What Is an Aristocracy? (with pictures)

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen
Plato was one of the creators of the idea of aristocracy.
Plato was one of the creators of the idea of aristocracy.

In theory, an aristocracy is very different from the way historic practice has described it. Two famous Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, were responsible for coming up with the idea of aristocracy. In their concept, it was meant to be a government where the most capable people were put in direct charge of everything, and it was meant to be a direct contradiction of the Greek democracy system of the time. In practice, there were some difficulties in implementing an aristocratic form of government, mainly due to an inability to determine who was most suited, and it eventually became directly associated with the idea of monarchy.

Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with the idea of aristocracy.
Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with the idea of aristocracy.

The idea of aristocracy spread far and wide throughout the world, but most governments decided that the only way to determine if people where capable was to look at their ancestry. If someone’s parents were successful, rich, and prominent, that person would generally be given more privileges and leadership responsibilities, and this continued for generations, regardless of performance. Eventually, this led to a bunch of royal families, and the term aristocracy became more directly related to the idea of monarchs.

There were also other aristocracies that didn’t base things on genetics. In some countries, status was directly based on things like land ownership or wealth, regardless of heritage. In others, it might be related to religious elements. Sometimes there might be a combination of elements that would eventually allow a person to climb into the aristocracy, and some countries had different classes of aristocrats with statuses based on different things.

Many countries eventually decided they didn’t really like the idea of aristocracy. This was mainly because there was generally no fair way to choose worthy leaders to make sure that the very best people were always put in charge. Some people argue that the eventual development of representative democracy is really a kind of aristocracy, only with the people choosing who the most capable leaders are.

In theory, an aristocracy with unlimited power might be able to work, at least for a little while. If the people in charge were truly capable and were working in the best interests of the masses, many experts believe that such a government would be extremely efficient. In practice, many people suggest that corruption often leaks into systems where individuals have too much power without the proper checks and balances, and this might negate many of the potential benefits.

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Discussion Comments


My favorite aristocracy example has to be England's. I am sure that there are many glamorous aristocracies out there, but because of England's gossip culture we get to learn more about their aristocracy.

Not that I am for exploiting celebrities but rather learning so much about their rules and traditions of their aristocracy which they have held on so tightly to.

I find their traditions so very interesting in part because it serves as such a contrast to our culture which is often so wonderfully non-traditional.


I think there is still a strong sense of Southern aristocracy in some of the Southern states. When I went to undergraduate in Mississippi, there was a term I had not heard often even growing up in Mississippi - this term was "old money."

People would say either, "That person comes from old money." or "There's a lot of old money in that organization." I was a little naive to the whole meaning of it, I literally just thought that it meant their families had inherited lots of money from their ancestors.

To this day, I do not know if people from "old money" are looked highly at like they are aristocracy or as described in the article that because they came from "old money" then that person themselves must be capable.

But I think it is interesting since I have not noticed such a saying or similar sayings in other parts of the United States I have lived in.


@SauteePan - I know what you mean, but we have a natural aristocracy in the United States because of our celebrity culture. People worship celebrities and in this way elevate them to a sort of exclusive standard in society that many people want to be a part of.

This is why we see people trying to get on all kinds of reality shows in the hopes of becoming the next household name because for some reason in this country will put celebrities at the top of the social ladder.

This is really no different than having a royal family because these people like royal families have access to social events that the average person can only dream of.

I think that people should be socially rewarded for their accomplishments to society not because they got the highest ratings on a television program or because they are married to a royal family. That is just my two cents.


@Cupcake15 - I agree with you and wanted to say that many of these royal families face tragedies and disgrace like a lot of other families but the difference is that these families often have these pressures of appearing to look perfect but many are far from it and have a lot of problems that average people have.

I have read a lot of books on these royal families and you would be surprised how dysfunctional some of them are.


I understand the romantic notion of aristocracy and it is obvious when so many people around the world have a fascination with British aristocracy.

The weddings of both the late Princess Diana and Prince Charles along with that of Princess Kate and Prince William were watched by millions of people all over the world because it plays out like a real life fairytale.

I just have a problem with the whole aristocracy definition. I have a problem with people being treated superior to others merely because of their namesake or the family that they were born into.

I think that this is somewhat elitist thinking and I am glad that in the United States we don’t have this form of aristocracy. I don’t even like the fact that people that are not natural born royals are referred to as commoners like if there is nothing special about the average citizen.


@sunnySkys - I think you're right that aristocracy in this country is based off of both money and class standing. For example, someone like Larry Flynt has a lot of money. But he got all that money from the adult entertainment industry. Most people wouldn't consider him in the same class as say, the Kennedy family, even though he is very wealthy.

There are also other people, who aren't born to wealthy families but have a lot of education and make their money in a more acceptable way. I think these people might be considered aristocracy too.


Considering aristocracy in the United States is really interesting. Since we don't have a royal family or any nobles, I suppose the standards as to what makes someone aristocratic are different here.

Although aristocracy originally had to do with the government, I think the modern meaning is much different. I think most people associate the term aristocracy with a certain status. These days, it seems that if you have money and a certain class standing, people will consider you aristocracy.

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    • Plato was one of the creators of the idea of aristocracy.
      Plato was one of the creators of the idea of aristocracy.
    • Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with the idea of aristocracy.
      Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with the idea of aristocracy.