Author Archives: TEnloe

In Search of Nobility (6): Intrepidity

After a long delay (due to a busy year at a new teaching job), I am at last getting to the sixth, penultimate, post in my series on recovering Nobility in a debased age. Rather than taking our own modern sensibilities for granted, I’ve been focusing on the definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary. It is time now to focus on another of his terms, highlighted below:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Intrepidity. Like some of the other terms we’ve seen in this exploration of the theme of nobility, intrepidity is not a commonly used word these days. Like most of the terms, it has deep roots in ancient languages, especially Latin. The specific Latin roots here are in (not) and trepidus (alarmed). From this we may gloss the term in English as “unmoved by danger,” or even “undaunted.”

No doubt this brings to mind two more common terms, courage and bravery, but we have already examined these in the chapter on Bravery. There we saw that bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to deal with fear appropriately rather than being mastered by it. An intriguing question thus arises from Webster’s definition above: why distinguish bravery, the quality of mastering fear, from intrepidity, the quality of being unmoved by danger?

It is certainly possible that Webster was just indulging in rhetorical amplification, drawing upon close synonyms to bring out related, but still distinct, aspects of the one excellence summed up by the Cardinal Virtue of Fortitude. Persistent and thoughtful reading of our classical heritage frequently reveals the idea at work that Virtue as the thing Excellence itself, but also specific practical instances of excellent conduct, do in fact exhibit a rich, interwoven tapestry of shades of meaning.

We live in a language-impoverished age. It has been estimated by many researchers that the average American adult has a working, active vocabulary of 20,000 words, but manages to make it through the activities and needs of most days using a good bit less than 1,000 of those.1 As a classical languages teacher, I very frequently encounter great consternation in students when they learn that Greek and Latin often have 4-5 different words for some one thing, or that a single Greek or Latin word is so rich that it can bear 7-8 distinct English meanings. In this condition, is it any wonder that even if we regularly, actively use only two words for a basic, broad concept, bravery and courage, we think they are simple synonyms that exhaust the subject and go no further in our thoughts?

Thus, although I cannot definitively speak for Webster’s intentions, allow me to assume, for the sake of our own further inquiry, that he used two seemingly equivalent terms, bravery and intrepidity, because they aren’t exactly the same thing, but express nuances of a broader truth – nuances to which we should pay significant attention.

Back to in + trepidus, then, as meaning something like “unmoved by danger.” Earlier we saw that Courage may be defined as “the quality of being able to endure and confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.” This means that courage is always relative to danger, and often to death: without the existence of danger, and of death, there could not be any such thing as courage. Now in terms of this other term for an important quality of a truly noble person, intrepidity, we should start asking what in the world it might mean to be facing serious danger, and perhaps even death, and yet to be unmoved.

I’ve spent much space herein quoting classical thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plutarch. Let me now turn for elucidation of intrepidity to a class of moral philosophers descended from Plato’s Socrates, the Roman Stoics. One of their number, Seneca, who lived in the time of the cruel Emperor Nero and the ministry of the Christian Apostle Paul, penned many helpful things about living one’s life in the face of adversity and remaining virtuous.

Let’s think with Seneca for a bit about the root psychological condition that danger and death provoke: fear. Writing of the fear of death, Seneca says:

 All you need to do is to advance; you will thus understand that some things are less to be dreaded, precisely because they inspire us with great fear. No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.

Do you not suppose that virtue will be as efficacious as excessive fear? No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it, or believes that living through many consulships is a great blessing. Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.

Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die. For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 4: On the Terror of Death

In terms of Webster’s category intrepidity, being unmoved by danger, notice Seneca’s phrase near the end: “Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life.” Now what are ebbing and flowing if not motions, in this case, motions of the soul? The inner life of a person who is eaten up by fear cannot be anything but a constant, moiling motion. Such a person, continually being moved by some danger is by our above definitional discussion not intrepid, and in that sense, not noble.

But what of fear itself? Don’t we all experience this emotion, some of us more often than others? Aren’t there just plenty of things in our mad, rushing, intemperate age to spur our souls to continual motion this way or that, worrying about how it’s all going to turn out? Surely fear, that emotional and psychological affliction that either inhibits confident action or spurs us to such, is just an ordinary, perhaps inexpungible part of basic human life?

