On Ancestry

Justin E. H. Smith at his own blog:

Two thoughts have long come unbidden to my mind whenever I hear people talking about doing their family trees, or, more recently, getting their DNA done. The first is of Bruce Willis’s character in Pulp Fiction, the boxer Butch Coolidge in the back of the taxi, who, when asked by his South American driver what his name means, replies, “I’m an American, baby, our names don’t mean shit.” The other is of Seneca, who wrote in his Moral Letters to Lucilius: “If there is any good in philosophy, it is this, — that it never looks into pedigrees. All men, if traced back to their original source, spring from the gods.”

To be an American is to bear a name with no historical resonance, or at least none worth looking into, to orient oneself in the world without regard for lineage. To be a philosopher is to know consciously what the American feels by instinct: that the reason lineages are not worth looking into is the same for all of us, namely, that we all derive from the same divine source.

But I am, or like to think of myself as, an American philosopher, and so of course I always scoffed when my late father –who did not share my sensibility, did not see being American in the same way– used to come home with all sorts of vital-statistics records from Utah and Arkansas, with genealogical scrolls stretching back to Olde England. I always got a vague whiff of prejudice moreover from those family-history buffs more extreme than my father ever was, displaying with pride their ancestors’ tartan patterns above the fireplace, or hanging up a coat-of-arms and explaining with pride why the stag is rampant as opposed to statant, say, or offering an embroidered pillow with some implausible sentiment about Irish or Polish or Swedish superiority. No, I always thought, to hell with all that. I come from nowhere. I come from no one but the gods.

More here.