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Quotations about History



History ain't what it is. It's what some writer wanted it to be. ~Will Rogers (1879–1935)


How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down! ~John Aubrey (1626–1697), Lives of Eminent Men  [spelling modernized —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]


History is to the effect that man's sins always find him out; but men continue to bet that they won't. ~E. W. Howe


Man turns his observing faculties and his reason upon history, and begins to study it. At first he sees only events, and history is only annals. Then he sees some morals in these events, and history becomes what is known as epic history, — the illustration of moral truth in events. Then he sees a continuity in these events; they are connected one with another; he sees that in every to-day walks a to-morrow, and out of every year grows another year, and out of every decade another decade, and out of every age another age. He sees evolution and development from age to age, and begins to study philosophic history; and then he has gotten as far as he can go. He knows events, he knows there is a moral significance in the events, and he knows there is a continuity in the events; but to what these events are leading, whither the world is marching, what is to be the issue and the outcome, that he does not know. In vain he asks history: history is dumb. ~Lyman Abbott


The mystery of history is an insoluble problem. ~Henry Ward Beecher


History is a riddle, to be solved by inference... We see the puppets dance, but the springs which move them are invisible, and must be conjectured. ~C. Nestell Bovee


Why is it that history is chiefly a record of cruelty and crime? Because it is badly written. All the more agreeable and placid scenes and events are passed over in silence. ~William Benton Clulow, Horæ Otiosæ, 1833


History is a vast dust-heap of falsehood with a few pennies of truth scattered through it. ~Austin O'Malley


The road through Irish history is made up of lanes which wind about, and never come to an end till they twist into pathways which never begin. ~Charles Haddon Spurgeon


History is a piece played by whom? By dead heroes, who have become, thanks to the writer, living actors. The historian, a poet by virtue of his magic art, transforms his readers into ocular witnesses of the things which he relates. ~Joseph Roux, translated from French by Isabel F. Hapgood


History, if thoroughly comprehended, furnishes something of the experience which a man would acquire who should be a contemporary of all ages and a fellow-citizen of all peoples. ~Joseph Roux, translated from French by Isabel F. Hapgood


History is the shadow of time; life its substance, and they bear the same relation to one another, that the dim twilight does to the up-risen and visible sun. It is in vain to talk to men of throwing their minds into the past, or into the future, you may as well bid them leap out of themselves, or beyond their shadow. The present is all in all to us. ~Horace Smith


Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters. ~African proverb


History isn't made by remarkable people. It's made by unremarkable people doing remarkable things. How are you going to make history today? ~Making History, "Pilot," 2017, written by Julius Sharpe  [S1, E1, Chris]


History is herstory, too. ~Author unknown


Perhaps nobody has changed the course of history as much as the historians. ~Franklin P. Jones, as quoted in The Reader's Digest, 1958


A mere compilation of facts presents only the skeleton of History; we do but little for her if we cannot invest her with life, clothe her in the habiliments of her day, and enable her to call forth the sympathies of succeeding generations... Unless history can be converted to moral uses, it is only "a little book got by heart." ~Hannah Farnham Sawyer Lee, The Huguenots in France and America, 1843


Our history is every human history: a black and gory business, with more scoundrels than wise men at the lead, and more louts than both put together to cheer and follow. ~Philip Wylie, Generation of Vipers, 1942


History is a very tricky thing. To begin with, you can't get it mixed up with the past. The past actually happened, but history is only what someone wrote down. ~A. Whitney Brown, The Big Picture, 1991


I know that it will be said by many, That I might have been more pleasing to the Reader, if I had written the Story of mine own times; having been permitted to draw Water as near the Well-head as another. To this I answer, That whosoever in writing a modern History, shall follow truth too near the Heels, it may happily strike out his Teeth. ~Walter Raleigh (c.1554–1618), The History of the World, 1614


The masculine creations of intellectual civilization are towers of Babel, they dare to defy their foundations and therefore topple down over and over again. Thus human history is growing up over layers of ruins; it is not a continuous life growth. ~Rabindranath Tagore, "Woman," Personality, 1917


History is a chaos. ~Leslie Stephen (1832–1904)