Or perhaps not – we should be philosophical and subject this seemingly obvious truth of human life to greater scrutiny. Of fear, Seneca provocatively reminds us of its actually ephemeral (fleeting, transitory) nature, as seen in the simple fact that what we fear is always something that could happen but has not:

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality…What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 13, On Groundless Fears

Here we begin to see how it it might be possible to face a danger, a real and even serious danger, while yet being unmoved (intrepid). For what, really, is the fear that the danger has provoked in us? It is a temporary, changing emotional state operating in mere reaction to a possible, but nevertheless unreal event.

High performer students who fear getting bad grades have not actually gotten the bad grades – and may not! – but the unreality of the potential future is usually enough to unsettle their minds unduly. But heed Seneca: what is the student afraid of? Quite literally, no-thing, since the future hasn’t happened and might turn out very differently from what the fear says.

Faced with having to give a speech in public, a person might fear the possible, yet currently unreal, condition of being thought poorly of. Again, the person is literally afraid of no-thing, a figment of the imagination projecting and extrapolating from knowable current conditions to unknowable (because unreal and only potential) subsequent ones.

A soldier going into battle may experience great fear, but again, of what is he afraid? The bullets of the enemy hitting him? A possible eventuality – but one that is not yet, and may not come to be at all. Whether the soldier is an atheist thinking his fate is merely the mechanical result of unpredictable decisions intersecting with blind physics or a religious person believing that God controls all things with an all-wise Providence, the simple truth of the soldier’s current actual state can’t be connected to a future potential state by anything other than his own unmoderated thoughts and feelings. He, too, is literally afraid of no-thing.

The examples could be multiplied without end, but all will demonstrate the same clear truth: much of what alarms the human mind is not even real, but only a projection of that mind, which ought rather to be seeking the middle ground of virtue between the vicious extremes. The only way to be unmoved by danger is to not allow fear, a made up reaction to a currently unreal mere possibility, to move oneself. The soul’s motion when faced with danger should be forward along the middle path of Virtue, not Left or Right along the deviant paths to Vice. Rather than surrender to fear, one ought to examine the circumstances, try to determine where the extremes are, and avoid them. Thus, as Seneca puts it elsewhere:

…it is not poverty that we praise, it is the man whom poverty cannot humble or bend. Nor is it exile that we praise, it is the man who withdraws into exile in the spirit in which he would have sent another into exile. It is not pain that we praise, it is the man whom pain has not coerced. One praises not death, but the man whose soul death takes away before it can confound it. All these things are in themselves neither honourable nor glorious; but any one of them that virtue has visited and touched is made honourable and glorious by virtue; they merely lie in between, and the decisive question is only whether wickedness or virtue has laid hold upon them. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 82, “On the Natural Fear of Death”

And again:

It is tragic for the soul to be apprehensive of the future and wretched in anticipation of wretchedness, consumed with an anxious desire that the objects which give pleasure may remain in its possession to the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest; in waiting for the future it will lose the present blessings which it might enjoy. And there is no difference between grief for something lost and the fear of losing it. Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 98, “On the Fickleness of Fortune”

Returning again to the operative distinction that Virtue is always a mean between two Vicious extremes, perhaps we can more clearly see now by striving for the narrow, middle path one could really and healthfully be emotionally and psychologically unmoved by danger – and so, attain to the quality of true nobility that Webster calls intrepidity.

Let me close this installment with one more from Seneca on how to properly frame one’s thoughts about the constantly changing conditions of life which so easily threaten to overwhelm the soul with fear and the many vices fear can underwrite. Here Seneca advises living according to the distinction between length of life and quality of life:

I have no time for such nonsense; a mighty undertaking is on my hands. What am I to do? Death is on my trail, and life is fleeting away; teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. Say to me when I lie down to sleep: “You may not wake again!” And when I have waked: “You may not go to sleep again!” Say to me when I go forth from my house: “You may not return!” And when I return: “You may never go forth again!” You are mistaken if you think that only on an ocean voyage there is a very slight space between life and death. No, the distance between is just as narrow everywhere. It is not everywhere that death shows himself so near at hand; yet everywhere he is as near at hand. – Moral Letters to Lucillius, Letter 49, “On the Shortness of Life”

