Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning "nobility obliges".
The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines it thus:
The phrase itself is as redolent as a Christmas kitchen. "Noblesse oblige" suggests class differences, wealth differences. It hints and suggests at both arrogance and white-whiny-ness. It echoes with the reasons that "old money" once disdained the up-and-coming bourgeoisie which had lots of money but no class ... the mediocrities that could overwhelm whatever honor and decency that aristocracies imagined they had ... and sometimes actually did have.
- Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
- (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms to one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned.
Who knows -- perhaps the phrase even inspired Karl Marx with his "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs."
Nobility suggests a separation from what is ignoble and crass and vain and base, and yet in ordinary hands nobility displays all of those characteristics. For many, if not most, being noble basically means being "right."
This morning it occurs to me that everyone has a desire and a capacity for nobility that goes beyond the acquiescence and applause of others... that there is some seed within. True, that seed may fall on rocky soil and never flower but still ... even in Chrisitanity, the devil comes from angelic stock.
Perhaps this is all idealistic hogwash, but I guess I hold on to the notion that everyone would like to find their peace in a place that required no applause, no elevation, no school-tie gatherings, no tattoos and beer in a Tennessee roadhouse, no muttering mullahs, no Washington or Wall Street finagling. More than a flimsy, vaunted altruism, this is a nobility that no religion can claim. One man shakes another man's hand; one passerby picks up a piece of wandering litter; one stalk of celery blooms in early summer.
As a social matter, nobility is dubious.
As a personal matter, it goes beyond even obligation.
It is obligatory without the obligation.
And it is happy.