Thoughts About History from Across the Ages
Compiled by Dr. Richard W. Slatta Professor 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
Additional thoughts on history
More quotations on history
- 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
Only when lions have historians
will hunters cease being heroes. -- African Proverb
[contributed by NCSU student Kevin Blair]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Only a good-for-nothing is not interested in his past. ~ Sigmund Freud
Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft. ~Winston Churchill
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
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)
As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances. ~ Walt Whitman (1819-92)
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)
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)
- History as a discipline can be characterized as having a collective
forgetfulness about women. ~ Clarice Stasz Stoll
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
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.)
- 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
- The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
- A land without ruins is a land
without memories ~ a land without memories is a land without
Joseph Ryan ~
- 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
- History moves in contradictory waves, not in straight lines.
~ Louis Beck and Nikki Keddie
- I shall cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history. ~Lord Macaulay (1800-59)
- The causes of events are ever more interresting than the events
themselves. ~ Cicero
- History is a vast early warning system ~ Norman
- History is philosophy learned from examples. ~
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
- Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too
little on the last six thousand years. ~ Will
- One of the lessons of history is
that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever
thing to say.
J. Durant ~
- 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
- There is no wisdom equal to that which comes after the event.
~ Geraldine Jewsbury
- 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.
F. Kennedy ~
- We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the
history of the world ~ or the last. ~ John F.
- History knows no resting place and no plateaus. ~
- Fellow citizens, we cannot
- I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that
events have controlled me. ~ Abraham Lincoln
- The history of the world is the record of a man in quest for his
daily bread and butter. ~ Hendrick Willem van
- 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
- Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.
- Give the historians something to write about. ~
- Don't brood on what's past, but never forget it either.
~ Thomas H. Raddall
- Every historian discloses a new horizon. ~
- History is always written wrong,
and so always needs to be rewritten.
- Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
~ George Santayana
- 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.
- The whole past is the procession
of the present.
- 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.
De Cervantes ~
- The causes of events are ever
more interesting than the events themselves.
T. Cicero ~
- While we read history we make
William Curtis ~
- 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
A(lbert) L(aurens) Fisher ~
- The history of mankind is his
Wolfgang Von Goethe ~
- History is a better guide than
- Providence conceals itself in
the details of human affairs, but becomes unveiled in the
generalities of history.
De Lamartine ~
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- History is the ship carrying living memories to the future.
~ Stephen Spender
- The first qualification for a historian is to have no ability to
invent. ~ Stendhal
- The certainties of one age are the problems of the next.
~ Richard H. Tawney
- The wisdom of hindsight, so useful to historians and indeed to
authors of memoirs, is sadly denied to practicing politicians.
~ Margaret Thatcher
- The function of posterity is to look after itself.
~ Dylan Thomas
- Human history becomes more and more a race between education and
catastrophe. ~ H. G. Wells
- There is a history in all men's
- There is no life that does not contribute to history.
~ Dorothy West
- History: An account, mostly false, of events unimportant, which are
brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
~ Ambrose Bierce
- History belongs to the winner. ~ Anon.
Every past is worth condemning. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
- History is something that never happened, written by a man who
wasn't there. ~ Anon.
- We learn nothing from history except that we learn nothing from
history. ~ Anon.
- Might does not make right, it
only makes history.
- More history is made by secret handshakes than by battles, bills,
and proclamations. ~ John Barth
- That great dust-heap called "history." ~Augstine Birrell (1950-1933)
- What is history but a fable agreed upon? ~
- History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have
exhausted all other alternatives. ~ Abba Eban
- History is a confused heap of facts. ~ Lord
- History repeats itself, and that's one of the things that's wrong
with history. ~ Clarence Darrow
- History is more or less
- Just as philosophy is the study of other people's misconceptions, so
history is the study of other people's mistakes. ~
- History repeats itself; historians repeat each other.
~ Phillip Guedala
- The game of History is usually played by the best and the worst over
the heads of the majority in the middle. ~ Eric
- 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
- 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
- History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes,
follies and misfortunes of mankind. ~ Edward
- History is the study of lies, anyway, because no witness ever
recalls events with total accuracy, not even eyewitnesses.
~ Nancy Pickard
- The only thing that does not change is that at any and every time it
appears that there have been "great changes." ~
- Throughout history females have picked providers. Males have picked
anything. ~ Margaret Mead
- 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
- The greatest inventions were produced in the times of ignorance, as
the use of the compass, gunpowder, and printing. ~
- How many pens are broken, how many ink bottles consumed, to write
about things that have never happened. ~ The
- The only thing we learn from
history is that we learn nothing from history.
- History ~ its what those bitter old men write. ~
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
- Perhaps in time the so-called dark ages will be thought of as
including our own. ~ Georg Christoph
- Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that
no one has asked them. ~ Leo Tolstoy
- The past is useless. That explains why it is past. ~ Wright Morris
- History is just the portrayal of
crimes and misfortunes.
- History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.
- It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and
the smell of skunk. ~ Rebecca West
Main Sources of these Quotations:
"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.
- Microsoft Bookshelf 98
- Quotation Center
- Quotations Home Page
- The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 3d ed. (1941, 1979)