History is not written in black ink, but with the red ink of human blood. The gods of human ambition did not drink from bowls made out of silver, or gold, or precious stones, but out of the bleached skulls of the fallen. ~T. DeWitt Talmage (1832–1902)


History is but one long repetition, and one century is a plagiarism of another. ~Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862, translated by Lascelles Wraxall and Alphonse Esquiros, 1879


It has more than once occurred, that a society has been sunk by the wind which is let loose on men; history is full of the shipwrecks of peoples and empires; one day, that stranger, the hurricane, passes, and carries away manners, laws, and religions. ~Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862, translated by Lascelles Wraxall and Alphonse Esquiros, 1879


      THE DEVIL.  But I will now go further, and confess to you that men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell; and that all history is nothing but a record of the oscillations of the world between these two extremes. An epoch is but a swing of the pendulum; and each generation thinks the world is progressing because it is always moving. But when you are as old as I am; when you have a thousand times wearied of heaven... and a thousand times wearied of hell, as you are wearied now, you will no longer imagine that every swing from heaven to hell is an emancipation, every swing from hell to heaven an evolution. Where you now see reform, progress, fulfilment of upward tendency, continual ascent by Man on the stepping stones of his dead selves to higher things, you will see nothing but an indefinite comedy of illusion.
      DON JUAN.  By Heaven, this is worse than your cant about love and beauty. ~Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy, 1903


When we visit a doctor, we find out before hand whether he is a surgeon or a diagnostician or a homeopath or a faith healer, for we want to know from what angle he will look at our complaint. We ought to be as careful in the choice of our historians as we are in the selection of our physicians. We think, "Oh well, history is history," and let it go at that. ~Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Story of Mankind, 1921


It must therefore once again be acknowledged, that history in general is a collection of crimes, follies, and misfortunes, among which we have now and then met with a few virtues, and some happy times... ~Voltaire, translated from the French by T. Smollett, T. Francklin, et al., 1761


But history supplies little beyond a list of those who have accomodated themselves with the property of others. ~Voltaire (1694–1778)


Scepticism is history's bedfellow. ~Edgar Saltus, "The Whirlwind," The Imperial Orgy: An Account of the Tsars from the First to the Last, 1920


To keep the past alive for us is the pious function of the historian. Our curiosity is endless, his is the task of gratifying it. We want to know what happened long ago. Performance of this task is only proximately possible; but none the less it must be attempted, for the demand for it is born afresh with every infant's cry. History is a pageant and not a philosophy. ~Augustine Birrell, "The Muse of History," Obiter Dicta, Second Series, 1887


History is but a collection of epitaphs. ~Elbert Hubbard, 1906


PLATO. I am no writer of history.
DIOGENES. Every great writer is a writer of history, let him treat on almost what subject he may.
~Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864)


...the historian must serve two masters, the past and the present. And while his obligation to the past, his complete, unassailable fidelity to it, must always claim his first loyalty, he must accept the fact that the choices he makes as a historian are not of consequence to him alone, but will affect the moral sense, perhaps the wisdom of his generation. ~Fritz Stern, 1956


The real history does not get written, because it is not in people's brains but in their nerves and vitals. ~Alfred North Whitehead


It is a great pity that every human being does not, at an early stage of his life, have to write a historical work. He would then realize that the human race is in quite a jam about truth. ~Rebecca West, "The Art of Skepticism," in Vogue, 1952


More and more, I tend to read history. I often find it more up to date than the daily newspapers. ~Joe Murray, "History updates current events," Spartanburg Herald-Journal, May 10th 1992


No volume of history is insignificant, even the worst chapters. Especially the worst chapters. ~Terri Guillemets


Somebody declares that history is a manifestation of the triumph of good over evil. The good prevails now and then, no doubt, but how local and transitory is such triumph. If historic tomes had a voice, it would sound as one long moan of anguish. ~George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, 1903


History is a nightmare of horrors; we relish it, because we love pictures, and because all that man has suffered is to man rich in interest. But make real to yourself the vision of every blood-stained page — stand in the presence of the ravening conqueror, the savage tyrant — tread the stones of the dungeon and of the torture-room — feel the fire of the stake — hear the cries of that multitude which no man can number, the victims of calamity, of oppression, of fierce injustice in its myriad forms, in every land, in every age — and what joy have you of your historic reading? One would need to be a devil to understand it thus, and yet to delight in it. ~George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, 1903


