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In French, "noblesse oblige" means, literally, "nobility obliges, or performs service", though it is normally used as a noun phrase that might best be translated as "the obligation of the nobility."

The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines it thus:

  1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
  2. (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms with one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility". Being a noble meant that one had responsibilities to lead, manage and so on. One was not to simply spend one's time in idle pursuits.

Contents

Meaning and variants

"Noblesse oblige" is generally used to imply that with wealth, power and prestige come responsibilities. The phrase is sometimes used derisively, in the sense of condescending or hypocritical social responsibility. In American English especially, the term has also been applied more broadly to those who are capable of simple acts to help another, usually one who is less fortunate.

In ethical discussion, it is sometimes used to summarize a moral economy wherein privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege or who cannot perform such duty. Finally, it has been used recently primarily to refer to public responsibilities of the rich, famous and powerful, notably to provide good examples of behaviour or to exceed minimal standards of decency.

History and examples

"For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." Luke 12:48 Bible KJV

In "Le Lys dans la vallée", written in 1835 and published in 1836, Honoré de Balzac recommends certain standards of behaviour to a young man, concluding: "Everything I have just told you can be summarized by an old term: noblesse oblige!" His advice had included comments like "others will respect you for detesting people who have done detestable things," but nothing about generosity or benevolence. He later includes the exhortation that a noble person performs services for others not for gain or recognition, but simply because it was the right thing to do. (English translation: Lily of the Valley)

In the Iliad book XII, Sarpedon delivers a famous noblesse oblige speech before attacking the Argive ramparts.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus endorses the concept, saying, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded." (Luke 12:48)

It was also recorded in an 1837 letter from F. A. Kemble: "To be sure, if noblesse oblige, royalty must do so still more".

The phrase is used as the motto for the National Honor Society. [1]

William Faulkner uses the term many times in his novels and short stories, including the famous The Sound and the Fury and "A Rose for Emily".

In the book Athens on Trial, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts provides an example of noblesse oblige in the liturgies of ancient Athens: public burdens assigned to the wealthy such as outfitting warships, holding banquets and training choruses for dramatic performances. She notes: "The rich were understandably ambivalent about exercising this sort of 'privilege'; noblesse oblige could be very expensive."

"Indeed you can usually tell when the concepts of democracy and citizenship are weakening. There is an increase in the role of charity and in the worship of volunteerism. These represent the élite citizen's imitation of noblesse oblige; that is, of pretending to be aristocrats or oligarchs, as opposed to being citizens." —John Ralston Saul

"Despotisms endure while they are benevolent, and aristocracies while noblesse oblige is not a phrase to be referred to with a cynical smile. Even an oligarchy might be permanent if the spirit of human kindness, which harmonises all things otherwise incompatible, is present." —George William Russell

A modern version of this can be found in the origins of the Marvel Comics character Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility" (originally a quote attributed to Winston Churchill), though Stan Lee has not claimed to have been aware of any one particular moral theory (such as noblesse oblige) when the phrase came to his mind originally.

In the Disney movie Mary Poppins, Mr. Banks sings a song titled "The Life I Lead" with the lyrics: "I treat my subjects | servants, children, wife | With a firm but gentle hand | Noblesse oblige!"

In the movie Amazing Grace the Duke of Clarence, later William IV of the United Kingdom, uses this term as his reason for saluting anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce's achievement, although that is an anachronism.

Noblesse oblige is the motto of Calasanctius College (Ireland), Colvin Taluqdars' College (India), and Holy Names High School (United States of America).

In the Robert A. Heinlein novel To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Dr. Johnson says, "Does your common man understand chivalry? Noblesse oblige? Aristocratic rules of conduct? Personal responsibility for the welfare of the state? One may as well search for fur on a frog." He also discusses the concept in Glory Road where Her Wisdom Star, Empress of Twenty Universes observes to her champion that "Noblesse oblige is an emotion felt only by the truly noble."

In the japanese anime Hakushaku to Yousei (Earl and Fairy) the male protagonist Edgar notes that his rival Ulysses has no knowledge of "noblesse oblige" when he sacrifices his own banshee in order to inconvenience Edgar.

In the 2006 television series Kamen Rider Kabuto, Tsurugi Kamishiro learns about noblesse oblige from his butler, Jiiya. ("A noble act must be nobly returned") After working together with Arata Kagami, Tsurugi says, "Your Noblesse Oblige... your noble deed has touched me. Will you let me call you friend?" This returns in the following episode when Tsurugi wishes to repay Arata for his "Noble friendship."

In the 2009 anime Eden of the East, "noblesse oblige" seems to be both the motto of the Seleção (Chosen), as well as a recurring sign of things to come. Twelve under cover agents are each given ten billion yen to spend "for the good of the country". Their motto reminds them to spend their money wisely.


In the song "What do the Simple Folk Do" from the musical "Camelot," Gueneveire references the "folk not noblessly obliged."

See also

Sources

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