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Noblesse oblige (/ /; French: [nɔblɛs ɔbliʒ]) is a French expression used in English. It translates as "nobility obliges" and denotes the concept that nobility extends beyond mere entitlements and requires the person who holds such a status to fulfill social responsibilities. For example, a primary obligation of a nobleman could include generosity towards those around him.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behaviour; privilege entails responsibility."
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 privileges with which one has been born, bestowed and/or has earned.
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 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 hero 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 advice had included comments like "others will respect you for detesting people who have done detestable things."
Noblesse oblige, while seeming to impose on the nobility a duty to behave nobly, conveniently provides the aristocracy with an apparent justification for their privilege. This argument is "as nobles, we have rights, but we have duties also; and such duties thereby validate our rights". By contrast, jurists such as Mickey Dias and Hohfeld have pointed out that rights and duties are jural corelatives,  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 District Council (1991) to disapprove Lord Denning MR's judgment in Dutton v Bognor Regis Urban District Council (1972).
- The Gospel of Wealth
- Mandate of Heaven
- The White Man's Burden
- National Honor Society (USA)
- With great power comes great responsibility
- (English translation: Lily of the Valley)
- Lawrie, Lee, Lee Lawrie: Sculpture, J.H. Jansen, Cleveland, Ohio, 1936
- Masters, Margaret Dale, Hartley Burr Alexander: Writer-in-Stone, Jacob North Printing Company, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1992, pp. 54-55
- Dias, Reginald Walter Michael (1976). Jurisprudence. OCLC 2668655.
- Oxford English Dictionary (1989). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert (1994). Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691029191.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (film, 1982). London Film Productions Limited. 2003 DVD ID#191LFDVD.