Aristocracy, etymologically, the "rule of the best," a form of government variously defined and appreciated at different times and by different authorities. Aristotle classified good governments under three heads - monarchy, aristocracy and commonwealth, to which he opposed the three perverted forms - tyranny or absolutism, oligarchy and democracy or mob-rule. The distinction between aristocracy and oligarchy, which are both necessarily the rule of the few, is that whereas the few aristocrats will govern unselfishly, the oligarchs, being the few wealthy ("plutocracy" in modern terminology), will allow their personal interests to predominate. Under the conditions of the present day the distinction of aristocracy, democracy and monarchy cannot be rigidly maintained from a purely governmental point of view.
The antiquity of the English aristocracy is so universally acknowledged, both at home and abroad, that it seems rather late in the day to invite a discussion upon it. Continental nations, among the older families of which revolution in some shape has made such merciless havoc, point to British immunity in this respect with feelings akin almost to envy, and most intelligent foreigners who had written on Britain concured in their expressions of respect for that venerable body in whose names and titles are written many of the most prominent events of English history.
Nevertheless, and the fact is not a little singular, the notions of the British people on the subject are singularly loose and undefined. The rapid changes which the progress of opinions, the increase of commerce, and the comparatively sudden accumulations of large fortunes had brought about, caused a sort of fusion between the different ranks of the social system, tending in a great measure to confuse the claims of those who can legitimately boast of antiquity of blood.
From a political view monarchy and nobility were strongly opposed. Even the modified form of absolute monarchy which existed in some Western countries, while it preserved, perhaps even strengthened, the social position of a nobility, destroyed its political power. Under the fully-developed despotisms of the East a real nobility was impossible; the prince raised and thrust down as he pleased. It was only in a commonwealth that a nobility can really rule; that is, it is only in a commonwealth that the nobility can really be an aristocracy. And even in a democratic commonwealth the sentiment of nobility may exist, though all legal privilege has been abolished or has never existed. That is to say, traditional feeling may give the members of certain families a strong preference, to say the least, in election to office. This was the case at Athens; it was largely the case in the democratic cantons of Switzerland; indeed the nobility of Rome itself, after the privileges of the patricians were abolished, rested on no other foundation.
The word acquired a social rather than a political sense as practically equivalent to "nobility." In England nobility is apt to be confounded with the peculiar institution of the British peerage. Nobility is not the same thing as aristocracy. This last is a word which is often greatly abused; but, whenever it is used with any regard to its true meaning, it is a word strictly political, implying a particular form of government. Aristocracy implies the existence of nobility; but nobility does not imply aristocracy; it may exist under any form of government.
England such as she at present dates no farther back than the accession of the House of Hanover to the Crown ; and it is sufficient for our purpose to consider what was then the organization of the powers to which was confided the maintenance of the public welfare. At that period, the basis of the present order of things was established. The monarch, invested with the prerogatives necessary to the dignity of the throne, shared the right of legislation with the two Houses of Parliament. In that of the Peers sat, by hereditary right, the chiefs of the higher nobility; in that of the Commons, deputies freely chosen by the nation, and whose suffrages had the more weight that at that time the preponderance of wealth was on the side of the people.
By 1910 as much as one-fourth of the House of Lords was not constituted upon an hereditary basis. There were the twenty-six Bishops, who represent their sees, and who may be said to come here on the ground of personal service; there were the six Law Lords, there were the sixteen Scottish and the twenty-eight Irish Peers who, although they were elected out of the hereditary Peerage, yet came not as hereditary Peers, but by right of election. Finally, there were no fewer than eighty members of the House of Lords who had been sent there for the first time in their own persons by recent Ministries, both Conservative and Liberal, who may beget hereditary Peers in the next generation, but who were not hereditary Peers themselves and who, in many cases, having no heirs and no families, were more like Life Peers than anything else. Adding all these together are no fewer than 150 members the Lords' House who were not there by virtue of hereditary right at all.
In conversation a general guide when introducing peers or referring to them is to use Lord and Lady in the same way as one would use Mr and Mrs. Do not use their descriptive title such as the Earl of Lonsdale or the Marquess of Bristol. The only exceptions are dukes and duchesses who are spoken to as the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, for example, and addressed as Duke and Duchess.
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