How Oligarchic Philanthropy replaced Nobility
“‘Tis the chief glory of the high and mighty to be gracious, a prerogative of kings to conquer universal goodwill. That is the great advantage of a commanding position — to be able to do more good than others.”
— Baltasar Gracian
If I had to identify a line that best captures the spirit of our current elites, it might be the Joker’s crack from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “This town deserves a better class of criminal — and I’m going to give it to them.” Many of the shenanigans of the past few decades – pandemics, market manipulations, endless wars in the name of “democracy” – point to the work of criminals.
Of course, some differences apply between Joker and our Ruling Class. Unlike the comic book villain, who is ultimately indifferent to financial gain, our real-life villains absolutely adore money and see no reason why they shouldn’t be swimming in it as they remake the world in their own image. After all, what’s an ordinary hoodlum compared to a government official or global corporate executive?
People are endowed unequally with money and power, just as with virtue, talent, height, intelligence and looks. When people in power are constituted like the elites of today, when they use their advantages only to gain more, they create a political order defined by corruption, injustice, and violence. The challenge, therefore, is to encourage a sense of responsibility in elites, and instill in them a sense of honor and duty.
Noblesse oblige — French for “nobility obligates” — is the traditional idea that those with power and status ought to be generous toward those with less. Honore de Balzac, in a letter to a young man in 1835, was apparently the first to employ the term, but he was speaking about an ethos with a long history in the West. When Sarpedon urges Glaucus in Book XII of The Iliad to join him on the front lines, his words hint at the obligations of nobility: the high-born need to lead their followers from the front. In Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines liberality and magnificence, virtues which drive a man to give as generously as his station allows. A man of high position, he says, must never adopt an arrogant attitude over the humble, for that would be “as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.”
Though the idea predates Christianity, the ethos comes into its own in Christian times. God himself is the most perfect example; the Servant-King comes in person to pay a price owed by others and exhorts the nobility to be similarly gracious: “And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required.” The Christian knights of the Middle Ages understood the protection of the vulnerable to be their special duty. In the late-13th/early-14th century, Ramon Lull wrote, “The office of a knight is to maintain and defend women, widows and orphans, men diseased, and those who are neither powerful nor strong […] because the great, honorable, and mighty must succor and aid those who are under them.”
Some of the most memorable characters in literature and popular culture are embodiments of noblesse oblige. Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy parts ways with a small fortune to save the Bennet family from ruin — and then says nothing of his deed. Bishop Myriel’s generosity toward Jean Valjean is the inciting incident of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, so amazing to the thief that it compels his conversion. Sir Percy Blakeney, in Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, pretends to be a blockheaded dandy so as to cover his hobby of rescuing people from the guillotine during the French Revolution. A more recent example comes from season one of the BBC’s Poldark. When Ross Poldark’s less noble cousin learns of Ross’ plans to help the struggling people of his town by reopening the family’s defunct copper mines, he is shocked. “You consider them your responsibility?”, he asks. “You don’t?”, Ross responds.
Perhaps the most notable example of noblesse oblige however comes from none other than Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s trilogy. In the final movie, when thief Selina Kyle tries to convince Wayne to run from the danger facing his people, to turn his back on Gotham City and flee with her, she sets him up for one of the greatest lines in modern movie history: “Save yourself. You don’t owe these people anymore. You’ve given them everything.” “Not everything,” Wayne answers, “not yet.” Even those of us who have come to despise the superhero genre can appreciate Wayne as a worthy exception. Perhaps because he’s not that super; he’s merely an athletic and privileged mortal man who puts his life on the line in an attempt to save the soul of his city from the forces of darkness.
There are many reasons why noblesse oblige has vanished from the modern world. Among these are the challenges posed to the old hierarchies by democracy, technology and decadence. None, however, were as disruptive as the elevation of economists to a secular priesthood, who convinced us that the pursuit of maximal private gain is the best one can do to help his fellow men. Edmund Burke knew this when he lamented the death of chivalry in Reflections: “The Age of Chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”
What Burke saw was the exaltation of capital-R Rationalism which would not abide by the inefficiencies of tradition, honor, and duty. Old ways of doing things could not justify themselves on the economist’s terms, especially not when new innovations and schemes might boost the supposed “standard of living.” This is the kind of thinking that underwrites the freefall reported in the recent WSJ survey on the importance of patriotism, religion, community, and children. Money, meanwhile, climbs in priority. Even the domain of medicine had to be reformed so that traditional practices could make way for modern pharmacology (with the help of “grants” from the Rockefeller Foundation).
The modern oligarch seeks to purchase indulgences through philanthropy, establishing “foundations” and launching “initiatives” to make the world run more efficiently. But this is the exact opposite of noblesse oblige. True noblesse oblige never promotes itself the way billionaires promote their philanthropy, hiring journalists and PR firms to laud them, while also taking massive tax breaks for their trouble. “Virtuous acts are noble,” writes Aristotle, “and are done for the sake of that which is noble. The liberal man, therefore, like the others, will give with a view to, or for the sake of, that which is noble, and give rightly.” Oligarchic philanthropy, therefore, is at best a questionable caricature of it.
Everything depends on the question of the character of elites. The actions of men like Ross Poldark, Bruce Wayne, Bishop Myriel, and perhaps even Elon Musk – whose Twitter purchase was arguably the most remarkable act of noblesse oblige in recent memory – are not empty gestures. They hold civilization together. Those in power set the tone, and their conduct determines whether our attempt at civilization is a common project, or whether everyone is just out for themselves. If our oligarchs have no interest in or feeling for nobility, it will be on us to rise in our own humble way and offer them examples of something better.