A cross-section of our society to-day represents the entire geological formation of human nature for 40,000 years. We need but look on the faces of the men about us as we go down the street. All history is here this minute. ~Gerald Stanley Lee, 1912


History is not a series of causeless consequences. Event follows event in time, as minute follows minute in the day. ~George William Curtis, 1856


Human history is the story of that Good Fight, of the effort of man to attain that universal liberty to which he feels himself born. All wars are but battles in this war. It is fought by the tongue and pen as earnestly as with the sword and shell. It is called by various names. The combatants rally under various banners. Whatever in human nature is hopeful, generous, aspiring — the love of God and trust in man — is arrayed on one side. The meaner passions, the baser purpose, stand upon the other. ~George William Curtis, 1865


For history is not a clear scroll, but a palimpsest; and he who is versed only in the autography of his contemporaries misses half the opportunity and half the gladness of life. ~Louise Imogen Guiney (1861–1920)


History is Force dressed up. ~Elbert Hubbard


Human nature, it has been said, like water, seeks its lowest level. According to the cynics, it will always do so. The cynic makes a generalisation of the world's disappointments and sets it up as a law... He would like to write across the future a jeering "I told you so." For the future has no secrets from him: it is simply the past coming in at the other side of the stage. The historian will perhaps quarrel with us for associating him with the cynic. He will deny that the cynical interpretation of history is either the only one or the true one. He will remind us that history is a book of golden deeds as well as a catalogue of a thousand and one fiascos. He will justly protest that to scorn the lessons of history is to scorn the lessons of experience and is the act of a greenhorn rather than of an intelligent idealist. I will concede this. I do not wish to dispute with those who find in history a lesson. I object only to those who find in it an infallible prophecy. ~Robert Lynd, "The Importance of Forgetting History," 1918


History is not fit to be read unless by those who realise that it is a branch of indecent literature. ~Robert Lynd, "The Importance of Forgetting History," 1918


Then, Sir, you would reduce all history to no better than an almanack, a mere chronological series of remarkable events. ~James Boswell, 1775


The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice. ~Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897


Political history is far too criminal and pathological to be a fit subject of study for the young. All teachers know this. In consequence, they bowdlerize, but to bowdlerize political history is not to simplify but to falsify it. Children should acquire their heroes and villains from fiction. ~W. H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, 1970


In the Cornell Library of 40,000 volumes there are no novels. There is, however, plenty of fiction in the histories and philosophies. ~Mary Wilson Little, Reveries of a Paragrapher, 1897


An historian is an unsuccessful novelist. ~H. L. Mencken, 1916


It may be laid down as a general rule, though subject to considerable qualifications and exceptions, that history begins in novel and ends in essay. ~Thomas Babington Macaulay, "History," 1828


If you think you have it tough, read history books. ~Bill Maher


What is the fire in our belly but the eternal flame of a thousand ancestors. ~Robert Brault, rbrault.blogspot.com


Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it. ~Oscar Wilde, 1891


I mean, truly great history is not subtle. It smacks you in the face. You know it at the time you're watching it — you're seeing something that's for the ages. ~Tom Verducci  [said at the finish of the 2014 World Series, about Madison Bumgarner's pitching, 2014 October 29th —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]


Histories used often to be stories: the fashion now is to leave out the story. Our histories are stall-fed: the facts are absorbed by the reflexions, as the meat is sometimes by the fat. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827


The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward. ~Winston Churchill


History is man's best guess as to what the past would look like if everything had happened in chronological order. ~Robert Brault, rbrault.blogspot.com


There is a timelessness about this night;
There must be old ghosts riding on this wind,
Old words and old eternal songs and slight
Old whispers that no crowding years have dimmed...
~Gerald Raftery (1905–1986), "Ancient Night," 1936


People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. ~James Baldwin, 1955


Professor Johnston often said that if you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree. ~Michael Crichton, Timeline, 1999


