Oligarchy and aristocracy are two types of government discussed by Plato, the Greek philosopher. In his analysis, Plato compares aristocracy – the best form of governance – to timocracy, democracy, oligarchy and tyranny – the unjust forms of governance. In his view, the nature of states resembles the nature of men that comprise them. As such, just men live in aristocratic states whereas unjust men live in democratic, oligarchic and timocratic systems.
Plato defines the various forms of governments in the following way:
- Aristocracy: the power is held by the nobility and the government is run by the most virtuous and wise individuals;
- Timocracy: the rulers are motivated by ambition and love of honor and the citizens are ambitious and proud.
- Oligarchy: the power is held by a small group of people (the rich) that take advantage and exploit the rest of the population (the poor). In Plato’s view, there is a natural transition from timocracy to oligarchy;
- Democracy: system of government by the whole population or by all the eligible members of a state; and
- Tiranny: rule by one who has absolute power.
Even if the Greek philosopher believed that aristocracy was the best form of governance, there are virtually zero modern aristocracies.
The word “aristocracy” is derived from the Greek term “aristokratía”, which means “the rule of the best.” In fact, in aristocratic states, the power is held by the “best-qualified” citizens, the nobles and the best educated individuals. Assuming that the “best” people would act in the best interest of the country, Plato believed that aristocracy was superior to all other forms of governance.
In ancient Greece, citizens thought that moral and intellectual superiority could be inherited through family lines and that was a prerogative of noble families. Therefore, nobles were considered to be the best fit to be in charge of the nation. However, during the Middle Age, the concept of aristocracy changed and began to indicate the rule of a privileged class – the aristocrats.
- Aristocrats enjoyed privileges that were denied to the rest of the population;
- Aristocrats belonged to the upper class; and
- The power was inherited and ran through family lines.
The word “oligarchy” is derived from the Greek term “oligharkia”, which means “rule of few.” In oligarchic states, in fact, the power is held by a small number of people, who usually control wealth, education, military, and/or natural resources. According to the classic vision of Plato, in oligarchic countries, rich had control over all resources while the rest of the population was left in poverty.
In Aristotele’s view, “oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands… wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy.” In other words, oligarchy is the power of few rich individuals over the rest of the population. The chosen few are rich persons who were either born in a position of power or acquired control over wealth and resources.
As in an oligarchic country the wealth is in the hands of few individuals, this type of governance has always been associated with the idea of oppression and tyranny.
Differences between aristocracy and oligarchy
While in both systems the power is in the hands of few individuals, aristocracy and oligarchy differ in substantial ways:
- The term “aristocracy” means “rule of the best” while the term “oligarchy” means “rule of few”;
- In aristocratic states, the power is held by the aristocracy – morally and intellectually superior individuals fit to rule – while in oligarchic states the power is in the hands of few persons who control the wealth;
- In aristocratic countries, the power is inherited and runs through family lines, whereas inheritance is not a fundamental condition of oligarchy; and
- Aristocracy was believed to be the best form of governance while oligarchy has often been associated with oppression and tyranny.
Therefore, the main difference between the two systems concerns the nature of the few individuals in power:
- Best fit to rule vs wealthy individuals;
- Nobles vs rich;
- Inheritance vs acquisition of power;
- Moral and intellectual superiority vs wealth and control of resources; and
- Just governance vs tyranny and oppression.
However, even if the control of resources and wealth was not a necessary condition for an individual to be considered morally and intellectually superior (and, therefore, fit to rule), aristocrats and nobles were part of the upper class and enjoyed privileges that were denied to the rest of the population.
Modern aristocracies and oligarchies
Today, most aristocracies and oligarchies have been replaced by democracies. Even though Plato and Aristoteles believed that democracies were not just system as they allowed the “tyranny of the majority”, democracy is the most common type of governance of the modern era.
However, nobility and aristocracy have not disappeared, but they are usually not allowed to have any role or power in the government. For instance, in the United Kingdom – one of the most famous monarchies in the world – the Queen and the Royal family have a ceremonial role rather than an effective power. Yet, countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Buthan remained absolute monarchies.
In modern times, we do not find pure oligarchies, but we witness some instances in which few powerful individuals have the power while the rest of the population is excluded and exploited. The last form of oligarchy could be considered the case of South Africa during the Apartheid system.
Aristocracy and oligarchy are two of the most ancient forms of governance. Both analyzed and discussed by the Greek philosopher Plato, the two systems have been almost entirely replaced by democracy or absolute monarchy.
Although in both cases the power is held by a small group of people, aristocracy and oligarchy differ in several ways:
- Aristocracy means “rule by the best”: in fact, the morally and intellectually superior individuals were in power;
- Oligarchy means “rule of few”: the privileged few who were in control of the wealth had the power;
- In aristocracies, power is inherited, whereas inheritance is not a necessary condition in an oligarchic system; and
- Plato believed that aristocracy was the best form of government while oligarchy was often associated with tyranny and oppression.