My favorite English teacher, a tough, old-fashioned broad 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.