The Craziness of “-cracy”: A Literary Guide to Governments in 25 Books

The suffix “-cracy” comes to us from the medieval French word “cratie,” and it refers to a form of government or rule. Those who live in America have grown up pledging allegiance to “the democracy” represented by the flag, and may have assumed that the USA was a democracy.

But in the current political climate, words like “kakistocracy” (rule by the worst), “kleptocracy” (rule by thieves), “gerontocracy” (rule by old men), “albinocracy” (rule by white people) and “infantocracy” (rule by an infant) have come into parlance. Trying to get a handle on what a government is supposed to look like in the midst of the current “adhocracy” is difficult.

As an historian by training, whenever the present is mired in chaos, I remember that chaos is constant, and that some historical perspective is my friend. In this case, returning ad fontes — to some of the philosophical sources that have been used to structure government has provided me with a frame within which to view news analysis of the current discussions.

For the west, the Greek philosopher Aristotle examined politics most closely. In the east, the source of political thought was Confucius.

Confucius advocated for “meritocracy,” that is, rule by the best qualified. The purpose of government was to allow people to live their best moral lives. In China, those entering the government take a series of difficult tests in order to prove their merit to be a part of government.

Aristotle examined three fundamental forms of government: rule by the one, rule by the few, and rule by the many. He then examined the “positive” form of these governments: kingship, aristocracy, and polity. He then examined the “worst” forms of these three: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. In each instance, the good form could deteriorate into its worst form, so that a noble king might turn into a mad tyrant, while a successful polity (republic) could be taken over by the mob (democracy).

Here is a reading list that includes some of these fundamental texts. (This is nowhere near an exhaustive list.) Where possible, I have provided examples of each of these forms of government with commentary provided both by experts and novelists, who sometimes provide us with resonance in seeking to understand the past.

  • –  The Ur-Texts  –

  • The cover of the book The Politics

    The Politics

    One of the Ur-texts of western governance, Aristotle argues that the point of the city-state is to provide for the well-being of its inhabitants, something he called “the good life.” He concluded that an aristocratic system, by which he meant “rule by the best” citizens, was the highest form of government.

  • The cover of the book The Analects

    The Analects

    The Analects is the collection of Confucian principles that have influenced Chinese thought for thousands of years. It was believed to have been written by his followers sometime during the period between the fifth and the second century B.C.E. Confucius believed that a country’s success depended on the moral development of its people. The Chinese Meritocratic tradition, in which those hoping to enter government must pass a series of rigorous exams, is credited to Confucius.

  • –  Chinese Meritocracy  –

  • The cover of the book Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China

    Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China

    For those who are curious about the high level of pressure trying to move into China’s bureaucratic class entailed, Elman’s book provides an analysis of the social and cultural milieu of the late imperial period.

  • The cover of the book The Water Margin

    The Water Margin

    The Robin Hood story does not belong solely to the west. In twelfth-century China, rebel bandits opposed Emperor Huizong. Led by the outlaw Song Jiang, he and his 36 (or 108) companions fought “for the people” against the tyrant. When the Mongols invaded, the stories gained popularity in their resistance to the invaders.

  • The cover of the book The China Model

    The China Model

    While western governments are built on the model of one person-one vote, the Chinese model, which combines voting with a form of meritocracy, is, according to Bell, in some ways superior. It is not the authoritarian rule westerners often believe.

  • –  Polity  –

  • The cover of the book The Discourses

    The Discourses

    Poor Machiavelli has always gotten a bad rap. His name has been turned into a nickname that most people associate with something evil. It’s a pity that most do not know that he was a republican at heart. During the period of the Florentine Republic (1494-1512) Machiavelli organized citizen militias to defend the nascent republic, in addition to serving as diplomat. In 1517, after surviving the strappado, (a form of torture), and writing The Prince, in an effort to never get tortured again, Machiavelli retired to his house and wrote this book on the best form of government: republics.

  • The cover of the book Romola


    For Americans, the year “1492” summons images of “Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean blue.” But in Europe, 1492 was a year of tremendous tumult: in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Jews living in their lands. Those who didn’t leave were forcibly converted. In Florence, the Medici were in power, and Savonarola, the popular preacher, warned its inhabitants, as Bernardino da Siena had done before him, that God’s patience with the “sinful” city was running out. Eliot’s book is one of her least-known but details the foibles and acts of resistance in a city entering a period of chaos.