In the upcoming final post examining Webster’s 1828 definition of “nobility,” I’ll look at his final category, “contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

  1. Note that my figures here are not the result of in-depth personal research, but only perfunctory collation of multiple online sources. Depending on how far you yourself might go performing a search of surveys, you will find active vocabulary estimates ranging from 10,000 to 20,000, and these are often paired with estimates of “passive” vocabulary – additional words that are partly known, but not well enough to be actively used – ranging from 40,000 to 80,000. []

Beware the Wrecking of a Child’s Soul

For some years now I’ve been reflecting on a maxim I’ve derived from constantly teaching young people: If you change the stories a people tell, you necessarily change the identity and character of the people.

We frequently remind our girls on the one day a week they usually watch movies to watch out for messages of “Follow Your Heart.”

In this connection, having some time ago watched Wreck It Ralph 2, I decided to watch the first one with my girls. This was the first time they had seen it, so watching it with them, with my critical faculties on and ready to discuss the film with them afterwards, I almost immediately noticed a total difference of message between the two.

In the first Wreck film, Ralph starts out by following his heart because he doesn’t want to be what everyone thinks he is. In the process of trying to show who he “really” is he winds up wrecking many things, even to the point of almost destroying another video game. Trying to prove that he’s not what everyone thinks he is, he ironically only seems to prove they are right.

Ralph’s little friend, Vanellope, meanwhile, who is also following her heart to become what she seemingly isn’t, a racer, turns out to actually be a racer whose code the bad guy has corrupted so that she is something she’s not by nature meant to be. Ralph’s friendship with her ends up restoring her proper nature, and even though he makes some significant blunders in the process, his friendship shines through precisely in his desire to keep her from the harm that he thinks will befall her if she follows her heart.

Flash forward to Wreck-It Ralph 2. While it is an extremely clever movie in its portrayal of the internet and the various foibles of people on it, the moral message is exactly the opposite.

For in this one, Vanellope again decides to follow her heart, but this time her heart takes her out of her natural place in order to make her into something she is not meant to be, a rough-and-tumble racer in a very violent video game. At the high point of the film corresponding to the first one when she gets very angry at Ralph, she tells him that a true friend would let her do whatever her heart desires, and that’s why he’s a bad friend because he’s trying to talk her out of what she wants but is not actually meant to be.

I find this reversal of moral message fascinating, especially in terms of its portrayal of friendship. Clearly the two movies were written by and for two different mindsets, and

How many in our world today believe that true friendship consists in allowing one’s friend to do whatever they want to do – and supporting them (“validating” their choice) while they’re doing it – rather than pointing out to them things that will harm them and trying to dissuade them? Have we really lost the old idea and practice that being a friend means helping our friend seek what is actually True and Good and Beautiful, not just what they happen to feel (with ever-and-always-changing emotions) is right at the moment?

I’ve thought for some years now as a teacher that we adults should never underestimate the catechetical (teaching) power of pop culture. These things are not “just movies” any more than all the old immoral and sophistical myths about the gods were just entertaining bedtime stories. Many of the modes of seemingly “harmless” entertainment to which we allow our children to be exposed on a regular basis possess the power to fundamentally rewrite their moral imaginations – sometimes significantly enough to cause them ultimately to reject the truths we as parents have tried so hard to pass on to them.

As a classics teacher this brings to my mind that it’s no wonder Plato wanted to banish the poets from his ideal society. Stories are incredibly powerful, especially in the fantastically dopamine-stimulating modes (“cool” music, “awesome” movies, “fun” video games) that our current technology wraps them up in.

A jingle I heard growing up: “Oh be careful little eyes what you see.” We who are parents, charged with the nurture and admonition of the next generation, really must take more care to observe the entertainments to which our children are attracted. And we really must take the time to sit and talk with them about that newest action-packed CGI-stuffed superhero movie and that latest trendy video they’ve seen on the Internet.

It’s pretty ominous to realize that these things may eventually, through constant and uncritical exposure, have even more formative power over their minds and hearts than anything we ourselves could ever say or model in their presence.

In Search of Nobility (5): Magnanimity

This fifth post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Let’s be honest – magnanimity is just not a widely-used word these days. Coming to English from two Latin words, magna (great) and anima (soul), the word as it used to be used – in that older and more civilized age when true nobility had real value – sometimes signified a valiant character, but more literally and appropriately “great-souled.” But what does that mean?