A history in which every particular incident may be true may on the whole be false. ~Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859)


History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. ~Winston Churchill


History... It is not a mighty drama, enacted on the theatre of Infinitude, with Suns for lamps, and Eternity as a background, whose author is God... but a poor wearisome debating-club dispute, spun through the centuries... ~Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), "Voltaire"  [a little altered —tg]


There seemed no plausible connection between cause and effect, or ends and means. History was a trash bag of random coincidences torn open in a wind. Surely, Watt with his steam engine, Faraday with his electric motor, and Edison with his incandescent light bulb did not have it as their goal to contribute to a fuel shortage someday that would place their countries at the mercy of Arab oil. ~Joseph Heller, Good as Gold, 1979


Along through the book I have distributed a few anachronisms and unborn historical incidents and such things, as to help the tale over the difficult places. This idea is not original with me; I got it out of Herodotus. Herodotus says, "Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects." ~Mark Twain, 1905


History is gossip well told. ~Elbert Hubbard, 1905


[T]here certainly is no useful or entertaining history but the history of the day. All ancient histories, as one of our wits has observed, are only fables that men have agreed to admit as true; and with regard to modern history, it is a chaos out of which it is impossible to make anything... ~François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778), "Jeannot et Colin," 1764, translated from French by William Walton, 1900  [The wit has been identified as Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle. Et merci, Monsieur R.J.J., pour l'observation de la grammaire. —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]


A generation which ignores history has no past — and no future. ~Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988)


There is a history in all men's lives,
Figuring the natures of the times deceas'd;
The which observ'd, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, who in their seeds
And weak beginning lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time...
~William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part II, c.1597  [III, 1, Earl of Warwick]


History in the final analysis is the clock people use to tell the cultural and political time of day and it is the compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been and what they have been; where they are and what they are. Most important, history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be. ~John Henrik Clarke, "African People in World History," 1982


In that delightful land embosomed in the Mediterranean sea, there once stood in its pride and strength one of the most splendid cities of the world.... Since then, many centuries have rolled away and are lost in oblivion.— They have gone, and O how many millions of men have gone with them to the shoreless ocean of eternity!... [T]his city.... [h]er palaces have crumbled, and the owl builds her nest within the mouldering chambers of her kings. The poet's lyre is broken. The voice of eloquence is forever hushed. The wine-cup is in the dust. The voice of their merriment has long since ceased. The good, the brave, the noble, the wealthy and the poor, are all forgotten. Spirit of change! these mighty revolutions are thine. Thou art the eldest-born of time; thy lessons are precious to the soul, and ever should they be treasured in the memory. ~Charles Lanman, "Musings," 1840


No man is truly great, who is great only in his life-time. The test of greatness is the page of history. ~William Hazlitt, "The Indian Jugglers," Table Talk, 1846


K is for KENGHIS KHAN
He was a very nice person. History has no record of him. There is a moral in that, somewhere. ~Harlan Ellison, "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet," 1976


      Our perception of life is always far more abrupt than the objective reality. History presents continuities, but thinking about history always runs in terms of Golden Ages and cataclysms, of Eden and the fall. Our tendency to make a cataclysm out of the coming of fascism is all the sharper since we have the Great War to set as the cleavage-line between civilization and chaos. But actually history is an unbroken web. The Great War represented the explosion of dynamite that had been stored up in the European powder-house for decades in the form of imperialist rivalries. Nor is the new age of fascist tyrants a sudden visitation to the world. It is not a brand-new weapon that the capitalists have discovered for maintaining their power. The weapon has been in use for some time.
      No, it is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are fodder for fascism. ~Max Lerner, It Is Later Than You Think: The Need for a Militant Democracy, 1938–1943


The remarkable thing is that a preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is but often prompts us to rearrange the past. To enter the realm of the future is like entering a foreign country: one must have a passport, and one must be able to provide a detailed record of one's past. Thus a nation's preoccupation with history is not unfrequently an effort to obtain a passport for the future. Often it is a forged passport. ~Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind, 1955


