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What is Noblesse Oblige?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Spiderman lives by a distinct code of behavior, especially in films, he is reminded constantly of the dictates of his uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This theme is great to find in a comic book or a superhero movie, and far predates any thought of sudden super strength or radioactive spiders. It is essentially the concept of noblesse oblige, the idea that those with special gifts must use those gifts at least in part to help others less fortunate.

Noblesse oblige is a French term, roughly translating to nobility or royalty obligates. In other words, the fortunate must help the poorer classes. The idea is suggested by French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac in his 1836 novel The Lily of the Valley (Le Lys dans la Vallée), with the concept presented that an honorable or noble person helps others not out of a sense of self-aggrandizement or to be praised for their charity work, but simply because it is right to do so. Again, nobility obligates, and those who are honorable naturally look to committing charitable acts because it is part of their moral code.

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The idea of noblesse oblige was a popular one in America. Andrew Carnegie, in his essay The Gospel of Wealth, suggests the wealthy have an obligation to use their money for the public good instead of indulging significantly in life’s luxuries. Carnegie, especially in later life, practiced what he preached, by dedicating much of his money to the building of free libraries across the United States so all Americans could have access to reading materials.

Unfortunately in Carnegie’s actions, we tend to see the backhand of noblesse oblige. His millions were made on the backs of workers who were treated extremely poorly. Instead of directing this noble thought to helping the poor in more concrete ways, by helping those he employed, he made large charitable gestures where smaller gestures over a lifetime might have been more appropriate to his workers. Undoubtedly, building the public library system in America is worthy of praise, but you have to evaluate how the money invested in this worthy cause was made.

This is why you will often see noblesse oblige used in a sarcastic way. When contributions or help are not particularly helpful, or done in a way that is meant to improve the image of a person with money, charity emerges in its worst form. True charitable intent, if it is to be noble, does not come from a sense that a person wants praise for being charitable. Instead it is quiet charity or help, the reason why Spiderman wears a mask or Clark Kent hides behind his glasses; help doesn’t seek fame but is offered because it is the right thing to do. If you ever look at lists of donations to charities, you may note many large donations from people who remain anonymous, a type of noblesse oblige in its purest form.

The other way in which noblesse oblige may be viewed in a sardonic light is when the person helping makes the people helped fully aware of class distinctions or lower standing. It is why so many won’t accept charity. When the person donating makes the other person feel bad about needing help, it’s an ugly way of helping, which people in need may want to avoid.

It should be understood that noblesse oblige in present day doesn’t necessarily relate to a rich ruling class. Helping other people can come in various forms. A sense of the duty of fellow humans to each other, no matter what their social class, can characterize modern forms of noble obligation. Running an errand for a neighbor who is housebound, volunteering in all its forms, and simply showing kindness to others because it is right to do so is an idea that far predates Balzac’s comments. In its truest and most beautiful form of obligation to others, people view the world as one where all humans are responsible for each other and help each other, as each person is able.

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bythewell
Post 3
@browncoat - Maybe there is a perfect society out there somewhere where class isn't an issue, but I'm not aware of it if there is. We live in a world where some people are rich and a lot of people are poor. Class exists.

And yes, I think that because class exists then noblesse oblige should also exist. In a perfect world all resources might be evenly distributed, but they aren't. So the people who happen to have more because of an accident of birth should feel an obligation to give to those who haven't got enough.

There's no use in pretending that there aren't people around who, in financial terms, are superior to others. It's only one aspect of life, but it is the one that is relevant to this concept.

browncoat
Post 2

@pastanaga - I'll agree that everyone should be kind and generous as much as they are able, but I still think the idea of noblesse oblige is a good one once you separate it from class. Some people are more gifted than others at certain things. I think that should mean that they are obliged to use their talents to help those less fortunate.

Which doesn't mean that the less fortunate aren't fortunate in other ways and can do their own helping as well.

pastanaga
Post 1

I read an interesting argument about this recently, where someone was suggesting that the entire concept is flawed because it assumes that one person is superior over another. So if you feel that you have noblesse oblige, by definition you think that you are above the people that you think deserve your charity.

It's that kind of class mindset where they take it for granted that they are better than everyone else and the only real debate is what responsibilities that gives them. If we all just helped each other regardless of whether one person was more gifted or not, then the world would be a better place.

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