One source puts it this way:

The lofty character portrayed in Bk. iv of the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. The great-souled man is of a distinguished situation, worthy of great things, ‘an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, but a mean in respect of the rightness of them’, perfectly virtuous, good at conferring benefits but ashamed of receiving them, neither humble nor vain. The combination involves proper pride or magnanimity.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy

To cite further from Aristotle, “Now a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much; he who claims much without deserving it is foolish, but no one of moral excellence is foolish or senseless.” As always true in ethics, the Virtue comes in the middle of two Vices – which in this case are the Vice of Excess called Vanity and the Vice of Defect called False Humility.

Viewed this way, the aspect of Nobility called Magnanimity has to do with a person being worthy. But worthy of what? Again, Aristotle:

‘Worthy’ is a term of relation: it denotes having a claim to goods external to oneself. Now the greatest external good we should assume to be the thing which we offer as a tribute to the gods, and which is most coveted by men of high station, and is the prize awarded for the noblest deeds; and such a thing is honor, for honor is clearly the greatest of external goods. Therefore the great-souled man is he who has the right disposition in relation to honors and disgraces.

Nicomachean Ethics IV

Cicero writes that the magnanimous spirit is

generally seen in two things. One lies in disdain for things external, in the conviction that a man should admire, should choose, should pursue nothing except what is honorable and seemly, and should yield to no man, nor to agitation of the spirit, nor to fortune. The second thing is that you should, in the spirit I have described, do deeds which are great, certainly, but above all beneficial, and you should vigorously undertake difficult and laborious tasks which endanger both life itself and much that concerns life.

On Duties I.66

But what of those equal-and-opposite Vices, Vanity and False Humility, against which the magnanimous aspect of Nobility must always strive? Aristotle makes it clear that “honor is the prize of virtue, and the tribute that we pay to the good” and also that “greatness of soul is impossible without moral nobility” (Ethics IV).

That which our sources call magnanimity, “greatness of soul,” is manifestly not a vain or haughty desire for the accolades of others. Again, Cicero:

A true and wise greatness of spirit judges that deeds and not glory [the public accolades of others forming the basis of one’s self-estimation] are the basis of the honorableness that nature most seeks. It prefers not to seem pre-eminent but to be so: he who is carried by the foolishness of the ignorant mob should not be counted a great man”

On Duties I.65

But at the same time as greatness of soul is not vanity, it is also not false humility. For, going back to an earlier citation above, the quality of magnanimity belongs to the person who claims much because he deserves much, and, to repeat something else just recently cited, this deserving exists solely on the grounds of moral goodness. The Vice of Deficiency here, False Humility, consists in such a high degree of self-abnegation that one fails even to accept honors earned, not gratuitously or speciously offered.

This aspect of Nobility, then, magnanimity or “greatness of soul,” accomplishes, like the other aspects our definition from Webster’s 1828 mentions, the grasping, seizing, and catching of the very difficult middle ground between the sort of ungodly pride that forgets one’s place and leads to a fall and a quite different kind of pride (here = loftiness of soul) that disdains merly external praises and rewards because all it cares about is the honor which naturally attaches to a relentless quest for moral excellence.

In Search of Nobility (4): Generosity

This fourth post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Etymologically, generous is related to the Latin verb meaning “to give, beget,” and the Latin noun meaning “race, class, kind.” At one time, it was simply assumed culturally that a noble person would be a more-than-average giving person: this was just part of what it meant to be born “noble.” (Ironic, then, that today’s “noble” class – where “noble,” in that characteristically Modern cynical mode, is just a stand in for “the rich and famous,” are increasingly viewed with suspicion as greedy hoarders and manipulators, via their fantastic wealth, of the supposedly “democratic” political system.)

To again refer to Aristotle’s idea of the virtuous mean, an actually generous person would be the one who can size up a given situation and “give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time.”  Far from being some squishy-minded, possibly guilt-induced unmoderated giving, the actually generous person recognizes real needs and ensures he won’t have little to give in those circumstances because he’s already given too much in inappropriate ways.

