The Real Meaning of Noblesse Oblige

My favorite English teacher, a tough, old-fashioned, dedicated person named Miss Edna Stewart, spent an entire high school class period discussing the meaning and obligation of noblesse oblige. It was the motto of the National Honor Society, so she was trying to get the ethics of it through our thick skulls. It is the class period I have never forgotten.

Noblesse oblige literally translates to “nobility obligates.” It implies that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities; it is a moral obligation to act with honor, kindliness and generosity.

The term is often used sarcastically, implying that one is a hypocrite by doing a service because one has to, or by being condescending while doing it. My mother used to refer to that kind of attitude as being a “Lady Bountiful,” doing good deeds because you’re special, to make yourself feel better and make others feel bad at the same time.

For citizens of America, true noblesse oblige has nothing to do with high birth, power or prestige. True noblesse oblige is a responsibility for all of us who have been given the benefits of living in a free land, founded on the highest principles. If we, as a country, miss the mark, it is no reflection on the founding principles. It means we have the responsibility to use our energies and intelligence to return to basics and fix it.

When I was in college, I remember the speeches of John F. Kennedy, and how they touched each of us at depth. Every one of us wanted to serve the country, to make it better, to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Frankly, I felt that same way when I heard Barack Obama’s speech the evening of Super Tuesday. It brought tears to my eyes and made me want to be a better person.

A modern day mystic, Andrew Harvey, is teaching a concept called “Sacred Activism.” It doesn’t mean we all get on board and volunteer to solve one particular problem. What it does mean is that we seek to find the problem that breaks our heart, and then work like blue blazes to fix that. That may mean education, or health care, or violence in our communities, or any of a million other evils.

But it does mean that we enter into that true spirit of noblesse oblige–and do it. It is the only answer for our country, and our world.

First Lady Abigail Adams once wrote to her son, John Quincy Adams, “These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or in the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed…The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All history will convince you of this… Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherways lay dormant, wake into life, and form the character of the hero and the statesman.”

We do not need to be wealthy, or powerful, or president to be a hero. We merely need to act, with honor, and with a loving and ethical heart.

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29 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mary, your insights are inspiring, informative and fun to read! Thanks for sharing your gift of bringing the past alive and relevant to the here and now. Jackie

  2. Inspiring, informative and fun to read! The past becomes alive and relevant to the here and now!

  3. Mary, I really enjoyed the article on noblesse oblige. That little, old teacher did her job well. She was my teacher, too, as well as my mother’s. They don’t make teachers like her, anymore!

    Could it be that the lack of noblesse oblige in today’s society is a big part of our problem?

  4. What are 4 priciples of noblesse oblige ?

  5. your insights are awesome that was a great inspiration and information for me to write about an article regarding noblesse oblige good job thanks

  6. By your very words their implication is that Americans have been especially endowed and with a responsibility towards good-willed generosity – not only in international relations, but inward toward our own citizens. Scripture upholds these self-proclaimed vows and impresses upon us our duty as a Christian-spirited nation to do what we can with our abundance – nay, our essence. And our founding forefathers knew this. The same may be applied to us as individuals. Hence, ‘noblesse oblige.’ Jesus Christ, in His earthly days, was the best example we have. The root of it is, one gives of whatever talent he or she has been blessed with – to others, and with a genuine smile and contented heart. There are many blessings within the giving.

  7. Mary, you there? with comment?

  8. Ahhh – maybe you’re on a cruise! Been there, done that.
    Bob, Tucson

  9. The ‘clock’ is wrong on your blog-site: it’s 16:51 here in Arizona – and I posted my last blog over 8 hours ago. Get something fixed with your webmaster(!)

  10. Wow, that’s what I was looking for, what a stuff! present here at this web site, thanks admin of this web page.

    • Thank you, Matt! You are most kind.

  11. […] world has expanded to much more by now. I like how one special lady, Mary Achor, describes it in her weblog — this particular obligation expected from […]

  12. Thanks i was wondering what that ment.

  13. I rather enjoy when I see someone who understands that the obligation of those who have is not the clear cut, condescending thing it was to real aristocrats of past centuries. The funny thing is that anyone who lives in a free society, especially those who have the freedom to vote for their leaders, have this obligation and might not realize it. You and your teacher have put it into words I have been in search of for several years.

    • Thank you so very much, Michael!

    • Well said!

  14. Reblogged this on Michael Johnpoll and commented:
    There is a certain amount of truth here in these words.

  15. […] Mary Achor’s Weblog | The Richness of American History […]

  16. Wonderful encapsulation!! May I share with a group of wide eyed wonderers, that we’re grooming to rise to know the meaning of “to whom much is given, much is expected!!!! Thank you, Lillie Alexis

    • Of course, you may! It would be an honor for me.

  17. This post is wonderful — please consider republishing it for today’s circumstance. I am a lecturer reviewing events around the gilded age, may I use this post for my class? I would totally give you the credit as you deserve. Thank you.

    • Of course you may! It isn’t quite the Gilded Age, more like 1962…Let me look at it again.

  18. I love the jest of the complexity of the diddy, and the understanding of the entirety of the mentioned paragraphs~~~~
    A real explanation of the words…thnx

  19. Your crude use of the word “broad” really undermines the essay that follows. I’m disappointed that no one else thought to call out this tacky, vaguely sexist term.

    • You are exactly right. I apologize. Profusely.

      • I have fixed my error.


        Well, there are still many who recognize that choosing to take offense to an informal term regardless of context or intent doesn’t actually make it offensive. One could argue the popularity of such presumptuous, tiresomely attention-seeking slanders these days does a far better job of meeting the definition of “tacky”, and that the trigger-happy arrogance of modern armchair language policing hypocrites probably owes a lot to undeserved apologies and tribalistic competition for victim status. (Obama surely worked hard to deepen that mess too.)

      • Mary no apology needed.

  20. Thanks Mary. This touched a young man in Africa.

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