracy, on the contrary, gives men a sort of instinctive distaste for what is ancient. In this respect aristocracy is far more favorable to poetry; for things commonly grow larger and more obscure as they are more remote; and, for this two-fold reason, they are better suited to the delineation of the ideal.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
- Land is the basis of an aristocracy, which clings to the soil that supports it; for it is not by privileges alone, nor by birth, but by landed property handed down from generation to generation, that an aristocracy is constituted. A nation may present immense fortunes and extreme wretchedness; but unless those fortunes are territorial, there is no true aristocracy, but simply the class of the rich and that of the poor.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
- They governed from duty, heritage and habit—and, as they saw it, from right.
- Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914 (1965)
- The prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire enough wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic virtues. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires reverence for the good.
- Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (1948), p. 49
- There can be no doubt of this: All America is divided into two classes—the quality and the equality. The latter will always recognize the former when mistaken for it. Both will be with us until our women bear nothing but kings. It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing. If anybody cannot see this, so much the worse for his eyesight.
- Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902)
- The aristocrat looks to a society in which there shall be absolute freedom for noble men. Anarchism declares for the absolute nobility of free men.
- Michael Wreszin, “Albert Jay Nock and the Anarchist Elitist Tradition in America,” American Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1969), p. 167
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