As Aristotle puts it in Book IV of his Ethics: “In crediting people with [Generosity] their resources must be taken into account; for the [generousness] of a gift does not depend on its amount, but on the disposition of the giver, and a [generous] disposition gives according to its substance.”

Moreover, an actually generous person does not give to be noticed, to receive accolades for their philanthropy, for he does not expect anything in return for his generosity. This is most of the point: he already has far more than he himself needs, so what better, more humane way to dispose of the rest than to give to others who have real needs?

Thus does that elevation of soul Webster referenced make it possible for the noble person to rise above mere sensory reports of “needs,” determine what are and aren’t  real needs, and give appropriately to alleviate those. He “catches, seizes, holds onto” an accurate understanding of need and what he himself can properly do about it.

One may see from the careful unpacking of the terms above that nobility’s face of generosity may actually require significant adjustments of attitude and perception for those committed to various “hardline” dichotomous political perspectives.

The well-off person who give out of a sense of guilt over his excessively lavish lifestyle or out of a desire (however suppressed) to be seen giving is in no wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting “the “Vice of Excess,” specifically that of Prodigality, which consists in wasting one’s resources on ignoble pursuits, and in the process ruining one’s own soul. This is only one reason why our great Western tradition is packed full of warnings against immoderate acquisition of money and goods: such vicious activity has brought down not only vast numbers of individuals, but also whole cultures.

On the other hand, neither is the well-off person who grotesquely fantasize that his prosperity is due to his having pulled himself up by his own bootstraps – so get your lazy hands off my stuff and go get a job! – in any wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting the “Vice of Deficiency,” specifically that of Meanness, which is “fall[ing] short in giving and go[ing] to excess in getting.” Priding himself on his fantastic “work ethic,” this sort of person may, paradoxically, fall short of true nobility exactly to the degree that he is proud of his own achievements and exceedingly jealous to ensure that others do not manage to “steal” one red cent from him.

In short, the aspect of Nobility that we call generosity is, like the rest of nobility, not an easy thing to seek or find, nor, having found it, will it necessarily be easy to keep.

In Search of Nobility (3): Bravery

This third post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

Having noted that the verb “comprehend” here doesn’t only mean “understand,” but something more along the lines of “to completely lay hold of, to grasp, snatch, seize, catch,” we will look at the first quality that Webster says nobility comprehends:

The classical philosopher of ethics par excellence is, of course, Aristotle, to whom, outside of the Bible, we ought to direct inquiries about virtuous qualities. Aristotle presents the idea that virtue is always a mean between extremes. The extreme on one side involves a deficiency or defect in the virtuous quality sought, while the extreme on the other side involves an excess of the virtuous quality sought. What does Aristotle tell us about bravery, the first thing that Webster says the noble elevation of soul comprehends?

For one thing, bravery is not the absence of fear. Rather, bravery is the ability to deal with fear appropriately rather than being mastered by it.

Aristotle has it that a brave man should fear the loss of his good reputation. On the other hand, not fearing poverty while one wastes his wealth is not brave at all, but just stupid. Likewise, there’s not a hint of bravery in resisting pleasurable temptations (since the prospect of pleasure doesn’t produce fear), but there is a great deal of bravery in withstanding painful circumstances to the point of achieving the final goal of Virtue. Specifically, bravery must be understood as being oriented toward justice, for as the Roman philosopher-orator Cicero put it:

“…if the loftiness of spirit that reveals itself amid danger and toil is empty of justice, if it fights not for the common safety but for its own advantages, it is a vice. It is not merely unvirtuous; it is rather a savagery which repels all civilized feelings. Therefore the Stoics define courage well when they call it the virtue which fights on behalf of fairness. For that reason, no one has won praise who has pursued the glory of courage by treachery and cunning; for nothing can be honorable from which justice is absent.”

On Duties, (I.63)

A bit later he continues:

A brave and great spirit is in general seen in two things. One lies in disdain for things external, in the conviction that a man should admire, should choose, should pursue nothing except what is honorable and seemly, and should yield to no man, nor to agitation of the spirit, nor to fortune. The second thing is that you should in the spirit I have described, do deeds which are great, certainly, but above all beneficial, and you should vigorously undertake difficult and laborious tasks which endanger both life itself and much that concerns life.