That man was a philosopher, who said that the history of the world was a history of ruin. It is so.— Wherever we turn our eyes, we cannot fail to behold some magnificent ruin. Our daily footsteps are imprinted in the dust of things which were once the admiration of men. They are the hieroglyphics of time. Silent and holy are all their teachings. Sometimes they remind us of beauty and peace, and sometimes of terror, tumult and woe. They have nothing to do with the future and present, but the past is their all; and yet how wise, how important their counsels! ~Charles Lanman, "Musings," 1840


I would endeavor to show you New England in its seed-bed, before the hot suns of modern progress had developed its sprouting germs into the great trees of to-day. ~Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oldtown Folks, 1869


The effects of human wickedness are written on the page of history in characters of blood: but the impression soon fades away; so more blood must be shed to renew it. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827


The only person who calls him by his full name is Minerva, because it reminds her of the history of Greece. Gee whiz, I don't want to be reminded about that. History and practical bookkeeping — good night. ~Percy Keese Fitzhugh, Roy Blakeley: Lost, Strayed or Stolen, 1921


Every true history must, by its human and vital presentation of events, force us to remember that the past was once real as the present and uncertain as the future. ~George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962), "Clio, A Muse," Clio, A Muse, and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian, 1913


The impulse to the creation of folk-lore dies away as intellectual development progresses, and memory is less relied upon when the habit of trusting to the written word grows up. The high favour, nevertheless, still enjoyed by written history rests on the love of storytelling innate in mankind and the intense æsthetic delight felt in stories of human life, adventure tales, and anecdotes, whether true or invented. The historical sense is an artificial product of the ruling classes, who use it as a means for investing the existing order, which is advantageous to themselves alone, with a mystic and poetic charm, for beautifying abuses by the glorification of their origin, and for casting a glamour of half-tender, half-reverential awe over institutions that have long lost any reasonable justification and become useless and meaningless. Its practical purpose, in a word, is to oppress and deceive the present with the assistance of the past. ~Max Nordau (1849–1923), "History and the Writing of History," The Interpretation of History, 1909, translated from the German by Mary Agnes Hamilton, 1910


When we skim along the surface of history we see little but the rough barren rocks that rise out of it. ~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827


History is but the record of the public and official acts of human beings. It is our object, therefore, to humanize our history and deal with people past and present; people who ate and possibly drank; not grave tragedians, posing perpetually for their photographs. ~Bill Nye and Frederick B. Opper, Preface, Bill Nye's History of the United States, 1894


The History does not appear to be the fruit of much industry or research. It is unquestionably inaccurate. But it is elegant, lively, and picturesque, beyond any other in the Italian language. The reader, we believe, carries away from it a more vivid and a more faithful impression of the national character and manners, than from more correct accounts. The truth is, that the book belongs rather to ancient than to modern literature. It is in the style, not of Davila and Clarendon, but of Herodotus and Tacitus; and the classical histories may almost be called romances founded in fact... The fashion of later times is different. A more exact narrative is given by the writer. It may be doubted whether more exact notions are conveyed to the reader. The best portraits are those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature; and we are not aware, that the best histories are not those in which a little of the exaggeration of fictitious narrative is judiciously employed. Something is lost in accuracy; but much is gained in effect. The fainter lines are neglected; but the great characteristic features are imprinted on the mind forever. ~Thomas Babington Macaulay, "Machiavelli," 1827


You can't pick up a phone and call the future and tell them about our times. You have to pick up a piece of paper. ~Garrison Keillor, "How to write a personal letter," 1987, from Power of the Printed Word advertising campaign by Billings S. Fuess, Jr. at Ogilvy & Mather for International Paper Company


And looking back upon history (which in reality, of course, has never stopped happening, even during our brief halcyon days), one can see that in almost every age in almost every part of the world, human beings have had to live their normal lives and do their normal business under conditions of uncertainty, danger, and distress — conditions that could have driven them to distraction if they had not been ashamed of being so childish and weak as to rebel against the elementary law of life: "Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward." ~Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975), "You Can Pack Up Your Troubles," 1952  [Job. —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]


The true poetry of Rome lived in its institutions... from such a rhythm and order in the shows of life, to those who were at once the poets and the actors of these immortal dramas... the consequence was empire, and the reward everlasting fame. These things are not the less poetry... They are the episodes of that cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of men. The Past, like an inspired rhapsodist, fills the theatre of everlasting generations with their harmony. ~Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1840


