Aristocracy vs. Oligarchy: What’s the Difference?

Aristocracy vs Oligarchy

There is a fine line between aristocracy and oligarchy. Both forms of government involve a small group of individuals who rule over the majority. Aristocratic and oligarchical governments are similar in many ways, but there are some major differences that separate the two. Here you will find the answer to your question, what is the difference between aristocracy and oligarchy?

Aristocracy is a form of government that simply means “rule by the best” whereas an oligarchy is a form of government that means “rule by a (privileged) few”. Both forms of government involve a small political body that rules over the majority of the people within its State. The biggest difference between the two is that an aristocracy is formed with the intentions to act in the best interest of a society while an oligarchy is organized to better serve the agenda of the wealthy.

What Is an Aristocracy?

The concept of aristocracy was first introduced in ancient Greece by Plato and Aristotle. A small group of individuals who are deemed the “best” are the ones who rule an aristocratic government. The term “best” in this sense refers to moral and intellectual superiority. Aristocrats and nobles rule in the best interest of the people within its State. Aristocrats and nobles under an aristocracy are appointed through familial ties or social status rather than wealth. Throughout history, many countries have ruled with an aristocratic government, but by the late 19th century aristocracy had mostly faded away due to revolutions and the abolishment of nobility.

Major Countries That Had an Aristocratic Government

  • Russia
  • France
  • Great Britain
  • China

Russia was ruled by aristocrats and nobles from the 14th century until the early 20th century when the Russian Revolution resulted in many of its aristocrats being killed or driven into exile. Similar to Russia, the fall of France’s aristocracy was caused by the French Revolution and the abolishment of nobility in the mid-19th century. In the early days of China, there was an aristocratic social class that operated under the emperor. Great Britain’s aristocracy did not completely disappear, but rather revolutionized into a Constitutional Monarchy after the House of Lords lost its veto over the lower house.

What Is an Oligarchy?

The term oligarchy also derives from ancient Greek and means “rule by the few”. Oligarchical rule is more concerned with financial matters. Unlike aristocratic rulers, the system of oligarchy appoints rulers and nobles by their measure of wealth. There are several different types of government that fall under the oligarchy label and aristocracy is one of them. Aristocracy falls under the tree of oligarchy because it is described as a government that is ruled by a few privileged individuals, but is then separated from the term due to the motives of the rulers and nobility.

The main focus of oligarchs is wealth. There are two factions to an oligarchy, one being the wealthy and the other being the poor. An oligarchy resembles a dictatorship in a way because it is a very authoritative and oppressive form of rule that leaves the poor man with little to no say.

Major Countries That Currently Have an Oligarchical Government

  • China
  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • Ukraine

It has been debated that the United States could also be an oligarchy with features of a democratic government. The reason for this debate is because although the U.S. allows its citizens to participate in elections and have freedom of speech, the nature in which the government is composed runs much like an oligarchical system would. According to BBC News, a study was conducted by professors of Princeton and Northwestern University to assess whether the U.S. was a true democracy, or if the wealthy elite that controlled much of the policy-making in the states resembles more of an oligarchical system.

Citizens have much less control than officials in a higher position. An example of the operations of an oligarchy in the U.S could be the fact that corporations and individuals who are wealthy have the ability to fund politicians and their political campaigns with large donations. This enables the politician to have better resources than non-wealthy people who are unable to put forth large sums of money to fund their campaign.

Russia is a notorious oligarchy system due to its corrupt and self-serving characteristics. Oligarchy can be described as a very “subjective” term because of the various forms of government that slightly differ from the overall umbrella-term. Quite a few countries, such as Russia and China, that used to rule under an aristocracy turned to an oligarchy because of wealthy, corrupt monarchs taking control of the government and its policies.

What Defines Nobility and What Are the Ranks?

Nobility refers to the higher social class that is ranked in the system of royalty. Nobles were typically landowners who had special privileges rewarded by monarchs, such as a king or queen. In terms of an aristocracy and oligarchy, nobles were considered part of the upper ruling class that had power over the common people of the State. Nobility was typically hereditary, but could also be appointed by the monarch if they were wealthy or had a high social status. An example of order of ranks in an English monarchy, also known as the ‘peerage system’ is as follows:

  • King/Queen
  • Prince/Princess
  • Duke/Duchess
  • Earl/Count, Marquess
  • Viscount, Baron

The royal family would include the king, queen, prince, and princess, while the following ranks are noblemen that have various jobs to serve the royalty. A duke or duchess is the highest rank of nobility and is typically hereditary. An earl or count is the head of a county and a marquess is head of a border county. The viscount and baron are of the lowest ranks and were typically in charge of administration and ruled over specific regions within a county. It is important to note the various titles and levels of nobility when discussing forms of government such as aristocracy and oligarchy because this was how the structure of the government was upheld.

Oligarchy and Aristocracy Intertwined

Oligarchy and Aristocracy - French Revolution

In both oligarchy and aristocracy, the upper-class is the one who rules and has the most control over the government. Research suggests that the two go hand in hand, with aristocracy being a more purified form of oligarchy. There is a very fine line that is easy for government elites to cross between the two forms of government. The structure of an aristocracy can fall apart if wealthy nobles become greedy and begin to act in the best interest of the elites, rather than the best interest of the society.

Because nobility holds more power over the common people of a State, it is easy for wealthy elites to begin incorporating policies for their own economic virtues in an attempt to gain more wealth and power by greed. History goes to show that once higher-powered officials become greedy, the composition of a government becomes fragile, with the lower social classes growing frustrated over economic injustices. When the lower-classes feel they’ve had enough, this is when revolutions and war break out. A good example of this is the French Revolution, which led to the elimination of the French upper-class and nobility.

What’s the Overall Difference Between Oligarchy and Aristocracy?

Corruption. Oligarchy is notably a corrupt form of government that works in the best interest of the wealthy and greedy elites of the State. The structure of government is organized in such a way that the upper-class will always have the better hand and the poor people of the lower-classes do not have the freedom to participate in policy decision-making. It is completely possible for a country to have multiple forms of government. As discussed earlier, the United States is known to be a democracy, but due to the nature of corrupt officials influencing the system it is debatably a mix between democracy and a form of oligarchy.

The same goes for aristocracy and oligarchy. Both systems of government have many of the same features with nobility in place. The motives behind the nobility is what separates the two. An aristocracy is supposed to be ruled in the best interest of all of its people and is not to create a controversial divide between upper and lower-classes. If such a divide happened, unfurling of economic and political injustices would start to create hostility of the people.

Final Thoughts

Plato and Aristotle described aristocracy as an ideal form of government. The aristocrats and nobles led the policy-making, but were chosen to do so out of moral and intellectual superiority. The success of aristocratic governments depended upon the nobles to be supportive of the lower-classes and acting in the favor of all citizens, wealthy and poor.

Without a clear agreement between the two, it creates a crippling government that loses the trust and control of its people. Countries, such as Russia and China, who decided to fight against the favorability of its people turned to policies that oppressed the lower-class individuals and allowed the monarchs to gain more power and become more authoritative without the general public’s well-being in mind. As a result, an oligarchy can then emerge as rulers become selfish and tyrannical.


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