In the previous chapter it was noted that some accounts of monarchy set that form of single-person rule in the context of a system of social and political authority in which the ‘aristocracy’ plays an important role. Theorists of ‘mixed government’ argue that a combination of monarchic, aristocratic and democratic elements provides a way of ensuring that political power is exercised properly (see pp. 227ff). In both these cases the ‘aristocracy’ — or, to use Aristotle’s phrase, ‘the rule of the few who are the best’ — does not possess supreme power. A consideration of the role of the aristocracy in a mixed government will be presented later in this book, but since a more restricted conception of ‘aristocracy’ as a central aspect of monarchy has occupied an important place in the history of Western political thought, it will be considered in some detail in the present chapter. It is important to note, however, that Aristotle’s definition indicates that the idea of rule by the select few can, and indeed has, been given a more literal interpretation; that is, one can identify a number of significant statements about the desirability of rule by the few that are not related to monarchical conceptions of government and do not mean rule by those of ‘noble’ birth. These ideas played an important role in ancient political thought, and they have also had currency in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
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