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.