Philosophy 206 - 11.2.2 Aristocracies and Caste Systems

Ruling authority in an aristocracy is in the hands of a small number of individuals considered to be elite members of society. Similar to monarchy, an aristocracy is determined through lines of succession. Generally, the higher a person’s class, the closer they get to the actual seat of power.

Greek Class Systems

In a class system, members of society are placed in different groups based on their perceived worth and benefit. From these social hierarchies arise a system of political obligations from which rulers and their governments derive power and authority.

A classic example of a class system is found in The Republic, when Plato divides society into five classes of citizens: agricultural or industrial producers, sailors and shipowners, merchants (i.e., importers and exporters), retail traders, and manual laborers. In Plato’s view, individuals should keep to the jobs they know best. Moreover, because people are not equal in aptitude, “we must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things” (Plato 1892, Book 2).

Indian Caste Systems

A current example of a class-based system is the Hindu caste system in India, called jati, which assigns people their role in society according to the social class into which they are born. There is a great deal of debate about the origin of the caste system, but the Rig Veda, the oldest texts in Hinduism’s most sacred scriptures, offer a mythical origin of jati. In one poem in the Rig Veda, primordial man, called Purusha, sacrifices himself to create humanity, and from Purusha’s body the castes are created. The four original castes (varnas, or social classes) are the Brahmins (priests and scholars), the Rajanya or Kshatriya (rulers and warriors), the Vaishya (workers, farmers, and craftsmen), and the Sudra (servants and laborers) (Johnson and Johnson 2008). In addition, outcastes or “untouchables” make up a fifth group, now called Dalits (Mayell 2003). The Hindu caste system is intimately bound with religious beliefs about karma and reincarnation. Hindus, who make up the majority of people in India, believe that the fruits of a person’s good and bad deeds (karma) are carried from one life to the next when the soul reincarnates. Therefore, a person’s place in the social hierarchy is determined by fate or karma, based on their behavior from life to life.

In the 20th century, with the establishment of self-rule, the modernization of its economy, and the establishment of a democratic system, India reformed its social system. Today, caste discrimination is no longer legal, although it is still rampant in India. From four primary castes, the caste system grew to encompass some 3,000 subcastes over time, along with further subdivisions of the subcastes. Proponents of the caste system, including some within Hindu nationalist parties, argue that caste is a way of organizing society. Lone individuals lack power, they argue, but if individuals see themselves as part of a larger group, they may function as a de facto union. These defenders of the status quo argue that it is extraordinarily rare for wealthy, politically powerful families to give up their power, just as it is extremely rare for impoverished people to increase their political power.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax