It was just another sleepy spring day in sophomore English class, some 40 years ago, when I was tapped for National Honor Society. I may still have the little pin in a box somewhere, along with a certificate bearing the NHS motto – two simple French words that at the time made no sense to me whatsoever:

“Noblesse oblige.”

The translation is straightforward enough: “nobility obliges.” For a service-oriented organization like the NHS, it simply suggests that those students graced with skills and/or talents also bore some kind of responsibility to use their gifts for the benefit of their communities. So NHS members do a wide variety of service projects – car washes, food drives, community cleanups, that kind of thing. Obligations recognized and discharged, right?

But when you get out into the real world and start digging into history, unsurprisingly, the idea becomes complicated. There are plenty of questions: Who is in this “nobility,” anyway? What kind of “obligations”? Towards whom? For what end?

As our society becomes increasingly stratified, with burgeoning inequality in income and wealth, perhaps we should be re-examining the relationships among our classes (and don’t let anyone tell you this is a classless society). Should this ideal of noblesse oblige form a part of that relationship? Is it still present in our modern “nobility,” or does it need to be revitalized, or redefined?

The phrase harks back to when barons and dukes still wielded power from their ornate European households. The notion among the privileged of a code of honor (including the protection of the less fortunate) comes from the days of chivalry – but I suspect this particular idea may not have reflected some altruistic ideal so much as acknowledgment of a practical reality. After all, if a noble didn’t attend properly to the needs of those whose labors helped make his luxury possible, he could find himself in quite a bit of trouble. For the sake of social cohesion as well as their own well-being, the upper classes realized, to some extent, that excessive greed or selfishness were not necessarily desirable traits.

Later, some in the higher strata of society saw that even greater possibilities were within reach – not just to maintain, but actually improve the lot of workers. Andrew Carnegie, in his famous essay known as “The Gospel of Wealth,” makes a strong case for responsible philanthropy, and for utilizing excess wealth to lift people out of poverty by providing opportunities.

As capitalism became global, so did the idea of noblesse oblige – but it took on the sense of “the white man’s burden,” the imperialist notion that Westerners had a “divine mission” to “enlighten” the “benighted savages” of their territories. This perspective led to practices, such as the aboriginal “residential schools” in Australia, that we now see as terrible mistakes.

Now there is a lively debate over the nature of, and indeed the need for, philanthropy. Not surprisingly, some of Ayn Rand’s followers pooh-pooh Carnegie’s theories of largesse, or even that the wealthy have any obligations to the rest of society at all. Ralph Nader, on the other hand, takes the concept to its extreme in his novel Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! – in which a group of wealthy people, led by Warren Buffett, unite to free American democracy from corruption.

But here’s one thought: Perhaps the true obligation of the upper classes to the rest of humanity is not benign neglect, or a patronizing dribble of crumbs, or even some gung-ho activism – but rather to stop and question the very nature of their “noblesse,” and the system that has conferred such extraordinary privilege upon them.

After all, it is not really nobility, but rather humanity, that obliges.


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