Vol. XXIX No. 2 — February 1951

Noblesse Oblige

“Literally, ‘nobility obliges’; a phrase implying that nobility of birth makes a certain standard of conduct obligatory.” (Standard Dictionary)

The phrase in its French form was apparently first used in 1808 by the Duc de Levis, in his Maxims. Emerson explained it, “Superior advantages bind you to larger generosity.” But the thought behind the phrase is much older. Aeschylus said, “Relationship compels.” Euripides phrased it, “The nobly born must nobly meet their fate.”

The relationship of the phrase to any philosophy, religion or fraternity — Freemasonry in particular — should be obvious. But the deeper meanings of noblesse oblige, as far as Freemasons are concerned, may be the easier to digest after some examination.

What is this “nobility of birth” which obliges one who has it to act by a special standard of conduct? As long ago as 1330 a ditty recited:

When Adam delved and Eve span
Where was then the gentleman?

An ancient Scottish epitaph reads:

John Carnegie lies here,
Descended from Adam and Eve;
If any can boast of a pedigree higher
He will willingly give them leave!

and Stevenson — our own R. L. S. — with his delightful pen punctured the pretensions of noble blood by writing, “Each has his own tree of ancestors, but at the top of all sits Probably Arboreal”!

Nevertheless, society is so constructed that the idea of a class above all others — a superior section of mankind — has been a powerful force in the world. The ancient Romans had their patricians; England, the age of chivalry, had its Sir Knights, its squires and its varlets; the feudal system was headed by lords and staffed by commoners.

Comes then the word gentleman - not, as too commonly supposed, a running together of gentle and man but a contraction of gentilhomme — a French word descriptive of him who was by birth, breeding and finances above “the common herd.” Gentleman in England was contracted to gentry as a class opposed to peasants or commoners. William Harrison wrote in the thirteenth century of how gentlemen were made in the days of Shakespeare:

Whosoever studieth the laws of the realm, who so abideth in the university, giving his mind to his book, or professeth physic and the liberal sciences, or beside his service in the room of a captain in the wars, or good counsel given at home, whereby his commonwealth is benefited, can live without manual labour, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for money have a coat and arms bestowed upon him by heralds (who in the charter of the same do of custom pretend antiquity and service, and many gay things) and thereunto being made so good cheap be called master, which is the title that men give to esquires and gentlemen, and reputed for a gentleman ever after. No man hath hurt by it but himself, who peradventure will go in wider buskins than his legs will bear, or as our proverb saith, now and then bear a bigger sail than his boat is able to sustain.

Kings and queens could not let so effective a system of rewards and punishments go without contributing; hence the creation of nobles and ladies by rulers, or withholding such titles, has been an age-long practice. Give a man a title, plenty of lands and money, and let him uphold his government and his ruler, and his descendants will in the natural course of things come to consider themselves a race apart! As it is human for most people to accept men at their own valuation, the inevitable result was the class idea; the nobleman, the knight, the lord of the manor, the better educated, the better provided for, made a superior race, the history of which shows great contributions to human welfare and as great departures from the character supposedly possessed by the nobleman-by-birth!

More than one rite of Freemasonry had its origin — either actually or by adoption — in the beginning of the age of chivalry. The Knight Templars perpetuate the crusaders who tried for so many years and so fruitlessly, to win the grave of Jesus from its holders and to make the Holy City of Jerusalem a part of the so-called Christian world. The Red Cross of Constantine is another Masonic order founded upon somewhat the same thought as was the Order of Knights Hospitalers.

In all these original groups a chivalry gradually arose which was to permeate — by one means or another — the whole theory and practice of knighthood. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King gives a beautiful picture of knighthood at its best; the legends of Sir Galahad and the Quest of the Holy Grail, perhaps brought to its most beautiful fulfillment in Wagner’s Parsival, all paint similar canvasses.

The Sir Knight of the Middle Ages was brave; he was courteous; he was compassionate of the weak; he reverenced womanhood (some were vowed to chastity) he was ever setting lance in rest to go against odds in the protection of the helpless; he was trustworthy; he was “for God and King” first and himself last; he believed mightily in the might of right as against the might of arms, even while he strove mightily with arms to maintain the right. If his legendary powers and conquests have given us many delightfully incredible fairy stories, they have also left an indelible imprint upon civilized society as to what makes a human male into a gentleman.

All this has been boiled down, pushed together compressed and served in a phrase — noblesse oblige.

In the United States, from the very beginning, we have drawn away from the idea of a class among men dependent upon anything except ability, character and accomplishment. The colonials brought the idea of the English “gentry” with them, and America still possesses its Brahmins in certain centers. But as a whole the American people believe that a man should stand on his own feet, and that his value to his neighbors, town, state, nation, is in what he actually is and what he actually can do, rather than for what his ancestors might have been and what in the way of property he secured through the efforts of his forebears.

