I. We ought to rebuke in no measured language those who celebrate nobility of birth as the greatest of all blessings, and the cause also of great blessings, if in the first place they think those men nobly born who are sprung from persons who were rich and glorious in the days of old, when those very ancestors themselves, from whom they boast to be descended, were not made happy by their unlimited abundance; since, in truth, that which is really good does not naturally or necessarily lodge in any external thing, nor in any of the things which belong to the body, and indeed I may even say not in every part of the soul, but only in the dominant and most important portion of it.
For when God determined to establish this in us out of his own exceeding mercy and love for the human race, he could not find any temple upon earth more beautiful or more suited for its abode than reason: for the mind makes, as it were, an image of the good and consecrates it within itself, and if any persons disbelieve in it of those who have either never tasted wisdom at all, or else have done so only with the edges of their lips (for silver and gold, and honors, and offices, and vigor and beauty of body, resemble those men who are appointed to situations of authority and power, in order to serve virtue as if she were their queen), never having obtained a sight of the most brilliant of all lights.
Since, then, nobility of mind, perfectly purified by complete purifications, is the proper inheritance, we ought to call those men alone noble who are temperate and just, even though they may be of the class of domestic slaves, or may have been bought with money. But to those persons who, being sprung from virtuous parents, do themselves turn out wicked, the region of nobleness is wholly inaccessible; for every bad man is destitute of a house, and destitute of a city, having been driven from his proper country, namely, virtue; which is the real, genuine country of all wise men: and ignobleness does of necessity attach itself to such a man, even though he be descended from grandfathers and great grandfathers whose lives were wholly irreproachable, since he studies to alienate himself from them and detaches himself from and removes to the greatest possible distance from real nobility in all his words and actions. But moreover, besides that wicked men cannot possibly be noble, I also see that they are all of them irreconcilable enemies to nobility, inasmuch as they have destroyed the reputation which accrued to them from their ancestors, and have dimmed and extinguished all the brilliancy which did exist in their race.
II. And it is for this reason, as it appears to me, that some most affectionate fathers disown and disinherit their sons, cutting them off from their homes and from their kindred, when the wickedness which is displayed in them has over-mastered the exceeding and all-pervading love which is implanted by nature in parents. And the truth of this assertion of mine is easy to be seen from other circumstances also. What good could it ever be to any man that his ancestors had been endowed with ever such great acuteness of vision if he himself were deprived of his eyes? How could that fact assist him to see? Or again, supposing a person to have an impediment in his speech, how would his utterance be assisted by the fact that his parents or his grandfathers had had fine voices? And how will a man who has been emaciated and exhausted by a long and wasting disease, be assisted to recover his former strength, if the original founders of his race are, on account of their strength as athletes, enrolled among the Olympic conquerors, or the victors at any other periodical games? For their bodily infirmities will equally remain in the same condition as before, not receiving any amelioration from the successes of their relations.
In the same manner, just parents are of no advantage to unjust men, nor temperate parents to intemperate children, nor, in short, are ancestors of any kind of excellence of any advantage to wicked descendants; for even the laws themselves are of no advantage to those who transgress them, as they are meant to punish them, and what is it that we ought to look upon as unwritten laws, except the lives of those persons who have imitated virtue? On which account, I imagine, that nobility herself, if God were to invest her with the form and organs of a man, would stand before those obstinate and unworthy descendants and speak thus: "Relationship is not measured by blood alone, where truth is the judge, but by a similarity of actions, and by a careful imitation of the conduct of your ancestors. But you have pursued an opposite line of conduct, thinking hateful such actions as are dear to me, and loving such deeds as are hateful to me; for in my eyes modesty, and truth, and moderation, and a due government of the passions, and simplicity, and innocence, are honorable, but in your opinion they are dishonorable; and to me all shameless behavior is hateful, and all falsehood, and all immoderate indulgence of the passions, and all pride, and all wickedness. But you look upon these things as near and dear to you. Why, then, do you, when by your actions you show all possible eagerness to alienate yourselves from them, sheltering yourselves under a plausible name, hypocritically pretend in words to a relationship? For I cannot endure seductive insinuations falsely put on, or any deceit; because it is easy for any persons to find out specious arguments, but it is not easy to change an evil disposition into a good one.