  • The cover of the book The Sixteen Pleasures

    The Sixteen Pleasures

    A book that I have given as gifts to several Renaissance scholar friends — all of whom loved it — Hellenga gives us a story within a story about a search that begins with trying to save invaluable historical documents. In 1966, the Arno flooded its banks in Florence and documents within the Florentine archives were under water. “The Sixteen Pleasures” is an erotic book from the sixteen century about attempts to recover an erotic novel, PLUS  archives: for bibliomaniacs, this book hits on several levels.

  • –  Aristocracy  –

  • The cover of the book The Monarchy and the Constitution

    The Monarchy and the Constitution

    A defense of the current system in the United Kingdom, in which the queen serves as the head of state. While many think that the queen is merely a figurehead, it may come as a surprise to know that she may still declare war. Her assent is required on bills coming out of Parliament, although a monarch has not “dissented” since the early eighteenth century.

  • The cover of the book Victoria: The Queen

    Victoria: The Queen

    An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire

    Victoria ascended the throne as a teenager and ruled Britain for the next sixty-three years, right into the twentieth century. In this biography, Baird paints a portrait of a young woman who was cast as “headstrong” but who grew into one of Britain’s most beloved rulers. She re-defined the monarchy.

  • –  Oligarchy  –

  • The cover of the book Putin’s Kleptocracy

    Putin’s Kleptocracy

    The word “kleptocracy” refers to a government run by thieves. In Dawisha’s book, she debunks Putin’s claim that his government is the “champion of the little guy.” Instead, she documents that Putin’s government is a system of enormous corruption with Putin as the person who benefits most. From the New York Times review, comes this enumeration of the facets of how the kleptocracy works:

    “…bribetaking from domestic and foreign companies seeking business permits; kickbacks from inflated no-bid contracts for state projects; privatization deals rigged to enrich cronies who will later be cash cows for the Kremlin; illicit exports of raw materials purchased at state-subsidized prices and sold for a killing; ‘donations’ from oligarchs eager to keep feeding at the government’s trough; real estate scams yielding mega-profits and palatial homes; money laundering; election-fixing; labyrinthine offshore accounts; lucrative partnerships with the mob; and the intimidation, even elimination, of would-be whistle-blowers.”

  • The cover of the book I, Claudius

    I, Claudius

    While many are familiar with the superb 1976 BBC adaptation starring Derek Jacobi, Graves’s account of the period in Roman history when the absolute worst small group of the “nobility” ruled Rome is half of the brilliant source material upon which the series was based. An example of Aristotle’s “bad” form of a small group run amok, who killed one another while distracting the masses with “bread and circuses,” Graves’s work is both marvelously entertaining and chillingly prescient.

  • –  Democracy  –

  • The cover of the book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

    A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

    with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

    Before she issued her feminist manifesta that demanded the same rights for women that men possessed, Wollstonecraft responded to the fears expressed by Burke in Reflections by saying that the answer to the revolution in France was greater freedom, not less. Most men could not vote in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, and in the French experiment, Wollstonecraft saw a way forward for suffrage for all men and all women.

  • The cover of the book Reflections on the Revolution in France

    Reflections on the Revolution in France

    Edmund Burke was horrified by the French Revolution. His addition to the English language was the the word “terrorist,” which he applied to those who had rebelled against their king. Burke is often credited with being the author of modern conservative thought, a view popularized by William F. Buckley, who claimed Burke as an anti-Bolshevist, despite the century between Burke’s death and the Russian Revolution.

  • The cover of the book A Tale of Two Cities

    A Tale of Two Cities

    “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Perhaps the most famous opening lines to any book — feel free to contradict me in the comments — Dickens gives us a host of unforgettable characters who are called on to do “far better things” in a time that tested men and women’s characters.

  • The cover of the book A Place of Greater Safety

    A Place of Greater Safety

    For those who have loved Mantel’s evocation of the Tudor Court in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, this novel of the French Revolution should top the TBR pile. Critics have marveled at Mantel’s ability to turn the events of the revolution, many of them so well-known as to be rote, into a page-turning, passionate, but deeply researched read.

