September 23 is the birthday of my best friend, dead—oh God, can it really be 10 years come this February? As I’ve mentioned to Simon, my friend was one of the people I think of as “nature’s noblemen”.
I don’t know where I read that epithet, but I think it was coined by George Eliot. Or some nineteenth-century novelist ( and a female one) I’m pretty sure. (But it sounds a lot more like Eliot than like the Brontës.)
To us Americans, there’s nothing incongruous about the (melodiously alliterative ) phrase. Why shouldn’t someone be naturally “noble”, when “noble” now refers to certain desirable personal qualities, rather than to a system of titles denoting rank?
But in previous centuries, the phrase would have been an oxymoron. “Nobility” was a status conferred by the sovereign, passes on in certain families; a commoner couldn’t just be born that way.
Nobility in the Old World was a system of hereditary privilege. I would describe contemporary “ nature’s noblemen” as belonging to a congenitally privileged class. (A “hereditary” trait is one your ancestors necessarily exhibited; a “congenital” trait can be sui generis, but is one the individual was born with. )
To be “noble” in the Old World meant possessed of many social, and legal privileges, and burdened with attendant obligations: noblesse oblige.
Certain people, although they don’t have titles like Marquis of Missouri 😜 or Earl of East Ardmore, are born able to exercise social and interpersonal privilege: they go through life attracting attention, accruing tribute (people find themselves wanting to do things for them) and sometimes generating gratuitous hostility from people who resent the apparent ease with which they secure devotion. I say “apparent ease” because my friend, like our mutual friend, was not born to a materially luxurious childhood, and arduous labor was a necessity, not a choice, all his life.
And “noblesse oblige? It can be exhausting for such people, never knowing who may have fallen in love with them, who may have developed proprietary feelings about them ( like the ones I’m displaying here!😊) When you have strength, influence, and power, it can require vigilance not to wound people unintentionally.
Despite never finishing high school, my friend could engage anyone in conversation; I never saw him at a loss socially. In fact, he could, in what seemed a matter of minutes, elicit intimate confidences from the most unlikely individuals. And when he turned the glowing beam of his attention on someone—anyone—that person appeared to open and become more vivid, like a blossom in the sun. That too, is a privilege of nobility: class distinctions can be ignored by people possessed of it.
We were discussing “charm” in connection with this concept, but charm is an ephemeral phenomenon. Charm can be treacherous but nobility is a bulwark.
Are there also “ nature’s noblewomen”? I was going to write that all the “natural nobles” I have been lucky enough to encounter(which is only, I reckon, three of ‘em to date, present company included) have been men— But then I was overcome with self-recrimination: I DID know one, and very intimately:
(Born and raised in Missouri, like our host.) )
So thank you, dear Simon, for requesting a post on this topic. Writing it has been revelatory to me as well. Paying tribute to true noblesse is always delight, rather than a burden, to us commoners.