The Essence of Nobility

Source: District of Asia

If I were pressed on the subject of my moral opinions, I would readily admit that to me, the difference between noble and base is more essential than the difference between good and bad. But what, in its deepest sense, is nobility? First, the refusal of what is easy (petty gains, cunning calculation, using questionable means to gain success and power): the man who is noble is he who is particular about the means he uses. Secondly, it is the scorning of a certain kind of prudence: to be noble is to know how to risk. But none of this touches the heart of the question. There is a love of difficulty and danger in any harum-scarum who is willing to risk his neck; it takes more than that to have nobility of soul.

The word nobility, to me, suggests first of all distance. What I mean is that outward and visible nobility means being distant towards others; inner and real nobility is being distant towards oneself. A man of nobility sets the purpose of his existence and the source of his actions in some faith or ideal, in a code of honour that far outweighs his own paltry ego. His way of feeling, judging, and acting is wholly penetrated by this element of distance: so, too, his virtues are free from that viscosity, that adherence of the self, which soils and debases even the best of actions. Because the principle of his virtue is outside himself, his left hand is ignorant of what his right is doing: forgetfulness of services rendered is one of the essential marks of nobility. The same distance that separates him from what is basest in himself makes for forgetfulness of what he gives and mindfulness of what he receives. He is detached but not inconstant, loyal but not "clinging" (the loyalty of one who clings is of interest only to the flesh and the ego, it is a loyalty without distance). He also loves himself, but from afar. In all things, he regards himself from above. 

So we can measure the degree of nobility in an individual by the remoteness of his reasons for living and acting from the exigencies of the vain and carnal ego. Where there is no such remoteness, there is absolute baseness; where it is present in an infinite degree, nobility is unlimited, as is the case with the saints who have their dwelling-place in God.... 

Contempt for death, essential to every type of nobility, is a good indication of this distance. Whereas the mean soul, wholly riveted to his lower appetites, is willing to sacrifice all to preserve his earthly life, the soul that is noble has an instinctive preference for death rather than dishonour. The self must be loved from a very great height and a great way off before it is possible so to choose death, the flesh and the ego being so close and so clamant! Moreover, the sacrifice of life is what makes martyrdom, the testimony of man to a reality that transcends him. Here again, and always, distance! 

Detachment, we said, in regard to the vain and carnal ego. Yet there are souls essentially noble (a Louis XIV or a Lamartine) who are victims alike of the flesh and of vanity. True enough; but they are so preoccupied only with part of themselves, they are not wholly immersed in their passion; they have something in them winged and incorruptible, and this has hardly any part in their frailties. In other words, noble souls can know what it is to fall but not to commit base actions: they can fall, but it is not down there that they belong. 

If nobility is defined as being loyal to an appeal that transcends us, it follows that there are as many varieties of nobility as there are varieties of true vocations. I remember reading, in Revolution über Deutschland, the criticism passed on their officers, in 1918, by the men who refused to take part in the suicidal attack on England, then contemplated by high-ranking officers of the German Navy. "We know," they said, "that the officers have sworn to die rather than surrender their ships to England. But the honour of officers is not ours. Our honour is to live and work to bring up our children...." 

Clearly the honour of the man who handles the plough is different from the honour of the man who wields the sword: the first is concerned to maintain the vital values (primum vivere - life comes first), the second to maintain the spiritual values (better death than dishonour). It is also clear that aristocratic honour requires the existence of a social class that is largely exempt from servitude to the material. The man who earns his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, whose whole soul is occupied with the care of winning this uncertain and always threatened livelihood, can hardly be expected to have a nice appreciation of the subtleties of an altogether higher code of ethics. The cult of spiritual values implies a minimum of material leisure and security: it is easier to despise death when life is assured! 

These two kinds of honour are in fact supplementary: man must eat bread, but not live by bread alone. The aristocratic virtues are both higher and purer than the popular virtues; they are also more fragile and far more precarious, for, instead of being fostered from without by the constant pressure of necessity, they have to be created from within by the effort of personal freedom. But the decadence of aristocracies is the worst decadence of all: nothing is more repulsive than the type of man who neither earns his living nor despises death.

- Gustave Thibon