"And I, looking therefore at these facts, both now consider and shall always think those persons who have kindled sparks of enmity my enemies, and I shall look upon them with more suspicion than upon those who have been reproached openly for want of nobility; for they, indeed, have this to allege in their defense, that they have no connection at all with excellence. But you are justly liable to punishment who act thus after having been born of noble houses, and being fond of making your boast of your noble descent, and of looking upon it as your glory; for, though archetypal models of virtue have been established in close connection with, and in a manner implanted in you, you have determined to give no good impression of them yourselves. But that nobility is placed only in the acquisition of virtue, and that you ought to imagine that he who has that is the only man really noble, and not the man who is born of noble and virtuous parents, is plain from many circumstances."
III. Again, who is there who would deny that those men who were born of him who was made out of the earth were noble themselves, and the founders of noble families? persons who have received a birth more excellent than that of any succeeding generation, in being sprung from the first wedded pair, from the first man and woman, who then for the first time came together for the propagation of offspring resembling themselves. But, nevertheless, when there were two persons so born, the elder of them endured to slay the younger [Genesis 4:1]; and, having committed the great and most accursed crime of fratricide, he first defiled the ground with human blood. Now, what good did the nobility of his birth do to a man who had displayed this want of nobleness in his soul? which God, who surveys all human things and actions, detested when he saw it; and, casting it forth, affixed a punishment to it, not slaying him at once, so that he should arrive at an immediate insensibility to misfortunes, but suspending over him ten thousand deaths in his external senses, by means of incessant griefs and fears, so as to inflict upon him the sense of the most grievous calamities.
Now there was, in the subsequent generations, a man very greatly approved of, a most holy man, whose piety the sacred historian, who has written the books called the law, has thought worthy of being recorded in the sacred volumes. Accordingly, in the great deluge when all the cities of the world were utterly destroyed (for even the highest mountains were overwhelmed by the increase and continual rising of the rapid flood), he alone was saved, with all his kindred, having received such a reward for his virtue that it is not possible to imagine a greater one. [Genesis 7:1.]
This man, again, had three sons; and, though they had had their share in the blessing thus bestowed upon their father, one of them dared to turn his father, the cause of his safety, into ridicule, laughing at him, and mocking and reviling him, because of an error which he committed unintentionally, and displaying to those who did not see it what he ought to have concealed, so as to bring disgrace on him who had begotten him. [Genesis 9:22.] Therefore, having now fallen from his brilliant nobility of birth and having become accursed, and having also become the beginning of misery to all his posterity, he suffered all those evils which it was fitting for a man to suffer who had disregarded all the honor due to his parents.
But why should I speak of these men, and pass over the first man who was created out of the earth? who, in respect of the nobleness of his birth can be compared to no mortal whatever, inasmuch as he was fashioned by the hand of God, and invested with a form in the likeness of a human body by the very perfection of all plastic art. And he was also thought worthy of a soul, which was derived from no being who had as yet come into existence by being created, but God breathed into him as much of his own power as mortal nature was capable of receiving. Was it not, then, a perfect excess of all nobleness, which could not possibly come into comparison with any other which is ever spoken of as favors? for all persons who lay claim to that kind of eminence rest their claims on the nobility of their ancestors.
But even those men who have been their ancestors were only animals, subject to disease and to corruption, and their prosperity was, for the most part, very unstable. But the father of his man was not mortal at all, and the sole author of his being was God. And he, being in a manner his image and likeness according to the dominant mind in the soul, though it was his duty to preserve that image free from all spot or blemish, following and imitating as far as was in his power the virtues of him who had created him, since the two opposite qualities of good and evil (what is honorable and what is disgraceful, what is true and what is false) were set before him for his choice and avoidance, deliberately chose what was false, and disgraceful, and evil, and despised what was good, and honorable, and true; for which conduct he was very fairly condemned to change an immortal for a mortal existence, being deprived of blessedness and happiness, and therefore he naturally was changed so as to descend into a laborious and miserable life. [Genesis 3:19.]
IV. But, however, let these men be set down as common rules and limits for all men, in order to prevent them from priding themselves on their noble birth, and so departing from and losing the rewards of excellence. But there are also other especial rules given to the Jews besides the common ones which are applicable to all mankind; for they are derived from the original founders of the nation, to whom the virtues of their ancestors were absolutely of no benefit at all, inasmuch as they were detected in blameable and guilty actions, and were convicted, if not by any other human being, at all events by their own consciences, which is the sole tribunal in the world which is never led away by any artifices of speech.
The first man of them had a numerous family, inasmuch as he had children by three wives, not forming these connections for the sake of pleasure, but because of his hope of multiplying his race. But, of all his children, one alone was appointed to be the inheritor of his father's possessions; and all the rest, being disappointed of their reasonable hopes, and having failed to obtain any portion whatever of their father's wealth, departed to live in different countries, having been completely alienated from that celebrated nobility of birth.
