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Noblesse oblige

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Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning " nobility obliges".

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 to one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honorable behaviour; 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.

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 is sometimes applied more broadly to suggest a general obligation for the more fortunate to help the 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.

The meaning as derived from the Introduction of the book "Facing Mount Kenya" by Jomo Kenyatta, the then prof. of Anthropology B. Malinowski of the Department of Anthropology University of London in 1965 wrote that... "The Mismanagement of the "Chinese Incident" is uniting the World of coloured People against the Western Influence and above all against Great Britain and the United States, for even to one who is Black, Brown or Yellow."Noblesse Oblige". Which indicates to the others who were not from these mentioned Worlds had the Obligation to the White person as Nobles. On the context on of the same as seen in the eyes of the Medieval Europe the commoners had the obligation in class societies that they then lived in to treat the Land Owners Nobles due to their virtue wealth and class standing.

History and examples

Figurative armories of "de Mortsauf" in Le lys dans la Vallée by Honouré 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", written in 1835 and published in 1836, Honouré 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 advices 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.

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 Honour Society, 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!"

The musical Me and My Girl contains a scene where the Cockney Bill Snibson mis-reads his family motto of noblesse oblige. The Duchess Maria corrects him and reminds him of new obligations as an aristocrat. Now drunk, the portraits of his ancestors appear to awaken, singing a song reminding him of his duties, a refrain of noblesse oblige forming the chorus.

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."

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 her sense of duty to protect the nobility of France, especially when addressing the villainous Paul Chauvelin in the 1982 London Film Productions movie.

In the 1972 movie The Ruling Class, Inspector Brockett concludes his investigation of the murder of Lady Claire at the Gurney Estate by announcing to his hosts: "You've shown me what 'noblesse oblige' really means." The line is delivered after he has arrested the butler based on his possession of communist writings. The overall effect is to portray the authorities as lackeys to a reckless aristocracy.

In a Japanese Anime show "Eden of the East", Juiz, a robotic secretary would always end a phone call with "Noblesse Oblige, I pray for your continuing service as a savior" after someone would make a request.

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