Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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OLIGARCHY. The rule of a few. Aristotle, after enumerating the governments which he calls governments in the general interest, monarchy, aristocracy and the republic, treats of governments in the interest of individuals, tyranny, oligarchy and democracy (see OCHLOCRACY), which seem to him the corruption of the first three. "Hobbes," says Barthélemy St. Hilaire, "has justly remarked (Imperium, vii., 3), that 'these three second denominations are all hated and despised, but that they do not designate governments of different principles; this is precisely what Aristotle understood when he employed the word corruption.'"—"Oligarchy," says Aristotle, "is the political predominance of the rich, and democracy, the political predominance of the poor to the exclusion of the rich." To the objection: but what if the rich be the more numerous and govern, or if the poor be the less numerous and govern? he replies, that the rule of the minority in democracies and that of the majority in oligarchies are wholly accidental, because the rich everywhere constitute the minority, and the poor everywhere the majority. "The two parties," continues impartial Aristotle, "claim exclusively each for itself the right to make the law, and, indeed, this right belongs to both of them up to a certain point, but this right is not absolute in the one or the other. On the one hand, superior in a single point, in wealth, for instance, they think themselves superior in all; on the other hand, equal in one point, in liberty, for instance, they think themselves absolutely equal; the main object is forgotten on both sides. If political association was a commercial association for the purpose of gain, the share of the associated in the state would be in direct proportion to their investment, and the partisans of oligarchy would be in the right; but the object of political association is not only the existence of the associated, but their happiness, the well-being of families and of the different classes of the people. Those who bring the most (by their talents) to the general fund of the association, have a greater share in the state than those who, equal or superior in point of liberty or birth, have, notwithstanding, less political virtue; a greater share than those who, superior in wealth, are inferior in merit." To whom, then, should sovereignty belong? To the multitude, to the wealthy, to the good, to a single individual of superior talents, to a tyrant? "Neither to these nor to others," says Aristotle, "but to the law." And if one of the elements of the political body must be preferred, Aristotle would incline in favor of the multitude, for the reason that, if each individually errs in judgment, in the aggregate all judge well. (Book iii.) But the government which seems to him to best assure the reign of the law is the republic which borrows its principles from oligarchy and democracy. If he had been asked how the alliance of these two governments, which he calls corrupt, could give birth to the best of all governments, he would doubtless have answered that they were only had because they were exclusive, and that political wisdom should be the reconciliation of these two elements.


—Aristotle enumerates four kinds of oligarchy. (Book vi.) In the first, the magistracy and the legislative power are accessible to citizens paying a rather large amount of taxes. In the second, the amount of taxes is considerable, and the body of the magistrates is self-recruiting. In the third, public offices are hereditary. In the fourth, besides this hereditary character of public offices, the sovereignty of the magistrates takes the place of the reign of the law. The first of these oligarchies is very near akin to aristocracy or democracy; the last is "a dynasty or government of force, the most detestable of all." Oligarchies may maintain themselves by ministering to the material well-being of the people and to their artistic wants, a capital consideration in the time of Aristotle. (Book vii.) But as avarice is the vice peculiar to oligarchies, (this is also Plato's opinion), their government, together with tyranny, is the least stable of all. The rivalry of the powerful, their misconduct, their acts of violence, the creation of another oligarchy in the bosom of the first, the ambition of some who begin to flatter the people, the influence of mercenary troops, all these are so many causes of ruin. Lastly, that which injures them most is, "that they deceive the lower classes." (Book vi., 3.) They should, above all, refrain from taking such oaths, he says, as they take to-day-in some states: "I will always be the enemy of the people, and I will do them all the harm I can." (Book vii., 7.)


—We have quoted these passages from Aristotle, because they throw light upon the social state of antiquity, and because they serve to show the difference between ancient and modern politics. Thus, the moderns are nearer the etymology of the word than Aristotle himself, when they call oligarchy the government of a small number, without alluding to the wealthy, to the people, to good men, or to virtue. In many states a minority, all powerful through terror, constitutes an oligarchy in an assembly democratically elected. The oligarchy of the council of ten, at Venice, was a concentration of the aristocracy; but that of the ephors at Sparta and that of the tribunes at Rome served as a counterpoise to the authority of the senate. An oligarchy may succeed abruptly to a monarchic or popular government. Modern revolutions have put in power, under the form of oligarchy, dictators elected by the people, or by a fraction of the people, and governing in its name or their own, but always opposed to aristocracies.


—The oligarchic government of the ancients was rarely met with except in small states, in free cities, a most favorable theatre for such a concentration of collective power. This is also the case in modern times, not only in what have been called "free cities," but in other states. Oligarchy is wont to be established in a great nation, when, on account of an insurrection or a war, it is for the time being reduced to the condition of the ancient city.


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