Again, to the one who was approved of as the heir, there were born two sons, twins, resembling one another in no particular except in the hands, and even in them only by some especial providence of God, inasmuch as they were alike neither in their bodies nor in their minds, for the younger one was obedient to both his parents, and was really amiable and pleasing, so that he obtained the praises even of God; while the elder was disobedient, being intemperate in respect of the pleasures of the belly and of the parts beneath the belly, by a regard for which he was induced even to part with his birth-right, as far as he himself was concerned, though he repented immediately afterwards of the conditions on which he had forfeited it, and sought to slay his brother, and, in fact, to do everything imaginable by which he could be likely to pain his parents; therefore they, in the first place, offered up prayers for his brother to the supreme God, who accepted them, and who did not choose to leave any one of them unaccomplished; while to the others they gave, out of compassion, a subordinate rank, appointing that he should serve his brother, thinking, as indeed is the truth, that the fact of not being his own master, is good for a wicked man.
And if the elder brother had cheerfully submitted to the servitude, he would have been thought worthy of a secondary reward, as having come off second in a contest of virtue; but as the case stands, having behaved in a self-willed manner, and having refused to submit to servitude, he became the cause of great reproach, both to himself and to his descendants, so that his miserable life has been indelibly recorded for a most manifest proof that nobility of birth is of no service whatever to those who do not deserve to have it.
V. These men therefore are both of that class which is open to reproach; men whom, as they showed themselves wicked men, though descended from virtuous fathers, the virtues of their fathers failed to profit in the least, while the vices which existed in their souls did them infinite mischief; and I can also speak of others, who, on the contrary, ranged themselves in a better class, after having been born in a worse, since their forefathers were guilty, while their own life was to be admired and was full of praise and virtue.
The most ancient person of the Jewish nation was a Chaldaean by birth, born of a father who was very skillful in astronomy, and famous among those men who pass their lives in the study of mathematics, who look upon the stars as gods, and worship the whole heaven and the whole world; thinking, that from them do all good and all evil proceed, to every individual among men; as they do not conceive that there is any cause whatever, except such as are included among the objects of the outward senses. Now what can be more horrible than this? What can more clearly show the innate ignobleness of the soul, which, by consequence of its knowledge of the generality of things, of secondary causes, and of things created, proceeds onwards to ignorance of the one most ancient uncreated Being, the Creator of the universe, and who is most excellent on this account, and for many other reasons also, which the human reason is unable to comprehend by reason of their magnitude?
But this man, having formed a proper conception of him in his mind, and being under the influence of inspiration, left his country, and his family, and his father's house, well knowing that, if he remained among them, the deceitful fancies of the polytheistic doctrine abiding there likewise, must render his mind incapable of arriving at the proper discovery of the one true God, who is the only everlasting God and the Father of all other things, whether appreciable only by the intellect or perceptible by the outward senses; while, on the other hand, he saw, that if he rose up and quitted his native land, deceit would also depart from his mind. changing his false opinions into true belief.
At the same time, also, the divine oracles of God which were imparted to him excited still further that desire which longed to attain to a knowledge of the living God, by which he was guided, and thus went forth with most unhesitating earnestness to the investigation of the one God. And he never desisted from this investigation till he arrived at a more distinct perception, not indeed of his essence, for that is impossible, but of his existence, and of his over-ruling providence as far as it can be allowed to man to attain to such; for which reason he is the first person who is said to have believed in God [Genesis 15:6], since he was the first who had an unswerving and firm comprehension of him, apprehending that there is one supreme cause, and that he it is which governs the world by his providence, and all the things that are therein. And having attained to a most firm comprehension of the virtues, he acquired at the same time all the other virtues and excellencies also, so that he was looked upon as a king by those who received him [Genesis 23:6], not indeed in respect of his appointments, for he was only a private individual, but in his magnanimity and greatness of soul, inasmuch as he was of a royal spirit.
For, indeed, his servants at all times steadfastly observed him, as subjects observe a ruler, looking with admiration at the universal greatness of his nature and disposition, which was more perfect than is customary to meet with in a man; for he did not use the same conversation as ordinary men, but, like one inspired, spoke in general in more dignified language.
Whenever, therefore, he was possessed by the Holy Spirit he at once changed everything for the better, his eyes and his complexion, and his size and his appearance while standing, and his motions, and his voice; the Holy Spirit, which, being breathed into him from above, took up its lodging in his soul, clothing his body with extraordinary beauty, and investing his words with persuasiveness at the same time that it endowed his hearers with understanding.