The scene of our history is laid upon a little planet, lost in the vastness of the universe. ~Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Story of Mankind, 1921


History is the mighty Tower of Experience, which Time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages. It is no easy task to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. ~Hendrik Willem van Loon, The Story of Mankind, 1921


Might does not make right; it only makes history. ~Jim Fiebig, as quoted in The Reader's Digest, 1981


HISTORY, n.  An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about my rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools. ~Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic's Word Book, 1906


HISTORIAN, n.  A broad-gauge gossip. ~Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic's Word Book, 1906


Let us try to select, and extricate into coherence and visibility out of those Historical dust-heaps... ~Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881)


...from that great dust-heap called 'history'... ~Augustine Birrell, "Carlyle," Obiter Dicta, 1884


...for most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice... ~Will Durant, "The Foundations of Industry," 1935


History offers some consolation by reminding us that sin has flourished in every age. ~Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, 1968


...all histories, which are a kind of distilled newspapers... ~Thomas Carlyle, 1841


It is part of my creed that the only Poetry is History, could we tell it right. ~Thomas Carlyle, 1834


Too many so-called historians are really "hysterians"; their thinking is often more visceral than cerebral. ~Thomas A. Bailey, "The Mythmakers of American History," 1968


Alas, what mountains of dead ashes, wreck and burnt bones, does assiduous Pedantry dig up from the Past Time, and name it History, and Philosophy of History; till, as we say, the human soul sinks wearied and bewildered; till the Past Time seems all one infinite incredible gray void, without sun, stars, hearth-fires, or candle-light; dim offensive dust-whirlwinds filling universal Nature; and over your Historical Library, it is as if all the Titans had written for themselves: DRY  RUBBISH  SHOT  HERE! ~Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881)


...history is politics projected into the past... ~Mikhail Nikolayevich Pokrovsky (1868–1932)


A book of history is a book of sermons. ~A. Conan Doyle, Micah Clarke, 1889


Give thanks, O heart, for the high souls
That point us to the deathless goals...
Souls that have built our faith in man,
And lit the ages as they ran.
Lincoln, Mazzini, Lamennais,
Doing the deed that others pray;
Cromwell, St. Francis, and the rest,
Bearing the God-fire in the breast...
Brave souls that took the perilous trail
And felt the vision could not fail...
Give thanks for heroes that have stirred
Earth with the wonder of a word.
But all thanksgiving for the breed
Who have bent destiny with deed—
Souls of the high, heroic birth,
Souls sent to poise the shaken Earth,
And then called back to God again
To make Heaven possible for men.
~Edwin Markham, "Conscripts of the Dream," c.1904


A talent for History may be said to be born with us, as our chief inheritance. In a certain sense all men are historians. Is not every memory written quite full with Annals, wherein joy and mourning, conquest and loss, manifoldly alternate; and, with or without philosophy, the whole fortunes of one little inward kingdom, and all its politics, foreign and domestic, stand ineffaceably recorded? Our very speech is curiously historical. Most men, you may observe, speak only to narrate... Thus, as we do nothing but enact History, we say little but recite it; nay, rather, in that widest sense, our whole spiritual life is built thereon. ~Thomas Carlyle, "On History," 1830


News is history shot on the wing. ~Gene Fowler, Skyline: A Reporter's Reminiscence of the 1920s, 1961


      The one thing I have no wish to do is copy my predecessors — not out of a gratuitous love for the paradoxical and new, but because I am, simply, a historian, and a historian is not one who knows, he is one who seeks. And therefore calls into question answers that have been given and retires old cases when he has to.
      When he has to. Doesn't that mean always? Let us not pretend that the conclusions of historians are not of necessity marked by contigency. Of all stupid sayings, the one about the book that "will never have to be rewritten" runs the risk of being the stupidest. Rather, that book will never have to be rewritten, not because it has achieved an absolute state of perfection, but because it is a product of its time. History is the daughter of time. I say this not, surely, to disparage her. Philosophy is the daughter of time. Even physics is the daughter of her own time; the physics of Langevin was not that of Galileo, and Galileo's was no longer that of Aristotle. Was there progress from one to the other? I hope so. But, as historians, let us speak of adaptation to the times. Every period mentally constructs its own universe. It constructs it not only out of all the materials at its disposal, all the facts (true or false) that it has inherited or acquired, but out of its own gifts, its particular clverness, its qualities, its talents, and its interests — everything that distinguishes it from preceding periods. ~Lucien Febvre (1878–1956), The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, 1937, translated by Beatrice Gottlieb, 1982


Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind; at every moment he adds to and thereby modifies everything that had previously happened to him. Hence the difficulty of finding a single image which can stand as an adequate symbol for man's kind of existence. ~W. H. Auden, "D. H. Lawrence," 1957


Sometimes historians degenerate into polemicists... Some scholars run to the other extreme. They are so afraid of being labeled debunkers that they cling like barnacles to the tried and true bunk... The mythmaker simplifies and soothes; the critic complicates and agitates... Too many historical writers are the votaries of cults, which, by definition, are dedicated to whitewashing warts and hanging halos. ~Thomas A. Bailey, "The Mythmakers of American History," 1968


Historians relate, not so much what is done, as what they would have believed. ~Benjamin Franklin, 1739


A historian is often only a journalist facing backwards. ~Karl Kraus (1874–1936), translated by Harry Zohn


A historian is not always a prophet facing backwards, but a journalist is always someone who afterwards knew everything beforehand. ~Karl Kraus (1874–1936), translated by Harry Zohn


Perhaps we are yet too near the great events of which this act formed so conspicuous a part, to understand its deep significance and to foresee its far-off consequences. The lesson of history is rarely learned by the actors themselves, especially when they read it by the fierce and dusky light of war, or amid the deeper shadows of those sorrows which war brings to both. ~James A. Garfield, 1878


...passed over by history (that terrible mill in which sawdust rejoins sawdust)... ~Edith Sitwell (1887–1964), Taken Care Of: An Autobiography, 1965


It is striking, how history, when resting on the memory of men, always touches on the bounds of mythology... At a later period comes the scholar, who wonders how such false notions could ever have been embraced, does his best to uproot errors, and at last finds out that this task is not so easy. The reason may be convinced, but the imagination is not to be subdued. ~Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes of Rome During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1834–1836, translated from the German by Sarah Austin, 1840


...the snail trail of history... ~Terri Guillemets


The curious among mankind have gone about their business at peril of their lives... History may be read as the story of the magnificent rearguard action fought during several thousand years by dogma against curiosity... Dogma... rallies its forces afresh on some new field in every generation. ~Robert Lynd, "The Most Curious Animal," The Pleasures of Ignorance, 1921


As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances. ~Walt Whitman, 1855


History is merely gossip. ~Oscar Wilde, 1893


History in general only informs us what bad government is. ~Thomas Jefferson, 1807


History:  memories speaking. ~Terri Guillemets, 2019, blackout poetry created from Helena Hunting, Inked Armor, 2014, page 253


Some write a narrative of wars, and feats
Of heroes little known; and call the rant
A history...
~William Cowper, The Task, 1785


Similarly, the historian lays humanity on the couch. Aware that he knows very little of the past, nevertheless he knows enough to illuminate many dark closets of our group memories and to exorcise the ghosts that paralyze men into inaction or frighten them into ill-considered action. ~Lynn White, Jr., "The Social Responsibility of Scholarship: History," 1961


The study of history is the playground of patriotism, and we may easily imagine the difficulties of Boards of Education in finding books of history which will be true to fact and will also give no offence to the varied elements of the population of the United States. ~George M. Wrong, 1927


I was once challenged to sum up civilization in a half hour. I did it in less than a minute, this way: Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river. ~Will Durant, quoted in Jim Hicks, "The Durants Do It Again," LIFE magazine, 1963


History is stained with the bloody ink of truth — beware historians who whitewash. ~Terri Guillemets


Historical investigation has for its aim to fix the order and character of events throughout past times in all places. The task is frankly superhuman... The task might also be called infrahuman, because the sort of omniscience which such complete historical science would achieve would merely furnish materials for intelligence: it would be inferior to intelligence itself. ~George Santayana, "History," The Life of Reason: Reason in Science, 1906


