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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 says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honorable 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.
Meaning and variants
"Noblesse oblige" is generally used to imply that with wealth, power, and prestige come responsibilities. 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.
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!" 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.
"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
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 his 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 Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot, the phrase is used (in a rather unique way) in the song "What do the simple folk do?": "When they're beset and besieged / The folk not noblessly obliged / However do they manage to shed their weary lot? / Oh, what do the simple folk do, we do not?"
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.
In the Daria episode "Is It College Yet?", Daria fails to get into the same college as her boyfriend, Tom Sloane. He offers to have his parents (who are friends with the college's dean) to write a recommendation letter. She responds with "Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as noblesse oblige." Noblesse Oblige is the club motto of Mayfield United Football Club on the northside of Cork City. The club was founded in 1971 by Ernest O'Mahony & Joe Kennedy.
- 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.