Would not any one, then, be quite correct to say that this man who thus left his native land, who thus forsook all his relations and all his friends, was the most nobly related of all men, as aiming at making himself a kinsman of God, and laboring by every means in his power to become his disciple and friend? And that he was deservedly ranked in the very highest class among the prophets, because he trusted in no created being in preference to the uncreated God, the Father of all? And being honored as king, as I have said before, by those who received him among them, not as having obtained his authority by warlike arms, or by armed hosts, as some persons have done, but having received his appointment from the all-righteous God, who honors the lovers of piety with independent authority, to the great advantage of all who are associated with them.
This man is the standard of nobleness to all who come to settle in a foreign land, leaving that ignobleness which attaches to them from foreign laws and unbecoming customs, which give honors, such as are due only to God, to stocks, and to stones, and, in short, to all kinds of inanimate things; and who have thus come over to a constitution really full of vitality and life, the president and governor of which is truth.
VI. This nobleness has been an object of desire not only to God-loving men, but likewise to women, who have discarded the ignorance in which they have been bred up, which taught them to honor, as deities, creatures made with hands, and have learnt instead that knowledge of there being only one supreme Ruler of the universe, by whom the whole world is governed and regulated; for Tamar was a woman from Syria Palestina, who had been bred up in her own native city, which was devoted to the worship of many gods, being full of statues, and images, and, in short, of idols of every kind and description. But when she, emerging, as it were, out of profound darkness, was able to see a slight beam of truth, she then, at the risk of her life, exerted all her energies to arrive at piety, caring little for life if she could not live virtuously; and living virtuously was exactly identical with living for the service of and in constant supplication to the one true God.
And yet she, having married two wicked brothers in turn, one after the other, first of all the one who was the husband of her virginity, and lastly him who succeeded to her by the law which enjoined such a marriage, in the case of the first husband not having left any family, but nevertheless, having preserved her own life free from all stain, was able to attain to that fair reputation which falls to the lot of the good, and to be the beginning of nobleness to all those who came after her.
But even though she was a foreigner still she was nevertheless a freeborn woman, and born also of freeborn parents of no insignificant importance; but her handmaidens were born of parents who lived on the other side of the Euphrates on the extremities of the country of Babylon, such as were given as part of their dowry to maidens of high rank when they were married, but still were often thought worthy to be taken to the bed of a wise man; and so they first of all were raised from the title of concubines to the name and dignity of wives, and in a short time, I may almost say, instead of being looked upon as handmaidens they were raised to an equality in point of dignity and consideration with their mistresses, and, which is the most extraordinary circumstance of all, were even invited by their mistresses to this position and dignity.
For envy does not dwell in the souls of the wise, and whenever that is not present they all have all things in common.
And the illegitimate sons borne by those handmaidens differed in no respect from the legitimate children of the real wives, not only in the eyes of the father who begot them, for it is not at all surprising if he who was the father of them all displayed an equal degree of good-will to them all, since they were all equally his children; but they also were equally esteemed by their stepmothers. For they, laying aside all that dislike which women so commonly feel towards their stepsons, changed it into an unceasing affection with which they united themselves to them. And the stepsons, showing a reciprocal good will to them, honored their stepmothers as if they had been their natural mothers. And their brothers, being separated from them only by the mixture in their blood, nevertheless did not think them worthy of only a half degree of affection, but even increased their feelings so that they entertained a twofold degree of love for them, being equally beloved by them in return; and thus more than filled up what might else have appeared likely to be deficient, showing an eagerness to exhibit the same harmony and union of disposition with them that they did with their brethren by both parents.
VII. We must not, therefore, give in to those persons who seek to creep stealthily into the possession of a property belonging to others, namely, nobility of birth, as though it were of right their own, and who, with the exception of those whom I have mentioned, might justly be looked upon as enemies not only of the race of the Jews but of all the human race in every quarter. Of the one because they give a truce to those of the same nation, allowing them to despise sound and stable virtue, through trusting implicitly in the virtue of their ancestors; and of the others because, even if they could attain to the highest and most absolute perfection of all excellence, they would still derive no advantage themselves, because of their not having irreproachable fathers and grandfathers.
Than which I do not know that there can possibly be a more mischievous doctrine, if there is no avenging punishment to follow those who being descended of virtuous parents have made themselves, and if on the contrary no honor is to be assigned to those who have become good though born of wicked parents, though the law judges each man by himself, and does not praise or blame any one with reference to the virtues or vices of his ancestors.