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What was Noblesse Oblige? asks John Davie

Blog | By John Davie | Mar 15, 2024

French horseman-Dumoulin

The phrase Noblesse Oblige first appears in a Balzac novel, Le Lys dans la Vallée (1836). An elderly aristocrat tries to sum up for a younger friend how to live.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘Noble ancestry constrains to honourable behaviour; privilege entails responsibilities.’

Why is the concept originally French?

It’s related to the idea of chivalry, the word itself deriving from the French word for horseman, chevalier (from the late- Latin caballarius). This word doubled as a term for a member of a higher social class, as it did with the Greeks and Romans.

The code of chivalry, familiar to us from Arthur’s knights and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, dated from the end of the 12th century, but was never codified. It derived from the medieval Christian institution of knighthood and was popularised in medieval literature.

The code of chivalry originated in the Holy Roman Empire, deriving from the idealisation of the cavalryman, especially in Francia, where Charlemagne’s horse soldiers were such a potent force. By the late Middle Ages, chivalry had become a moral system that combined knightly piety, warrior ethos and courtly manners. This created the sense of honour and nobility that underlines Balzac’s famous phrase.

Dr Johnson saw as a source of nobility Aristotle’s notion of ‘the great-hearted man’, whose magnanimity embraced generosity of spirit as well as valour. As early as the Iliad, Homer’s Sarpedon understood the concept, telling Glaucus they enjoy royal privileges because they lead by example in battle.

Alexander the Great lived by this principle and his troops loved him for it. The Roman aristocrat Regulus endured a lingering death rather than break an oath he had given to his Carthaginian captors.

Modern democracies have understandable difficulty with the concept of nobility, preferring to admire it from afar in plays or historical novels.

Remember Burke’s words to the House of Commons on the death of Marie Antoinette: ‘I had thought ten thousand swords would have leaped from their scabbards. But the age of chivalry is dead, and that of sophisters, calculators and economists is upon us.’

Still, the men who went out to govern the British Empire continued to read the Greeks and Romans at school. Few would have admired the selfish morality of Achilles or his Roman counterpart Coriolanus. Cicero’s advice to a future governor may have been preferred: ‘The first duty of a governor is to ensure the happiness of the governed.’

Modern aristocrats have not always behaved well. None of Stephen Ward’s grand clients would testify for him at his 1963 trial during the Profumo affair.

But the public schools of today still believe in doing service to those less fortunate and in making pupils aware that ‘privilege entails responsibilities’ – a memory of Noblesse Oblige.

John Davie

John Davie was head of classics at St Paul’s School, London, and a lecturer at Trinity College, Oxford. He is co-author of Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever