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An aristocracy is a form of government in which rulership is in the hands of an "upper class" known as aristocrats. (The Greek origins of the word aristocracy imply the meaning of "rule by the best".)

This system has often been combined with a monarchy, in that some functions of government were administered by the monarch (usually also a member of the aristocracy) with the remainder being held by other aristocrats. Generally, this form of government evolved out of earlier feudal systems.

Historically, the term "aristocracy" has usually denoted a hereditary elite, but the word has been applied to non-hereditary elites as well.

Many historical hereditary aristocracies justified their power by a belief in "rule by right of birth." This belief states that there is a particular caste of hereditary nobility which has the greatest right---or greatest ability---to rule, that ability being inherited through blood ties ("blue blood"). This concept enjoyed great support, at least among the nobility, in some places and time periods where rule by martial prowess and conquest gave way to longer and longer "dynasties" of inherited power. Examples of aristocratic societies in this style are Europe during the late medieval and Renaissance periods and the Ashikaga Shogunate in Japan.

A government by aristocracy is generally held to be incompatible with the notion of political egalitarianism.

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