Every King Springs From a Race of Slaves, and Every Slave Has Had Kings Among His Ancestors

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.

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  1. 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

There Is No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing

Toby Keith? Charles Jewett? W. Adam? Seneca the Younger? Waylon Jennings? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A song by the country music superstar Toby Keith includes the following words in the chorus:

Ain’t no right way,
To do the wrong thing,

The song is on the album “White Trash With Money” which was released in 2006. More than a decade ago I started to use the same saying:

There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.

Yet, I do not recall hearing this phrase before 2000. Is this a modern proverb?

Quote Investigator: Some researchers thought the phrase might be modern, i.e., twentieth century, but a major new reference work: “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R Shapiro dispelled that notion. The authors found a citation before 1900 and placed the phrase in a special appendix listing: “No Longer Modern Proverbs” [DMRW].

In fact, the aphorism has a long history. In 1850 an article about the relationship between Britain and India was published in the U.S. periodical “De Bow’s Southern and Western Review”. The article criticized the dominance of Britain [DBWA]:

They stand in the relation of conquerors and conquered; of arbitrary rulers and subject masses; of masters and slaves-without common associations, …

The phrase was used when the author discussed how Britain should rule India [DBWA]:

There is no right way of doing a wrong thing; and while the relation itself is allowed to continue, the mode of acting under that relation must partake of its vicious and unnatural character.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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You Must Know Your Destination Port If You Wish to Catch A Favorable Wind

Oscar Wilde? Seneca the Younger? Leon Tec?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I came across a quotation in a pub in Germany that was credited to Oscar Wilde. Your help in tracing this expression would be greatly appreciated but there is a twist to this request that will probably increase the difficulty. I have not been able to find this quote in its original English language version. All I could find on the web was the German phrase as I saw it in the pub. Here is the saying together with a translation:

Günstige Winde kann nur der nutzen, der weiß, wohin er will.

Only he can make use of favourable winds who knows where he wants to go.

I know that Oscar Wilde attracts a large number of spurious attributions. Could you search for the original version of this aphorism and determine who said it?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located any substantive evidence connecting this saying to Oscar Wilde. Intriguingly, the earliest evidence points to a maxim that was written in Latin and not English. During classical antiquity Seneca the Younger wrote about ports and catching a favorable wind. Here is the Latin version of one of his adages together with an English translation [SYDC]:

Ignoranti quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est.

If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.

Seneca. Epistolae, LXXI., 3.

The wording and the emphasis in the above maxim differs somewhat from the content of the quotation provided by the questioner. However, over the years other writers have modified Seneca’s saying. Here is a modern example attributed to Seneca in a volume aimed at public speakers titled “The Speaker’s Sourcebook” which was published in 1988 [SYSP]:

You must know for which harbor you are headed if you are to catch the right wind to take you there. Seneca

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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