Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Noblesse Oblige

Among my many debts to Dorothy L. Sayers I must include my introduction to the phrase “noblesse oblige.” I was reading her novels as a young teenager, and the concept was as new to me in reality as the name was. It was only in college that I ran suddenly up against (and became convinced of the reality of) class distinctions.

To anyone who had watched me grow up this would probably sound nonsensical. As a child I encountered people from many and much more varied backgrounds—social, racial, economic, religious—than I did at my college, which could be called (though it never called itself) exclusive, elite, and cloistered. The college was a certain sort of place and attracted a very definite sort of person; but it would have been a mistake to suppose that because we students were similar and, despite our cliques, formed a tightly-knit circle against the outside world, our student body was therefore homogeneous. Despite the surface similarities between myself and many of my fellow students, there were a number of them with whom I not only did not but positively could not get along. As a child, on a team or in a play with everybody and his bad, bad brother, I would have accepted the differences unquestioningly. We were always different, my family from others. But at a school were everyone ought to have been at least potentially my friend, there were barriers? It shocked me at first. The absence of the clearest markers of class made me all the more aware of the deeper, more genuine ones.

What were those markers? What was the hidden divisor between myself and those superficially very similar students? In the end it came down to manners. There are some people who go through life blissfully unaware of their effect, their impression on others. (Whether this condition is actually blissful is a good question, if a question for another time.) This can be, of course, the result of temperament; when it is, we usually say with a tolerant shrug that the sufferer is “absent-minded.” But there are other kinds of “absent-mindedness.” There is the kind that grumbles loudly at inconveniences which other people suffer in silence. The kind that carelessly assumes similar viewpoints in everything from football to the State of the Union. The kind that tells all in public cell phone conversations. The kind that asks all when they note the presence—or absence; Christians also may be guilty—of children in your home. The kind that will suffer no fools. The kind that drops words the FCC, for all its degeneration, still frowns on. The kind that importunes to give or to demand aid—in short, the Rudesbys of the world, Malvolios and Falstaffs both. On a good day we may laugh at them; but we ought never to shrug.

For the real fault of all these people is not that their manners are déclassé, vulgar, unfit for the drawing room (they are all those things), but that they are unfit anywhere. They lack charity. In a world where nine out of ten persons agreed with them in disposition and lack of sensitivity—. Oh, but even then, I would ask a little forbearance for the tenth. Moreover, setting aside hypotheticals, speech of the vulgar man’s “lack of sensitivity” is grossly misleading. He is sensitive, sensitive on his own ground, and sensitive to a fault. It is almost solely in this that his real flaw lies: that he is inconsistently sensitive. He will speak in four letter words, and be hurt when someone takes his language home. And he will not understand.

But we who do—we who do cringe at sounds and sights and smells grown common—ours is still the duty of noblesse oblige. For the paradox of the thing is that those who are best able to rise above the evils of a class are most seriously enjoined to bear them—not to practice them, but to tolerate them, to turn a blind eye to them. As the vulgar man is both more and less sensitive than he should be, the noble one is both more and less sensitive than is easy for any man to be.

There is a concept closely allied to that of noblesse oblige; it has no name today, but it once went by “condescension.” I suspect people who laugh at Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice now often laugh for the wrong reasons. When he speaks of “the infinite condescension” of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, we find it funny because he seems to be ascribing to her a quality which no one could honestly admire. He is in fact being very funny indeed, but not in that way. “Condescension” did not at the time imply a looking down on; its meaning was much closer to that of its Latin root: “I go down to” or “I descend with.” When a person is described as “condescending,” the implication is that they are willing to meet people on their own level, to be friendly or (another word that has changed sense) “amiable” with those who are socially or intellectually their inferiors. This Lady Catherine is not; and this is what makes Mr. Collin’s hopelessly laudatory speeches so amusing. (It is perhaps an honest objection that the advocate of Lady Catherine makes here, that she could not be expected to meet many less worthy people to condescend to.)

The concepts of noblesse oblige and condescension are allied: broadly speaking both concern the appropriate, the Christian, the charitable response to an inferior. “Inferior” need not be a word of denigration here: obviously I have spent a great deal of time in this essay carping about inferiority of class, which today as in many past societies means primarily what is also called “breeding.” It is true that both words are commonly used in this context, where “inferior” is pejorative; but it need not be so. The condescension may be toward those of equal breeding but lesser financial means; toward those of equal means but lesser abilities; toward those of equal abilities but lesser confidence, and so on. These inferiorities can be equally marked, but are nearly always less blamable. (Perhaps too bad manners are not always to be blamed on their possessors—not completely—and it is part of noblesse oblige to remember that.)