History is the action and reaction of these two,— Nature and Thought;— two boys pushing each other on the curb-stone of the pavement. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Fate"


All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no History; only Biography. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History"


...for it is the true office of history to represent the events themselves together with the counsels, and to leave the observations and conclusions thereupon to the liberty and faculty of every man's judgment. ~Francis Bacon (1561–1626)


This moral is that the flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, that it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion. American civilization has hitherto had other things to do than to produce flowers, and before giving birth to writers it has wisely occupied itself with providing something for them to write about. ~Henry James, Jr., Hawthorne, 1879


      It is, indeed, the empire of Death; his great shadowy palace, where he sits in state, mocking at the relics of human glory, and spreading dust and forgetfulness on the monuments of princes. How idle a boast, after all, is the immortality of a name! Time is ever silently turning over his pages; we are too much engrossed by the story of the present, to think of the characters and anecdotes that gave interest to the past; and each age is a volume thrown aside to be speedily forgotten. The idol of to-day pushes the hero of yesterday out of our recollection; and will, in turn, be supplanted by his successor of tomorrow. "Our fathers," says Sir Thomas Brown, "find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our survivors." History fades into fable; fact becomes clouded with doubt and controversy; the inscription moulders from the tablet; the statue falls from the pedestal. Columns, arches, pyramids, what are they but heaps of sand; and their epitaphs, but characters written in the dust?...
      What then is to insure this pile which now towers above me from sharing the fate of mightier mausoleums? The time must come when its gilded vaults, which now spring so loftily, shall lie in rubbish beneath the feet; when, instead of the sound of melody and praise, the wind shall whistle through the broken arches, and the owl hoot from the shattered tower — when the garish sunbeam shall break into these gloomy mansions of death, and the ivy twine round the fallen column; and the fox-glove hang its blossoms about the nameless urn, as if in mockery of the dead. The man passes away; his name perishes from record and recollection; his history is as a tale that is told, and his very monument becomes a ruin. ~Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (Washington Irving, 1783–1859), "Westminster Abbey"


As Geography without History hath life and motion but at random and unstable, so History without Geography, like a dead carcass, hath neither life nor motion at all: and as the exact notice of the place addeth a satisfactory delight to the action, so the mention of the action beautifieth the notice of the place. Gography therefore and History, like the two fire-lights Castor and Pollux, seen together crown our happiness: but parted asunder, menace a shipwreck of our content and are like two sisters entirely loving each other, and not without great pity (I had almost said impiety) to be divided... ~Peter Heylyn (1599–1662), Microcosm: A Little Description of the Great World  [a little altered —tg]


...these two Gemini, History and Geography. ~Peter Heylyn (1599–1662), Microcosm: A Little Description of the Great World


Events in the past may be roughly divided into those which probably never happened and those which do not matter. This is what makes the trade of historian so attractive. The Deity, theologians tell us, cannot alter the past, but the historian can and does. ~William Ralph Inge, "Prognostications," 1929


History is a bath of blood. ~William James, "The Moral Equivalent of War," 1910


The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle. ~Eric Hoffer, 1963


The prime deaths of history star the textbooks like constellations of power. ~Terri Guillemets


Such are the true subjects for the historic pen; for what is history, in fact, but a kind of Newgate Calendar, a register of the crimes and miseries that man has inflected on his fellow man? It is a huge libel on human nature, to which we industriously add page after page, volume after volume, as if we were building up a monument to the honour, rather than to the infamy of our species. ~Diedrich Knickerbocker (Washington Irving, 1783–1859), The History of New York


History is a tattoo of a moment in time. ~Terri Guillemets


I value it as a morsel of genuine history, a thing so rare as to be always valuable. ~Thomas Jefferson, 1817


History, as long as it continues to happen, is always another chance. ~R. Jackson Wilson, Foreword, James Gilbert, Another Chance: Postwar America, 1945–1985, 1986



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Original post date 1999 Feb 16
1st major revision July 2021
Last saved 2021 Sep 15 Wed 14:12 PDT
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