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Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning "obligation of Nobility". It is the concept that nobility extends beyond mere entitlements and requires the person with such status to fulfill social responsibilities, particularly in leadership roles.
The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines it thus:
- Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
- (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 meanwhile says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honorable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility."
Meaning and variants
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
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 confidential 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, 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!"
Noblesse oblige, while seeming to impose on the nobility a duty to behave nobly, thereby apparently gives the aristocracy a justification for their privilege. Their argument is "as nobles, we have rights, but we have duties also; so such duties validate our rights". The jurists Dias and Hohfeld have pointed out that that rights and duties are jural correlatives,  which means that if someone has a right, someone else owes a duty to him. This reasoning of Dias' was used in Murphy v Brentwood DC to disapprove Lord Denning MR's judgment in Dutton v Bognor Regis UDC.
- http://artfl.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic31/contextualize.pl?p.35.balzac.304818.304827 University of Chicago ARTFL project
- (English translation: Lily of the Valley)
- Dias - "Jurisprudence" 1976
- The Oxford English Dictionary (1989). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert. Athens on Trial: The antidemocratic tradition in western thought. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982). London Film Productions Limited. 2003 DVD ID#191LFDVD.