[FOUNTAIN]Turning poor nobles into good citizensNoblesse oblige means that the nobility should behave honorable and worthy of their class. It is a compound phrase of “noblesse,” meaning nobility in French, and “obliger,” meaning to obligate. In 1808, French politician Gaston Pierre Marc became the first to use the phrase when he emphasized the social responsibility that came with high and noble status.
Nanami Shiono, author of “Tales of Romans,” stressed that the foundation that supported the Roman Empire for a millennium was noblesse oblige. The patricians in Rome strongly believed that they had to bear social responsibilities. When a war broke out, they set an example by volunteering to fight at the front, and they gladly donated their wealth to the community for the interests of the public.
Ms. Shiono argued, “The Romans were not as intelligent as the Greeks, not as physically strong as the Celts or Germans, and not as economically powerful as the Carthaginians, but the driving force to keep up such a colossal empire for so long was the role of their social leaders.”
In Korea, the wealthy Choi family of Gyeongju, the richest family during the Joseon period, was considered the paragon of noblesse oblige. There were secrets to the prosperity of the family, which produced nine jinsa, a scholar who passed the civil service exam, and 12 manseokgun, a landlord of fields yielding 10,000 seok (about 80 kilograms, or 176 pounds) of rice.
They refrained from expanding their fortune provided by their fields, graciously showed hospitality to guests and wayfarers, and made sure that no one within a 40-kilometer (25-mile) radius of their home died of starvation.
In “Tales of Distinguished Families with 500 Years of History,” Jo Yong-heon defined the Korean way of noblesse oblige as the belief during the Joseon period that “a benevolent family which did favors for others was bound to be rewarded in one form or another.”
We are surrounded by the self-appointed noblesse: the high ranking officials, the rich and the intellectual. However, many disregard the mentality of noblesse oblige.
They are taunted as “noblesse malade,” the ill or corrupt nobility. As they speak of social justice, the quasi-noblesse covertly seek means of tax evasion, illegal expedients and speculation.
The “Noblesse Oblige 1+1 Volunteer Service Pledge” was held in Seoul on Oct. 5. I hope that the noblesse malade could be born again as noblesse oblige through this small movement.
Social leaders need to change and start sharing their wealth, honor and authority with the community.
by Ko Dae-hoon
The writer is a deputy city news editor for the JoongAng Ilbo.