The Declaration of Independence states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It was a clarion cry to the world against class, as brave as it is inconceivable that aristocrats like Washington and his compeers believed that “free and equal” meant anything but freedom to accomplish and equality before the law.

Regardless of what we profess, there still is class to be found in this country; the class of accomplishment, the class of wealth, the class of education, and the class of those who, by adoption of, belief in, and practice of a certain school of life and conduct, think themselves different from their fellows.

Ask a Freemason if he thinks himself better than his fellows and, if he gives an honest answer, it will be, “Yes, I do!” But if his meaning is probed it is that he thinks himself “better able to serve,” “better able to understand the troubles of his fellows,” “better in that he has been taught and has absorbed a very high standard of conduct.”

The idea of class in America reaches one of its best developments in lodge and grand lodge. In lodge the class set apart from others is composed of the officers and past masters. They are “set apart” not by virtue of inherent worth, but because of the labor they unselfishly give to their brethren. They have been offered a greater opportunity and thus had a better chance to give; therefore, each is recognized as “a man under authority” as Matthew puts it.

In grand lodge the officers and past grand masters form a class; unfortunately, too many brethren “under authority” confuse the class in grand lodge which comes from the most devoted of service, with that which in the world outside is rooted in less worthy causes. In grand lodge there is often too much thought of “we” and “they” — “we” being the delegates and “they” being the officers and past grand masters. If the delegates could look into the hearts of those they call “they” no such feeling would exist. Nevertheless it is there.

Because it is there, noblesse oblige is an important part of a Grand Lodge officers life and that of a past grand master. “The obligation of the nobility” presses upon given him and therefore much is expected of him.

This he should not — and very seldom does — find difficult. For a Mason learns instinctively of the noblesse oblige which must follow him in his daily life, merely because he is a Freemason. A Freemason has passed the test of a committee. He has received the unanimous approval of his fellows that he becomes one with them in the mystic circle which is a lodge. Only one dead of spirit and sodden of soul can fail to feel pride in these facts; and it is pride which makes noblesse oblige — pride in what a man is, and therefore pride in making the world value it.

Noblesse oblige follows the Freemason in his contacts with business, society and government. The Freemasons own version of noblesse oblige is to “act by the square;” to do nothing seen or unseen which is not “good work, true work, square work,” whether the work be building a house or building a reputation for himself or his friends.

The welfare state — such as England is now — apparently was conceived by those who wanted to practice noblesse oblige to the “little man” the “man in the street” the farmer, laborer, worker. This Bulletin holds no brief for or against such an action by constituted authority and no pronouncement is here made as to its value or evil. The point here made is that noblesse oblige certainly means that those who have much, whether of money or privilege or position, should give something from their plenty to those who have less. That is at least the theory behind the welfare state. It is for each of us to make up his own mind as to how far the “obligation of the nobility” goes beyond the individual, and whether or not governmental practice of the doctrine is desirable.

The whole charitable formula of modern society is an example of the practice of noblesse oblige. We support and contribute to the Red Cross. We do not do so because we imagine that it will ever have to come to our assistance, but because we know that disasters do overtake mankind, and our natural human, sympathetic attitude of mind desires an agency which may make our “obligation of the nobility” effective. The hospital work of The Masonic Service Association is noblesse oblige in action; grand lodges, lodges and brethren have not given money to the M.S.A., even unto the millions, for their brethren in arms and those now in hospitals for any reason whatever of selfishness. Such an outpouring is caused wholly by that sense of the obligation resting upon all Freemasons to act as Freemasons are taught to act, by the tenet of brotherly love.

The Freemason who is conscious of noblesse oblige will never “play politics” (ugly words!) in his lodge. He will vote for, and only for, that candidate for office whom he believes to be best fitted to serve the whole.

He will never use the black cube in balloting for any but the highest reasons; not for him the negative ballot for spite, to “get even” with someone or the lodge, or even to keep from membership a good man who may not be either well known or well-liked by the voter. The ethics behind the ballot have been thoroughly discussed in these columns (November 1929) and need not be repeated here except to emphasize that there are few matters in lodge life more intimately connected with a devout sense of the "obligation of the nobility” when "nobility” is translated “being a Master Mason.”

The Master Mason is a man set apart from his fellows by the fact that he is a Master Mason; by the teachings he has received; by the obligations — as holy and as binding as can be given by men to a man - by that solemn and serious exhortation which he accepted in the Charge at the close of the Master Mason Degree. In it all Master Masons are told “In the character of a Master Mason . . . to preserve the reputation of the Fraternity unsullied must be your constant care.” Reference is also made to the dignity of the character of a Master Mason who is to “enforce, by precept and example, obedience to the tenets of the order.”

How else can any Master Mason preserve the reputation of the fraternity save by preserving his own? What other example can he give of the tenets of the order than by forever and always having before his eyes that vision of the great, the good, the highest class of the age of chivalry and honor — Noblesse Oblige?

The Masonic Service Association of North America