Lest anyone be feeling at this point that I have disobliged him—lest anyone sense a tone of snobbery—I should here add one important fact: that noblesse oblige, reaches its most impressive height when one accepts graciously the noblesse oblige of another. If you will take my preaching with generosity and good humor, you are by that very fact marking your superiority to myself (I do carp now and then, don’t I?) and showing your nobility. It is a convenient doctrine for a writer, but no less true for all that . . .

I am somewhat at a loss as to how to end this essay. Properly speaking, I suppose, it might have ended with the previous paragraph; but it seems incomplete. That defense of noblesse oblige is open to the charge of being farcical in tone if not faulty in logic; so kind a concept deserves a better defense than that.

There is one shining example of noblesse oblige—or perhaps I should again use condescension; the theologians had a tendency to do that. “For God so loved the world, that He gave us His only Son . . .”

That is noblesse oblige with a vengeance; that is condescension, “going down with.” I have always been rather impressed by the phrase “descended into hell” in the creed; given my own instincts and experiences, perhaps I ought to have been more impressed by the descent to earth. Of course God is infinitely our superior; He is no egoist to recognize it, any more than we are egoists for recognizing our—very limited—superiority to Rudesby. On the contrary, where our recognition almost invariably terminates in the sin of pride, God’s could not be proudful: His perfection is so complete that He is as incapable of that sin as He is of every other. That flattering noble image which we tend to erect, and erect horrendously badly, of ourselves inside ourselves—that image has its glorious original in our Architect; and we will never get the pattern right unless we study by Him, and let Him, as much as He will, construct it. We by our very nature are the same vulgar, abusive, self-important little egos that we find so readily in others; and yet—and this is the other half to noblesse oblige—He will not only take up with us, but also take us up. He will require us to become alter Christi, to practice noblesse oblige with Him towards others. And we will never be misled as to the meaning of the phrase when we remember that the real account of our nobility, and the obligation it creates, and the descent that we have undertaken, consists first and foremost in stooping beneath a cross.


  1. Dear Miss Saturday,

    Let me first say how much I enjoyed reading your essay, and further say that it sounded less like carping and more like thoughtful consideration—both in your reasoned prose and respectful tone. Most of all I appreciated your straightforward accounting of the importance of class, and the way in which it really does oblige us to accommodate our actions. In a society which strives (and fails) to homogenize everyone and everything into a single egalitarian strata, there is something refreshingly honest (and honorable) about a frank acknowledgment of the merits and demands of hierarchy. Despite our pretensions to the contrary, it is simply not the case that ontological equality automatically translates into practical equality; yet nevertheless, we spend an awful lot of time trying to act as if this were actually the case, and in so doing we render a great disservice to the noblesse oblige which I think we all instinctively sense and long for.

    Moreover, your assessment of Mr. Collins is spot on. Whenever he speaks of condescension he does so with that kind of feigned humility, which—in a backhanded way—is an attempt to assert his own superiority. To this point, it eventually becomes clear that Mr. Collins even believes that he somehow *merits* the attentions of Lady Catherine. Despite his scrupulously rehearsed flattery, and obnoxious attempts to conduct himself as a model subordinate, we see—due to his very high opinion of his own vocation—that he places no limits whatsoever on the level of society into which he will insinuate himself. Presumption may well be the converse of condescension, but unfortunately for Mr. Collins he seems to understand the former as little as the latter.

    I was also quite intrigued by the following sentiments, and thought immediately of Mr. Knightley when I read them: "Those who are best able to rise above the evils of a class are most seriously enjoined to bear them—not to practice them, but to tolerate them, to turn a blind eye to them." I think Mr. Knightley exemplifies this maxim in the very best way. While he bears Frank Churchill's fickleness and foolishness with silence and grace, never ceasing to extend to him the attentions due a gentleman, this does not prevent him from doing his duty by Emma. As a friend he cautions her with regard to Mr. Churchill's character, and does not fail to chastise her when their antics are taken too far. Mr. Knightley seems to strike the perfect balance between forbearing with the flaws of a mere acquaintance, while still offering counsel and correction to his intimates. He is my favorite of Jane Austen's male characters.

    Thanks again for a wonderful read!

    Kind Regards,


    P.S. I think you closed the essay very well with your reflections on the infinite condescension of the Incarnation.

  2. Brian,

    Awfully glad you enjoyed it--and that it didn't sound carping! (The truth is so rarely simple from a human point of view that it's hard to make it come across at all well . . .)

    Mr. Knightley is my favorite too--way ahead of Mr. Darcy, in this regard at least.