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Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning “nobility obliges”.
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.1 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. It has also been used to describe a person taking the blame for something in order to solve an issue or save someone else.
History and examples
Imaginary armories of “de Mortsauf” in Le lys dans la Vallée by Honoré de Balzac
An early instance of this concept in literature may be found in Homer’s Iliad. In Book XII, the Trojan prince Sarpedon delivers a famous speech in which he urges his comrade Glaucus to fight with him in the front ranks of battle. In Pope’s translation, Sarpedon exhorts Glaucus thus: “’Tis ours, the dignity they give to grace / The first in valour, as the first in place; / That when with wondering eyes our martial bands / Behold our deeds transcending our commands, / Such, they may cry, deserve the sovereign state, / Whom those that envy dare not imitate!”
In “Le Lys dans la vallée”,2 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 word: 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. 3
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,4 which cites its purpose is to convey “fulfilling their obligations through service to others.”
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”.
“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
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!”
Noblesse oblige is the motto of Calasanctius College (Ireland) and Colvin Taluqdars’ College (India). The final stanza of Colvin’s College Song is “Forgetting not our motto to perform noble deeds; Of pursuing our aim and serve our nation’s needs; Colvinians do your duty, be loyal, just and true; Our College and our country expect this of you.”
In the first act of Johann Strauss, Jr.‘s Operetta, “Die Fledermaus”, When Gabriel Eisenstein’s wife, Rosalinde, shows confusion at his intention to wear dress evening clothes to prison, he exclaims “Noblesse oblige!”
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.” Heinlein 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 April 2009, a Japanese animated TV series titled Higashi no Eden or Eden of the East, uses the term to identify phones given to the characters as part of a social experiment which grant vast amounts of money and the resources to do almost anything they wish. Those who have the Noblesse Oblige phones are given the mission of using their new found status to bring about stability to Japan in whatever manner they deem necessary. The term Noblesse Oblige also serves as a warning to those taking part that they are not to use their power and influence for selfish personal desires and only for the good of their country lest they be ‘removed from the game’.
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts uses the phrase disparagingly in his majority opinion concerning the government’s assertion that it will selectively prosecute animal cruelty videos based on their own interpretation of The First Amendment in United States v. Stevens.
Baroness Orczy’s character The Scarlet Pimpernel often uses the phrase to describe his sense of duty to protect the nobility of France.