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.
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.”