Friday, December 19, 2008


From Aristotle's Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 8:

"A Democracy is a form of government under which the citizens distribute the offices of state among themselves by lot, whereas under oligarchy there is a property qualification, under aristocracy one of education. By education I mean that education which is laid down by the law; for it is those who have been loyal to the national institutions that hold office under an aristocracy. These are bound to be looked upon as "the best men," and it is from this fact that this form of government has derived its name ("the rule of the best"). Monarchy, as the word implies, is the constitution in which one man has authority over all. [1366a] There are two forms of monarchy: kingship, which is limited by prescribed conditions, and "tyranny," which is not limited by anything."

It looks like we use the word "aristocracy" in a different way than the ancients did. What we call aristocracy (rule by a few, rich people with old money and land, regardless of their educational/personal qualifications), Aristotle called oligarchy. We call call meritocracy (rule by the educated -- or "best" men), Aristotle called aristocracy.

I'm curious how that took place. Did the European oligarchs begin calling themselves "aristocrats" at this point, in an effort to legitimize their oligarchy by projecting the impression that they were not merely wealthy, but also educated, meritorious, and the best? Did the word then acquire negative connotations associated with those who used it? Was everybody else so uneducated that they accepted the label as given, rather than objecting "This is not an aristocracy! This is an oligarchy!"

Seems like (if this occurred) a similar phenomenon occurred with the term "fundamentalist." "Fundamentalist" means get back to the basics and don't get caught up in all the legalistic nonsense. But it was coopted by legalistic people, and acquired negative connotations associated with the people who used it, until now it means "legalistic" rather than "getting back to the basics." And of course the critics of "fundamentalism" simply coopt the label based on those who claim it, instead of objecting, "You are not acting like a fundamentalist -- you are acting like a Pharisee!"

I wonder how often word switches like that happen. Probably the word "liberal" too, which now describes those support government intervention rather than those who ascribe to the laissez-faire thinking of classical "liberal" thought ...

As a side note, he says that in a "democracy," the people distribute offices by lot (meaning by chance). That's very different from how we use the term democracy (the vote). Which societies were distributing offices by lot!?

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