  • –  Kingship  –

  • The cover of the book The Confessions of Young Nero

    The Confessions of Young Nero

    The newest historical fiction based on years of research by George, this novel seeks to overturn centuries of bad press (and History Channel fodder) about Nero. In popular memory, he was the emperor who “fiddled while Rome burned,” the aesthete who put to death Christians, killed his political enemies, and behaved like a total despot. In George’s new interpretation, Nero emerges as the philosopher-king whom Plato believed was the ideal form of ruler.

  • The cover of the book The Book of the Courtier

    The Book of the Courtier

    Castiglione wrote this “mirror of princes” as an instruction book for those serving in the court of a king. While the book is full of sycophancy, it provides information that may save a courtier’s life when dealing with a king such as Henry VIII of England. While most know that Henry cast off his wives, Henry could also order the execution of a courtier who offended him: Castiglione’s book covers everything from how a gentleman blows his nose to how to compliment his prince.

  • –  Tyranny  –

  • The cover of the book The Prince

    The Prince

    (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

    Machiavelli may be one of the most badly misunderstood characters in history. He wrote The Prince after the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1512. Machiavelli had served the republic, and he was imprisoned. In jail, he suffered the strappado, a form of torture in which Machiavelli had his hands tied behind his back and was then lifted up by them. The mechanism dislocates shoulders and tears structures in the back. After being released from prison, Machiavelli wrote his instructions for how a prince might best rule, hoping to gain favor with the up-and-coming Cesare Borgia.

  • The cover of the book Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

    Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

    Pol Pot killed over a million people in a population of five million, a genocide that occurred in the 1970s while the rest of the world was distracted. After taking power, Pol Pot declared “Year Zero,” re-setting the calendar. He rounded up the educated — professors, doctors, lawyers, all educated members of the middle class — in order to set up a new Utopia with no opposition. The regime fell in 1979, when Vietnamese troops invaded.

  • The cover of the book On Tyranny

    On Tyranny

    Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

    Snyder offers lessons built on these twenty instructions for facing tyranny:

    “Do not obey in advance.

    Defend institutions.

    Beware the one-party state.

    Take responsibility for the face of the world.

    Remember professional ethics.

    Be wary of paramilitaries.

    Be reflective if you must be armed.

    Stand out.

    Be kind to our language.

    Believe in truth.


    Make eye contact and small talk.

    Practice corporeal politics.

    Establish a private life.

    Contribute to good causes.

    Learn from peers in other countries.

    Listen for dangerous words.

    Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

    Be a patriot.

    Be as courageous as you can.”

  • –  Bonus category: Theocracy  –

    (Aristotle didn’t write about rule by God. He was not a monotheist.)

  • The cover of the book The Institutes of the Christian Religion

    The Institutes of the Christian Religion

    Calvin was a more radical reformer than his contemporary, Martin Luther. John Calvin wanted to establish a human form of government in which people would behave as if God had chosen them for salvation—even though the mystery of who had been saved was known only to God. Calvin established his godly government in Geneva, Switzerland.

  • The cover of the book Calvin’s Geneva

    Calvin’s Geneva

    Calvin came into Geneva and established a theocracy. Among its structures was the “Consistory,” which served to root out misbehavior among the city’s inhabitants. While more recently historians have argued that there was more freedom in Geneva than Monter’s Calvin’s Geneva portrays, his vision of what life is like in a sixteenth-century theocracy looks similar to modern stories of life in theocratic states.

  • The cover of the book Hunted Heretic

    Hunted Heretic

    Michael Servetus was a dissenter during the Reformation. While Luther and Calvin had challenged the Catholic Church on doctrinal issues and been successful in founding new religious movements, Michael Servetus ended up a victim of John Calvin. Servetus argued against the doctrine of the Trinity, that G*d was tri-partite in God, Son, and Holy Spirit. Calvin, under the guise of religious debate, lured Servetus to Geneva and then had him arrested and executed.

  • The cover of the book Persepolis


    The Story of a Childhood

    Satrapi and her family lived in Iran prior to the revolution of 1979 that put the Ayatollah Khomeini in power. In graphic-novel form, Satrapi portrays her adolescent rebellion, which took place as her nation was being forced to become a theocracy. Satrapi demonstrates the horrors of living in a country ruled by  religious precepts handed down more than a millennium ago.