Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
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
—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.
JACQUES DE BOISJOSLIN.
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