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Saturday morning quotes #48: Noblesse oblige

April 21, 2012

We normally steer clear of political commentary in our blog posts.  But spending so much time immersed in the aesthetics and the milieu of old music, one cannot blithely ignore the non-musical historical artifacts, attitudes and oddments that can and do have current relevance.  Today, as the world seems to be spinning out of control, it does no harm to insert the occasional reality check into our dialogue.

At least here in the States, every economic indicator suggests that we are heading for a new feudalism.  The oft-repeated information concerning the concentration of wealth held by one percent of our population should inspire thinking persons among us to shut down our electronic toys and crack open the history books.  A visit to the past might at least serve to prepare us for the new world order, which, it turns out, is not so new after all.

Taking a step back to view the larger canvas reveals that a major difference between the interaction of haves and have-nots then and now is in the distinct lack of obligation the wealthy display today toward those who, in the final analysis, provide the means of income for the comfortable.  The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines noblesse oblige (translated) as follows:

  1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
  2. One must act in a fashion that conforms to one’s position, and with the reputation that one has earned.

Our quotes are drawn from Jeanice Brooks‘ monograph, Courtly Song in Late Sixteenth-Century France, University Of Chicago Press; (Chicago, 2000).  This book should be required reading for anyone interested in the development of 16th century song for solo voice and lute in general, and the French air de cour specifically.  In describing the courtly background of the plentiful surviving laudatory odes and songs,  Brooks quotes François de L’Alouëtte from his Traité des nobles et des vertus dont ils sont formés (1577):

The first and principal sign of nobility is the virtuous, wise and generous action through which a man is recognized and judged to be a noble, that is to say excellent and remarkable by nature and origin, having more sense and industry than anyone else in faithfully and adroitly defending and preserving the state and the public good.

To support the concept of the obligation of the noble class, we reinforce with a quote by Elizabeth S. Teall excerpted from her article, “The Seigneur of Renaissance France: Advocate or Oppressor?” (The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Jun., 1965), pp. 131-150):

Whenever mention was made of the nobility of France in sixteenth-century sources, whether in praise or in blame, they were held accountable not only for the defense of the realm but also for the well-being of the countryside. They were to protect the poor from attack, guard them from oppression, and, where necessary, carry their plaints to the king. They should be the first recourse of the poor in time of need.

Brooks cites evidence of the example set by the noble class in fostering education and culture:

…Knowledge was particularly necessary for nobles and princes, for the moral excellence they attained through study would ensure the wisdom of their actions and thus the common good.

We ask, where can one see evidence today of that sense of responsibility on the part of the wealthy toward the common good?  The usual argument is that we now live in a classless society, and that opportunity exists for all to attain wealth through hard work and strength of character.  But when representatives of the wealthiest one percent are actively engaged in restricting opportunity by de-funding education and cultural pursuits, the usual argument is nothing more than a façade for a cynical con game.

  1. dwsdolce permalink

    Very well said.

  2. dwsdolce permalink

    Very well said. When we focus on nothing but wealth creation we loose all site of humanity and the common good.

  3. Very well put. Montaigne might have something to say as well.

  4. If I remember my history, it seems the wealthy in France in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century forgot about the common good – as did the Romanov’s in Early Twentieth Century Russia. As I recall, it didn’t turn out too well for either of them.

  5. Thanks for adding your point, Mark. I can only say, precisely.


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