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Originally, leadership by a small privileged class or a minority thought to be best qualified to lead. Plato and Aristotle considered aristocrats to be those who are morally and intellectually superior, and therefore fit to govern in the interests of the people. The term has come to mean the upper layer of a stratified group. Most aristocracies have been hereditary, and many European societies stratified their aristocratic classes by formally titling their members, thereby making the term roughly synonymous with nobility. See alsooligarchy.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on aristocracy, visit Britannica.com.