Surely the princes of Zoan are fools, the counsel of the wise counsellors of Pharaoh is become brutish: how say you to Pharaoh…
The charge which the prophet makes upon the Egyptian nobles may, with some justice, be extended to those in modern times who are perpetually reminding the world, directly or indirectly, of the dignity of their ancestors; and who, because they have no living merit to boast of, are ever shrining themselves in the glories of the dead.
1. Not only does the world set a high value upon illustrious birth, but it commonly obtains the preference over talents and virtues. There must be a certain rule of precedence in society, an arrangement of those pretensions we all exhibit for public notice and respect; and those causes which confer superiority must be obvious and not liable to be mistaken; not chemical distinctions, discoverable upon analysis, but natural marks, perceptible to the eye. Such, in some degree, are wealth and birth, the notoriety of which is much greater than that of talents and virtues.
2. But how comes birth to be respected at all? History teaches us to connect courage to one name, and counsel to another; to connect them even to an eye or a look; and it is difficult to behold the son or the descendant of an eminent man without deluding ourselves into an idea that some share of the virtues as well as some trait of the features has been transmitted from one to the other. A person placed in a liberal situation of life, above the necessity of increasing his fortune, is supposed to have derived from education a cultivated understanding and correct moral taste; to be careful of reputation and worthy of trust; and, when a family has been long in this situation, we associate these qualities to them much more strongly, and are apt to conceive that a certain propriety of sentiment has been transmitted, with hereditaments and lands, from one generation to another. It is therefore well to recollect that the reverence mankind pay to birth is founded upon its supposed connection with great and amiable qualities; that it is unjust to inhale the incense without possessing the attributes to which it is offered up; and that no disapprobation is so complete as that which succeeds to detected imposture and misplaced regard.
3. Pride of birth, in common with every other species of pride, is utterly incompatible with the Christian character, the very essence of which is lowliness of spirit, and, in common with every other species of pride, is marked by narrow and erroneous views of human nature. The peculiar objections to it are, that birth may frequently prove a source of the most serious misfortunes; that, at a certain period of depravity, it gives splendour to shame, and inflames the contempt of mankind; that it justifies the painful suspicion of being beloved from name, and not from nature; that, considered singly by itself, without the virtues which sometimes do, and are always expected to, accompany it, it is of all causes of self-approbation the least rational and just.
4. Though pride be the excess of self-approbation, it can only rest ultimately upon the approbation of others. It is always upon the esteem of others, present and future, or upon a title to it, conceived to be extremely strong, that pride is founded. A proud man may not possess esteem, but he must believe that he does possess it, or shall possess it, during life, or after death, or that he deserves to possess it; for, if he conceives himself justly contemptible, he must cease to be proud. Now, all pride proceeds from a wrong, notion of the method by which the approbation of others is secured; from a misappreciation of ourselves, and of the sagacity of mankind, who are so far from adopting a man's standard of himself as their own, that they commonly value a human being inversely as he values himself. It proceeds from an ignorance of that captivating modesty which lulls rivalry to sleep, and gives all the benevolent affections their free influence upon the judgment. Pride, then, is only another name for ignorance, because it takes the most shortsighted and inefficacious means to effect its object.
5. Travellers tell us that there is a tree, the roots of which afford bread or poison, according as they are managed and prepared. Such is the doubtful nature of illustrious birth: it may be a blessing or a curse, the source of virtue or the cradle of shame; eminence it must ever give, eminence of infamy or eminence of good. God forbid we should not think of ancient days, if thus doing we can add virtue or happiness; forbid us to stifle that solemn pleasure which we feel in gazing at the dead, if that solemn pleasure teach us to live aright. If you will look upon nobleness of birth as a promise to be fulfilled and a debt to be paid to society; if you will recompense mankind, by your personal merit, for their fervent love to your name and fathers, and think exalted birth a solemn pledge for exalted virtue, a covenant for honourable labour and unspotted faith, an oath taken to the shades of the dead, never to pollute their blood or sully their fame; if you hasten to fix this admiration of words and sounds upon some more solid foundation, to reflect more lustre on your race than you take from it, and to be the chief of the people in thought and action as well as by chance and law — then think forever on the greatness of your name, and the splendour of your father's fathers; and when a prophet shall ask you, yea, when more than a prophet, when God shall ask you, "How have ye said upon earth, I am the son of wise counsellors and ancient kings?" ye may answer, "We have so said, not ignorant that all things on earth are the shadows of a shadow, and the dust of the dust; but hoping like them to walk in the pure and perfect law of Him who made us, and to do the good and righteous things which our fathers have done of old time, that we may draw down upon us Thy blessings, and finally partake of that dear and unknown world which Thy blessed Son has promised us in Thy name."
(Sydney Smith, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Surely the princes of Zoan are fools, the counsel of the wise counsellers of Pharaoh is become brutish: how say ye unto Pharaoh, I am the son of the wise, the son of ancient kings?