The Great Conversation: Aristocracy
By Gabriel Blanchard
Is aristocracy good or bad? What about monarchy? Democracy? Must we choose?
Most people throughout history have agreed that societies need to be governed, but the form government should take has been a subject of much more debate. Aristotle boiled the forms of government down basically to three: that done by a single person, that by a group, and that by the whole people—roughly, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Few societies have adopted one of these forms completely unmodified; most monarchies have been accompanied by some more expansive class of gentry, and most monarchies and aristocracies have some official organ of the people, like the House of Commons in the Parliament of England. But where the center of power lies—with one, with a minority, or with the majority—does distinguish three, very basic, types of government.
Yet aristocracies typically claim to be a good deal more than simply “a minority of the total populace who happen to be in power.” The term comes from the Greek aristos, which means “best,” and aristocracies usually put forward some reason that they are “the best people.” Aristotle defined this in terms of virtue, by which he meant both moral character and education (arete, “excellence”); and some aristocratic systems—notably the Confucian system (to the extent it was actually practiced) under the Chinese emperors—have made education the primary qualification for being an aristocrat. But in the West, it has been much more common for aristocracy to be the gateway to education, rather than the other way around.
Aristocracy understood as a social class, rather than a strictly political one, is the kind of aristocracy most of us are familiar with. Aristocracy in this sense is usually defined by wealth, especially wealth in land; it is here that the semi-synonyms oligarchy and plutocracy tend to show up. This type of aristocracy is also normally hereditary. These aristocracies are often educated, because they can afford it—but this is not an absolute rule; throughout the feudal period, it was clergy (drawn from all social ranks) who formed the educated class, in contrast to both the farming serfs and the warring nobles.
Democracy is often taken as the polar opposite of aristocracy. Where the latter takes for granted that some men are better qualified than others to rule, or at least to have access to political power, democracy tends to be associated with the idea that every citizen ought to have a political voice. As Chesterton famously phrased it: “government … is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit) … and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing like writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”
Yet democracy, too, rarely exists in a “pure” form. Both ancient Athenian democracy and the U.S. Constitution excluded women, slaves, and subjugated peoples. And the wealthy, whether they enjoy official hereditary power or not, are always able to make their voices heard more easily than ordinary people, whether through lobbying or controlling media or what you please. How far does unofficial aristocracy impinge on our systems today—and if that even is a bad thing, why, and in what ways?
Plato, The Statesman
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
James Madison, Federalist Papers No. 39
G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World