I first encountered this as a concept early in my life when I read the words, “noblesse oblige.” Nobility obligates, that is, privilege entails responsibility. If you are with, you help those who are without.
Noblemen weren’t the only ones taught this philosophy, however. Native Americans know this as a law of the universe and practice it even today in our self-oriented modern world. My Paiute students weren’t satisfied with their own understanding of material; they made sure their fellow students understood it also before we moved on to another topic. I learned to never praise one until I could praise them all.
Until I read the term in college, I had no idea that “noblesse oblige” was a philosophy to be found in books. In my family this had always been a way of life. If any family is to succeed, each member is involved from the cradle nurturing everyone else in the family. You help out and everyone is better off. The cows get milked and then you can eat. You wash the dishes, your sister dries, and they get done faster. You help weed the garden, pick the vegetables, can the vegetables and in the winter you have something to eat. Tom gives you the apricots from his trees and you take him a box of canned fruits and vegetables, jams and jellies for Christmas. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it was every family’s duty to take care of its own.
Of course, that was when our life was more agrarian. It seemed obvious what had to be done to help out. In today’s world, just what responsibilities you undertake depends on how you define “family.” Some see those related by blood; others–Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Mother Theresa, HIV/AIDS workers in Africa, Doctors Without Borders–see those related by that in us which is God.
You undertake your work and fulfill your responsibility not because someone tells you to do it or because people admire you for it but because you know it needs done and you know you can do it. You do the right thing because you know it is the right thing. The opportunity is a gift you’re given. You do it because while it may improve the recipient’s life, it certainly and always improves yours.
We are a moral people, despite what we hear about ourselves in the news. Our financial economy may be tanking but our moral economy flourishes once we understand and put into action this law of the universe– what goes around comes around, or whatever force we put out into the universe comes back to us tenfold, or for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. The need for us to act grows every day.
In To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert Heinlein’s character Dr. Johnson felt that to find a moral man was impossible: “One may as well search for fur on a frog.”
I submit that if Dr. Johnson had bothered to help someone who needed his skills, he could have found that man in the mirror. By accepting responsibility to work for the common good, so can we all. We just need to get fluff up our pelts and get hopping.


Leave a Comment