Noblesse oblige

From Academic Kids

In French, noblesse oblige means, literally, nobility obliges. It is generally used to confer that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities.

Noblesse Oblige is the title of a collection of amusing articles on U and non-U English.

Contents

Origin

F. A. Kemble first used the term in 1837 when he wrote in a letter, “To be sure, if ‘noblesse oblige,’ royalty must do so still more.” The essence of noblesse oblige is that social (possibly legal) pressures compel nobility to act selflessly and for the good of all.

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. It has been used recently primarily to refer to public responsibilities of the rich, famous and powerful, notably to provide good examples of behavior or to exceed minimal standards of decency.

Example

In the book Athens on Trial, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts provides a perfect 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 that “The rich were understandably ambivalent about exercising this sort of ‘privilege,’ noblesse oblige could be very expensive.”

Alternative Usage

It has also been applied not only to those in any form of power, but to those who are capable of simple acts. If one is capable of doing a task to benefit another, one is obligated to do so.

Sources

  • 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.
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