Helen Keller? Socrates? Plato? Seneca the Younger? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A person has two genetic parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents. The number of ancestors in a generation roughly doubles when going backwards in time, and this exponential growth implies that each individual has an enormous number of ancestors. This line of reasoning suggests two remarkable insights about human lineages and fluctuating social power:
- Every king has ancestors who were slaves.
- Every slave has ancestors who were kings.
This dual notion has been credited to three famous ancient sages: Socrates, Plato, and Seneca the Younger. It has also been attributed to the deaf-blind social activist Helen Keller. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: Plato presented a dialogue between Socrates and Theaetetus on the nature of knowledge. Socrates discussed the pride some feel about having an illustrious ancestry, and he indicated that a person with a philosophical temperament would be skeptical about this undeserved self-approval. The following excerpt is from a translation by Harold N. Fowler. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
And when people sing the praises of lineage and say someone is of noble birth, because he can show seven wealthy ancestors, he thinks that such praises betray an altogether dull and narrow vision on the part of those who utter them; because of lack of education they cannot keep their eyes fixed upon the whole and are unable to calculate that every man has had countless thousands of ancestors and progenitors, among whom have been in any instance rich and poor, kings and slaves, barbarians and Greeks.
The phrasing above differed from the two target quotations. Yet, this passage from Plato’s instantiation of Socrates did logically imply that each king had some slave as an ancestor, and each slave had some king as an ancestor.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The philosopher Seneca the Younger (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) also discussed the topic of ancestry. He argued that the nobility of Plato stemmed from the ideas he articulated and not from his ancestry. In Seneca’s Epistle XLIV he restated the remark from Socrates while crediting Plato. The translation is from Richard M. Gummere: 2
We have all had the same number of forefathers; there is no man whose first beginning does not transcend memory.
Plato says: “Every king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his ancestors.”
The flight of time, with its vicissitudes, has jumbled all such things together, and Fortune has turned them upside down. Then who is well-born? He who is by nature well fitted for virtue.
In 1895 a religious periodical called “The Herald and Presbyter” published a piece presenting a similar perspective while referring to Biblical genealogy: 3
We are all descended from Adam and Eve, and there is in each of our veins the blood of millions of progenitors.
In view of these facts, how absurd is pride of birth! The poorest and obscurest man of this generation may have kings among his ancestors, though he can not trace his lineage back to them, as Joseph of Nazareth and Mary his wife could trace theirs to King David. And the titled millionaire, nay, the prince royal, may be the descendant of gypsies or of galley slaves. The English aristocracy talk about their ten or twenty unblemished descents. But if they could go back two thousand years, where would they find their hundred million ancestors?
In 1904 Helen Keller referred to her ancestry in her autobiography “The Story of My Life”. She noted that one of her ancestors had been a teacher of the deaf, and she further remarked on the oscillating status of ones forbears: 4
The family on my father’s side is descended from Caspar Keller, a native of Switzerland, who settled in Maryland. One of my Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich and wrote a book on the subject of their education—rather a singular coincidence; though it is true that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.
In 1909 the novel “Katherine the Arrogant” by Bithia Mary Croker contained a condensed version of the saying: 5
“No, certainly I do not match with my surroundings, but I feel entirely at my ease: ‘Every king the son of a slave, every slave the son of a king.’ You have read that? Far away in the mists of the past I know I had a pedigree. Now I’m pedigree mad, so my good lady says, and perhaps you may think me mad enough without the pedigree! Ha! ha!”
In 1920 “Cassell’s New Popular Educator: A Cyclopaedia of Knowledge and General Information” included an article about zoology that contained the following excerpt: 6
Still we know that our kings and princes have to-day their collateral kindred among peasants and paupers; that every king has a slave among his ancestors, every slave a king among his. Imagine a similar process of evolution proceeding in nature, but extending, not over centuries, but over millions of years.
In 1944 a columnist in “The Pittsburgh Courier” of Pennsylvania attributed a version of the statement to Plato: 7
Start digging up ancestry and you never know what you’ll find. Plato, writing 2400 years ago, said that every king could count slaves among his ancestors and every slave, kings among his.
In 1949 “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” compiled by Burton Stevenson included the following entry attributing the saying to Plato, but this instance was really from Seneca the Younger and not Plato: 8
Every king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his ancestors.
PLATO, Thaestetus. Sec. 174.
In 1952 “FPA Book of Quotations” compiled by Franklin Pierce Adams included the following entry: 9
There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.
—HELEN KELLER (1880- ) Story of My Life
In conclusion, the core idea under examination was attributed to Socrates by Plato. Plato wrote a dialog circa 369 BCE between Socrates and Theaetetus which included the following words attributed to Socrates: “every man has had countless thousands of ancestors . . . among whom have been . . . kings and slaves”.
Seneca the Younger credited Plato with a restatement of this comment: “Every king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his ancestors.” Helen Keller echoed ancient wisdom when she included the following in her autobiography: “There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.”
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry about the quotation ascribed to Helen Keller led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1921, Plato, English Translation by Harold N. Fowler (Western Reserve University), Volume 2, Section: Theaetetus, Quote Page 123 to 125, William Heinemann, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1917, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, English Translation by Richard M. Gummere (Haverford College), Volume 1 of 3, Epistle XLIV: On Philosophy and Pedigrees, Start Page 287, Quote Page 289, William Heinemann, London.(Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1895 February 6, The Herald and Presbyter, Volume 56, Number 6, The Two Pyramids, Start Page 7, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Monfort & Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1904, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, With Her Letters (1887-1901), Edited by John Albert Macy, Chapter 1, Quote Page 3 and 4, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link ↩
- 1913 (First Published 1909), Katherine the Arrogant by B. M. Croker (Bithia Mary Croker), Seventh Edition, Chapter 11, Quote Page 128 and 129, Methuen & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1920, Cassell’s New Popular Educator: A Cyclopaedia of Knowledge and General Information, Volume 1, Topic: Zoology, Quote Page 278, Column 2, Cassell and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1944 September 23, The Pittsburgh Courier, Rogers Says: Digging Into Family Ancestry Produces Many Startling Results by J. A. Rogers, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Ancestry, Quote Page 73, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1952, FPA Book of Quotations, Selected by Franklin Pierce Adams, Section: King, Quote Page 473, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