On Duties, I.66

This said, nevertheless, like Aristotle before him, Cicero holds that nobility of soul steers a middle course between recklessness and cowardice:

We must never purposely avoid danger so as to appear cowardly and fearful, yet we must avoid exposing ourselves pointlessly to risk. Nothing can be stupider than that. When confronting danger, therefore, we should copy the doctor, whose custom it is to treat mild illnesses mildly, though he is forced to apply riskier, double-edged, remedies to more serious illnesses.

On Duties, I,82

What we should take away from all of this is that the noble soul is the one that is able to grasp, seize, catch, and hold onto boldness in the face of fear where that boldness has a correct motivation, a correct manner of application, and a correct final goal.

A tall order, indeed – which is why nobility requires elevation of soul. Those who remain stuck in the immediacy of the senses can’t rise above the deliverances of those senses to attain that which is higher and more meaningful: in this case, bravery.

In Search of Nobility (2): “That Elevation of Soul Which Comprehends…”

In the introductory post I noted that nobility in our times tends to be simply identified with concepts of social hierarchy expressed in terms of titles and possessions and cultural influence. Nobility, indeed, gets represented time and again to us as inherently arbitrary and tending toward abusiveness. I concluded the post with the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary definition of nobility, which interestingly proceeds differently from modern definitions by placing the social hierarchy view in subordination to a much older and more universal definition. Namely, nobility is:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

I’d like to focus throughout the next few posts on the phrase “elevation of soul, which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnanimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.” This is a packed definition, and one that, as far as I can tell surveying the cultural wasteland in which the very idea of nobility has become a base swear word, if not a simply incomprehensible word, needs to be fleshed out.

“That Elevation of Soul…”

The classical tradition, Christian no less than pagan, holds that the human being consists of body and soul, and that soul, that which animates body, possesses a priority at least of dignity. Though Christian faith does not debase the body or life in the physical world, it nevertheless teaches that the body and life in the physical world are not to be our primary concerns. In this context, to speak of nobility as a quality involving elevation of soul conveys profound meaning.

For what exactly is the soul to be elevated above? Above, says the tradition, the temporary and changing appearances of things, which collectively try to seize control of our faculty of judgment with the immediate, seemingly undeniable perceptions of sense experience. “Looks can be deceiving,” says Lady Wisdom – but she always has to contend with Lady Sensuality’s contrary maxim “Seeing is believing.” Knowledge does begin in our sensory experiences, which is precisely why we can get so easily mired in the dictates of our senses, finding it difficult to discriminate and evaluate and prudentially interpolate.

Yet such an ability to transcend the immediate deliverances of the senses is, according to Webster, the quintessential definition of nobility.

“…Which Comprehends…”

Nobility consists of an elevation of soul “which comprehends…” – but what does that key term, “comprehend,” mean? Probably the most common connotation is “understand,” which would mean that nobility is an elevation of soul that understands or has a mental grasp of the following five predicates of the definition. While this is not false, it’s too mundane in this time in which we all routinely confuse possessing information with being formed by wisdom.

So if we push further back, consulting etymology, we find that the word “comprehend” reaches us from the Latin com + prehendere, which together mean ” to completely lay hold of, to grasp, snatch, seize, catch.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Nobility, far from having anything whatsoever to do with the generally vain frippery of titles and status, attaches to a soul that has raised itself up to higher things – and grasped, snatched, seized, and caught them. It’s the same word used in Livy in a story describing how the assassins of the king of Rome were arrested by the guards, stopped in their tracks and held for examination and application of judgment.

All that certainly changes one’s mental picture of nobility, doesn’t it?

Next up, Webster’s list of qualities that nobility “comprehends.”

The Liberating Knowledge of Letters (Literature)

Here’s a snippet from a letter about the educated man, written ca. 1160 A.D.:

…it is the knowlege of letters [literature] that leads one forth from the common ignorance of human beings and from the stolid torpor that characterizes the dull-witted, and renders to its pupil glorious liberty. And so the pagans rightly called the art of letters a liberal art, because this art liberates the one who studies it from the common lot of human beings enslaved to confusion; the one who obtains a mastery of letters is no longer oppressed and overwhelmed by the fetters of lethargy which bind the unlearned. 

