Noblesse oblige is a French term that literally translates to “nobility obliges”, stating that those with wealth and power must also take responsibility of the society they lead. Also, it requires the nobles to show a high level of morality, acting out the duties of a citizen. The etymology of this term dates back to the 14th century in the French city of Calais during the Hundred Years’ War.
During the war, the city of Calais was under siege from the English army. They fought valiantly for a year but ultimately surrendered to the English. The English desired to execute every citizen for making them fight for so long, but considering the bad press they instead announced that they would let the citizens live on the condition that six people take responsibility for the battle and are executed for it. The citizens were in agony. Who would sacrifice their life to protect the lives and safety of the other citizens? At that moment, Calais’ wealthiest man, Saint Pierre, volunteered to be sacrificed. Following his brave act, five other bourgeois of Calais, including the rich, noble and lawyers, put up their hands and stated that they would gladly give up their lives for the city. Moved by this sacrificial spirit, the queen of England convinced Edward the Third (then English king) to cancel the execution and have mercy. This story became the foundation of the noblesse oblige spirit of “those who are noble should take responsibility first”.
Although it is a very touching story, it is also an uncommon one. Instead, it is much more common to hear stories of the upper class fleeing the country and protecting their own lives when their country is in peril. A true developed nation should have those who lead a wealthy life work harder for the country than regular citizens. We should not be following the social Darwinistic belief of survival of the fittest, but rather show harmony where the strong help out the weak. In the case of the Roman Empire, nobles believed that what set themselves apart from slaves was not their status, but their ability to carry out social duties, having great pride in practising noblesse oblige.
The most common example of noblesse oblige would be the rich giving money to charity, but there are other duties of a citizen other than paying taxes (a way of redistributing wealth). A citizen must respect and follow the law, vote to practise democracy, pay their taxes, receive education and much more (in some countries, conscription is a duty too).
When the Korean War broke out, the first chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, sent his first son to participate in the war. After his son was killed in action and many people asked him why he sent his own son to war, he replied: “How could I as a leader ask my people to send away their sons to war when I am not willing to send my own son away?”.
The higher your social status, the more wealth and power you have, you should thoroughly upkeep your duties as a citizen and help out so that everyone can live happily.
(Les Bourgeois de Calais by Auguste Rodin, a sculpture depicting the six nobles of Calais who stepped up to be executed)