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 Dictionary.com, which offers this:
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
2. UNCOUNTABLE NOUN
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.