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.
From a political view monarchy and nobility are 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.
The growth of the peerage set up a new standard of nobility, a new form of the nobility of office. The peer - in strictness, the peer in his own person only, not even his children - became the only noble; the ideas of nobility and gentry thus became divorced in a way in which they are not in any other country. Those who would elsewhere have been counted as the nobility, the bearers of coat-armour bygood right, were hindered from forming a class holding any substantial privilege. In a word, the growth of the peerage hindered the existence in England of any nobility in the continental sense of the word. The esquires, knights, lesser barons, even the remote descendants of peers, that is, the noblesse of other countries, in England remained gentlemen, but not noblemen.
By the middle of the 19th Century British subjects were divided, politically, into two classes - the Nobility, and the Commons. Below these was a mass of population, which used to be commonly termed the rabble, or dregs of society, having no political rights. But the nomenclature which obtained was deduced from social gradation. In this classification, English society was divided into three grades - the Aristocracy, consisting of the Nobility and Gentry; the Middle class; and the Working class.
The Aristocracy par excellence consisted of the titled nobility of the realm, who inherit rank and lands by primogeniture. The descendants of the younger sons of nobility simply rank as gentry. They belong to the aristocracy by right of blood, and enjoy the social distinction thus conferred.
The noble English Aristocracy held its position in virtue of blood and wealth. The heir to the title inherited the lands, as essential to maintain his rank. Daughters and younger sons must be provided for by the savings of their aristocratic parents. These descendants of noble houses were numbered in the ranks of the Gentry so long as they have sufficient property to support them without resorting to any industrial pursuit.
In Great Britain, branches of the Aristocracy may, consistently with their caste, become clergymen or lawyers ; may enter the army or navy; or occupy a post under government, in some department of the civil administration. All other pursuits were considered degrading. As soon as necessity compels the adoption of any industrial occupation, social position was lost, and the person sank, as the case may be, into the Middle, or the Working class. It was, therefore, the special care of aristocratic parents to provide for their younger children.
The Middle class was distinguished from the noble Aristocracy above them, as being of plebeian descent, and engaged in some business avocation; and from the Working class below, as possessing sufficient means to obviate the necessity of personal labor. The Middle class had its own aristocracy, consisting of the great merchants, manufacturers, shippers; an aristocracy of wealth, as distinguished from the aristocracy of blood. The mass of the Middle class comprised all embarking capital in industrial pursuits who do not engage in personal labor - the merchant who overlooks his clerks; the manufacturer; the gentleman farmer who employs his capital in the cultivation of rented lands; and all persons not of noble blood, engaged in the learned professions and government service.
The Working class comprised all who were in service; and all who engaged in personal labor, in any department of business. Shop, or storekeepers who attended behind their own counter, clerks, teachers, governesses, artisans, mechanics, laborers, swelled the ranks of the Working class. But the aristocratic principle was as visible, here, as in the classes above them. The shopkeeper who worked in his own store is much higher in the social scale than those who worked for hire. The teacher and the clerk held themselves above the mechanic who labors with his hands; and the latter, having regular, steady employment at fixed wages, regarded themselves as immeasurably superior to the millions of laborers employed in commerce, in agriculture, and in the various menial departments of industry.
These three grades of society - the Aristocracy, the Middle class, the Working class, were universally recognized in 19th Century England. There were first, second, and third class seats in lecture rooms, theaters, and churches; first, second, and third class cars on railroads; and the undertakers announced upon their signs, "First class burials," "Second class burials," "Third class burials," with the respective charges attached to each.
The system of centralized commerce that prevailed benefited the landed nobility, who had increased their rents four fold; and the Middle class aristocracy, who engrossed the manufacturing and commercial industry of the world; but it grievously oppressed the great mass of British population belonging to all these classes. Its tendency was to increase the aggregation of wealth, and to multiply the burdens of poverty.
The British Aristocracy had always been the richest nobility in the world; but, its wealth was inordinately increased in the 19th Century. It derived all the advantage of the high prices of provisions and raw material induced by the establishment of manufactures. The nobility increased their rents, so as to restrict the profits of the farmers within as narrow limits as before, and compel the wages of the farm laborer to be stinted to a degree that deprives them of all the comforts of life.
The titled nobility further increased their wealth by intermarriages with the heiresses of the Middle class aristocracy. The British Islands were once full of small farms owned by resident farmers. But this yeoman class of country squires was rapidly becoming extinct. The nobility were buying up more lands in every generation. The aggregation of landed estates had already progressed so far that some half a dozen nobles owned half the lands in England.
While the landed nobility were thus increasing their wealth, by imposing heavier rents, and by intermarriages with the commercial aristocracy, the younger scions of the noble aristocracy, who constitute the great majority of the aristocratic class, suffered severely from the commercial system which, by concentrating manufactures and commerce in England, exaggerated the price of all the necessaries of life. The lower orders endured excessive privations; but it was doubtful whether the poorer class of the Aristocracy were not the most wretched people in England.
Reared in the enjoyment of luxury, and with all the inflated pride of their class, they were turned upon the world without the means necessary to support their rank. Their best hope was to obtain a settlement in life by marrying heiresses of the Middle class aristocracy. Failing this, the more fortunate obtained, by the influence of relatives, appointments under government. But even these had meager salaries, scarcely sufficient for support, much less to meet the expenses incident to their position in society. They married and raised families with that pinching economy which sacrificed comfort in the attempt to keep up appearances. But, worst of all, they had not the means of settling their children in life ; their pinched resources being strained to the utmost, to afford them an education suited to their quality.
The second generation of the younger branches of the Aristocracy would begin to feel severely the miseries of their position. Debarred from engaging in business by the pride of descent, they were utterly without resources to maintain their pretensions. They became, of necessity, hangers on of their noble relations. A few were so fortunate as to obtain the patronage and aid of the head of their house; but he was usually too much occupied in saving fortunes for his own younger children to extend much assistance to his brother's family.
Some of them were so fortunate as to marry heiresses. The others must become starving curates, pinch their way in the law, or accept some very subordinate position under government. They were provided for in some humble way; for they are too nearly related to the head of the house to be allowed to forfeit caste, by engaging in trade.
In the next generation, however, the children of the humble curates, struggling lawyers, army lieutenants, must crush their pride of descent, to engage in any humble employment that may offer the means of subsistence. This struggle between pride and poverty racked the soul with agony. The humble plebeian, whatever his privations, endured only physical suffering. He pined with hunger and shivered with cold; but he knew nothing of the torture of a spirit vainly struggling in fierce revolt against its destiny.
Perhaps no class on earth endured such complicated miseries as the impoverished scions of Aristocracy. They were wretched before, with means miserably inadequate to their wants. But the cost of living was vastly increased by the enhancement of prices caused by the centralization of commerce. The system which aggrandized the Nobility who inherit titles and estates, made victims of the great mass of the class distinguished by noble blood.
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.
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