Thoughts About History from Across the Ages

  • Compiled by Dr. Richard W. Slatta Professor Emeritus of History, North Carolina State University
  • On April 18, 2000, Provost Kermit Hall interrupted a History Department Faculty meeting. He carried an enormous box of deluxe Washington State delicious apples. He announced that the History Department had won NCSU's first award for the best teaching department. In addition to the delicious apples, the department receives an additional $15,000 to its annual operating budget and a one-time grant of $5000 to improve teaching. For humble historians, this is serious support! I am proud to be a member of this fine teaching and research department. To commemorate our collective achievement, here are some thoughts on the discipline, practice, and concept of history. Enjoy.
  • On May 9, 2000 the College of Humanities and Social Sciences awarded Rich Slatta the Lonnie and Carol Poole Award for Excellence in Teaching for 1999-2000.
  • See also Quotations from Writers on Writing
  • Quotations about history from an excellent site created by Maxime LagacÚ
  • Additional thoughts on history
    1. History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity. ~ Cicero
    2. Only when lions have historians
      will hunters cease being heroes. -- African Proverb [contributed by NCSU student Kevin Blair]
    3. Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes. ~ Francis Parkman
    4. The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see; and in that record you can find yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things rotten through and through, to avoid. ~ Livy
    5. What experience and history teach is this-that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. ~ G. W. F. Hegel
    6. Everything must be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life. ~ Fernand Braudel
    7. The function off the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present. ~ E. H. Carr
    8. An historian should yield himself to his subject, become immersed in the place and period of his choice, standing apart from it now and then for a fresh view. ~ Samuel Eliot Morison
    9. History is for human self-knowledge. Knowing yourself means knowing, first, what it is to be a person; secondly, knowing what it is to be the kind of person you are; and thirdly, knowing what it is to be the person you are and nobody else is. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what they can do until they try, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is. ~ R. G. Collingwood
    10. That historians should give their own country a break, I grant you; but not so as to state things contrary to fact. For there are plenty of mistakes made by writers out of ignorance, and which any man finds it difficult to avoid. But if we knowingly write what is false, whether for the sake of our country or our friends or just to be pleasant, what difference is there between us and hack writers? Readers should be very attentive to and critical of historians, and they in turn should be constantly on their guard. ~ Polybius
    11. You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was. ~ Leopold von Ranke
    12. Only a good-for-nothing is not interested in his past. ~ Sigmund Freud
    13. Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft. ~Winston Churchill
    14. Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time. ~ Frederick Jackson Turner
    15. A country losing touch with its own history is like an old man losing his glasses, a distressing sight, at once vulerable, unsure, and easily disoriented. ~ George Walden (b. 1939)
    16. As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances. ~ Walt Whitman (1819-92)
    17. History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. . . . I read it a little as a duty; but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all. ~ Jane Austen (1775-1817)
    18. We as women know that there are no disembodied processes; that all history originates in human flesh; that all oppression is inflicted by the body of one against the body of another; that all social change is built on the bone and muscle, and out of the flesh and blood, of human creators. ~ Andrea Dworkin (b. 1946)
    19. History as a discipline can be characterized as having a collective forgetfulness about women. ~ Clarice Stasz Stoll
    20. Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. ~ Karl Marx (1818-83
    21. The principle office of history I take to be this: to prevent virtuous actions from being forgotten, and that evil words and deeds should fear an infamous reputation with posterity. ~ Tacitus (c. 55-c. 120 A.D.)
    22. No historian can take part with~or against~the forces he has to study. To him even the extinction of the human race should merely be a fact to be grouped with other vital statistics. ~ Henry Brooks Adams
    23. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. ~ Anonymous
    24. A land without ruins is a land without memories ~ a land without memories is a land without history. ~ Abram Joseph Ryan ~
    25. The lessons of history? There are four: The bee fertilizes the flower it robs; whom the gods would destroy they first make mad with power; the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small; when it is dark enough, you can see the stars. ~ Charles A. Beard
    26. History moves in contradictory waves, not in straight lines. ~ Louis Beck and Nikki Keddie
    27. I shall cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history. ~Lord Macaulay (1800-59)
    28. The causes of events are ever more interresting than the events themselves. ~ Cicero
    29. History is a vast early warning system ~ Norman Cousins
    30. History is philosophy learned from examples. ~ Dionysius of Halicarnassus
    31. Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years. ~ Will Durant
    32. One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say. ~ William J. Durant ~
    33. History never looks like history when you are living through it. It always looks confusing and messy, and it always feels uncomfortable. ~ John W. Gardner
    34. There is no wisdom equal to that which comes after the event. ~ Geraldine Jewsbury
    35. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. ~ Robert F. Kennedy ~
    36. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world ~ or the last. ~ John F. Kennedy
    37. History knows no resting place and no plateaus. ~ Henry Kissinger
    38. Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. ~ Abraham Lincoln ~
    39. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. ~ Abraham Lincoln
    40. The history of the world is the record of a man in quest for his daily bread and butter. ~ Hendrick Willem van Loon
    41. Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it and wiser than the one that comes after it. ~ George Orwell