– Philip of Harvengt, abbot of Bonne Esperance, to Henry, Count of Champagne (As translated by Robert Ziomkowski in Readings in Medieval Political Theory 1100-1400 [Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993], pg. 65.)

In Search of Nobility (1)

From time to time as a teacher of classical literature, I’ve tried to get students to engage with the idea of nobility as it appears in most of the Greek and Roman texts we read. Almost without exception I have found that the word nobility means very little to the modern student – almost as if I was asking them to say something really meaningful about the word humbug or jabberwock or razzamatazz.

Almost without exception I have found that upon asking students reading classical literature to describe the idea of nobility, they cannot come up with anything other than standard, modern dictionary definitions that call up vague, connotatively displeasing notions of snobbish “upper class” people who more often than not prey upon the lowly ordinary people and so must, from time to time, be subjected to revolutions that show them just how fundamentally useless aristocracy really is.

This spectacularly limited horizon regarding the word nobility recently prompted me to do some quick dictionary work of my own, which produced a very interesting result that I now share with you.

First up was the online Merriam-Webster’s, which told me this:

1: the quality or state of being noble in character, quality, or rank

2: the body of persons forming the noble class in a country or state ARISTOCRACY

Next I tried that amazing, little-questioned go-to source for this debased age that confuses rapid access of information with possession of wisdom, Wikipedia, which has this to say:

Nobility is a social class normally ranked immediately below royalty and found in some societies that have a formal aristocracy. Nobility has often been an estate of the realm that possessed more acknowledged privilege and higher social status than most other classes in society. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles or may be largely honorary (e.g., precedence), and vary by country and era. Membership in the nobility, including rights and responsibilities, is typically hereditary.

Finally I turned to, which offers this:

1. the noble class or the body of nobles in a country.

2. (in Britain) the peerage.

3. the state or quality of being noble.

4. nobleness of mind, character, or spirit;

5. exalted moral excellence.grandeur or magnificence.

6. noble birth or rank.

Lastly I tried Collins Dictionary online, which produced this very similar result:

 SINGULAR NOUN [with singular or plural verb]

The nobility of a society are all the people who have titles and belong to a high social class.Synonyms: aristocracy, lords, elite, nobles   More Synonyms of nobility


A person’s nobility is their noble character and behaviour. [formal]

What these searches confirmed was what I knew from experience with students: the definition of nobility has, by the vapid reductionisms of “Social Studies” classes, the caricatures of popular media, and the “just the facts” denotations of popular dictionaries been just about wholly restricted to a mere designator of an arbitrary social class, meaningful only in societies that believe in such intolerant notions as a really-existing hierarchy of goods, the necessity of good people providing examples for others to imitate, and an actually definable thing called human nature which is capable of aspiring to excellence or sinking down below the level of base animalism.

Yet, since I began with the Merriam-Webster dictionary, watch what I found when I turned to the once-upon-a-time much-cited 1828 Webster’s:

1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.

2. Antiquity of family; descent from noble ancestors; distinction by blood, usually joined with riches.

3. The qualities which constitute distinction of rank in civil society, according to the customs or laws of the country; that eminence or dignity which a man derives from birth or title conferred, and which places him in an order above common men. In Great Britain, nobility is extended to five ranks, those of duke, marquis, earl, viscount and baron.

4. The persons collectively who enjoy rank above commoners; the peerage; as the English nobility; French, German, Russian nobility

What do you notice as you look over the entries I’ve reproduced here? What I immediately noticed was that the newer dictionaries prioritize the merely functional class-designator, which is driven solely by artificial badges like titles and privilege while the older definition (1828) priorities a set of high-minded – that is elevated – qualities of character. While this definition does appear in several of the other sources I cited, it is lower than the merely social, class-designator one.

You know, the only one that I’ve said most of my students have any familiarity with as they try to read ancient literature chock-full of high-minded ideals that seem, pretty literally, like unintelligible gibberish to the modern, merely functionality-oriented mind.

Needless to say, I find this phenomenon – the debasement of the definition of nobility quite alarming. In this short series I’ll try to recover some bits and pieces of the older, more humane definition of nobility, in the hopes that you will find it useful in your own thinking about matters of the human condition, the problems that ail our society, and what may possibly be done to work on restoring the real excellence of motivations and deeds that has been grievously lost in our time.