    42. Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these. ~ Ovid
    43. Give the historians something to write about. ~ Propertius
    44. Don't brood on what's past, but never forget it either. ~ Thomas H. Raddall
    45. Every historian discloses a new horizon. ~ George Sand
    46. History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten. ~ George Santayana ~
    47. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. ~ George Santayana
    48. Never forget the importance of history. To know nothing of what happened before you took your place on earth, is to remain a child for ever and ever. ~ Source Unknown ~
    49. The whole past is the procession of the present. ~ Thomas Carlyle ~
    50. For historians ought to be precise, truthful, and quite unprejudiced, and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor affection, should cause them to swerve from the path of truth, whose mother is history, the rival of time, the depository of great actions, the witness of what is past, the example and instruction of the present, the monitor of the future. ~ Miguel De Cervantes ~
    51. The causes of events are ever more interesting than the events themselves. ~ Marcus T. Cicero ~
    52. While we read history we make history. ~ George William Curtis ~
    53. I can see only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen. ~ H(erbert) A(lbert) L(aurens) Fisher ~
    54. The history of mankind is his character. ~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe ~
    55. History is a better guide than good intentions. ~ Jeane Kirkpatrick ~
    56. Providence conceals itself in the details of human affairs, but becomes unveiled in the generalities of history. ~ Alphonse De Lamartine ~
    57. However gradual the course of history, there must always be the day, even an hour and minute, when some significant action is performed for the first or last time. ~ Peter Quennell ~
    58. Historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot. ~ Simon Schama ~
    59. Ignorance is the first requisite of the historian ~ ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art. ~ Lytton Strachey ~
    60. The world's history is constant, like the laws of nature, and simple, like the souls of men. The same conditions continually produce the same results. ~ Friedrich von Schiller
    61. History is the ship carrying living memories to the future. ~ Stephen Spender
    62. The first qualification for a historian is to have no ability to invent. ~ Stendhal
    63. The certainties of one age are the problems of the next. ~ Richard H. Tawney
    64. The wisdom of hindsight, so useful to historians and indeed to authors of memoirs, is sadly denied to practicing politicians. ~ Margaret Thatcher
    65. The function of posterity is to look after itself. ~ Dylan Thomas
    66. Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe. ~ H. G. Wells
    67. There is a history in all men's lives. ~ William Shakespeare ~
    68. There is no life that does not contribute to history. ~ Dorothy West

    Cynical Views
    1. History: An account, mostly false, of events unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools. ~ Ambrose Bierce
    2. History belongs to the winner. ~ Anon.
    3. Every past is worth condemning. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
    4. History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there. ~ Anon.
    5. We learn nothing from history except that we learn nothing from history. ~ Anon.
    6. Might does not make right, it only makes history. ~ Jim Fiebig ~
    7. More history is made by secret handshakes than by battles, bills, and proclamations. ~ John Barth
    8. That great dust-heap called "history." ~Augstine Birrell (1950-1933)
    9. What is history but a fable agreed upon? ~ Napoleon Bonaparte
    10. History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. ~ Abba Eban
    11. History is a confused heap of facts. ~ Lord Chesterfield
    12. History repeats itself, and that's one of the things that's wrong with history. ~ Clarence Darrow
    13. History is more or less bunk. ~ Henry Ford ~
    14. Just as philosophy is the study of other people's misconceptions, so history is the study of other people's mistakes. ~ Phillip Guedalla
    15. History repeats itself; historians repeat each other. ~ Phillip Guedala
    16. The game of History is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle. ~ Eric Hoffer
    17. Most history is a record of the triumphs, disasters, and follies of top people. The black hole in it is the way of life of mute, inglorious men and women who make no nuisance of themselves in the world. ~ Philip Howard
    18. That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that History has to teach. ~ Aldous Huxley
    19. History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. ~ Edward Gibbon
    20. History is the study of lies, anyway, because no witness ever recalls events with total accuracy, not even eyewitnesses. ~ Nancy Pickard
    21. The only thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been "great changes." ~ Marcel Proust
    22. Throughout history females have picked providers. Males have picked anything. ~ Margaret Mead
    23. Throughout history the world has been laid waste to ensure the triumph of conceptions that are now as dead as the men that died for them. ~ Henry de Montherlant
    24. The greatest inventions were produced in the times of ignorance, as the use of the compass, gunpowder, and printing. ~ Jonathan Swift
    25. How many pens are broken, how many ink bottles consumed, to write about things that have never happened. ~ The Talmud
    26. The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. ~ Friedrich Hegel ~
    27. History ~ its what those bitter old men write. ~ Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
    28. Perhaps in time the so-called dark ages will be thought of as including our own. ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
    29. Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them. ~ Leo Tolstoy
    30. The past is useless. That explains why it is past. ~ Wright Morris
    31. History is just the portrayal of crimes and misfortunes. ~ Voltaire ~
    32. History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead. ~ Voltaire
    33. It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk. ~ Rebecca West
      Main Sources of these Quotations:
    34. "What is History?" by Dr. Steven Kreis See also Kreis's information rich site, "The History Guide." It contains the complete content of three undergraduate courses in European history, links for historians, and more.
    35. Microsoft Bookshelf 98
    36. Quotation Center
    37. Quotations Home Page
    38. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 3d ed. (1941, 1979)