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Just what is history?

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So, just what is history?  Here are views from all over the world and across the ages.  Think about it.

History is a relay of revolutions.
Saul Alinsky (1909-72), U.S. radical activist. Rules for Radicals, "Of Means and Ends"
Every time history repeats itself the price goes up.

History is, strictly speaking, the study of questions; the study of answers belongs to anthropology and sociology.
W. H. Auden (1907-73), Anglo-American poet. The Dyer's Hand, pt. 3, "Hic et Ille," sct. B
(1962).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), English novelist. Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey, ch.
Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtle; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English philosopher, essayist, statesman. Essays, "Of Studies" (1597-1625).
The best history is but like the art of Rembrandt; it casts a vivid light on certain selected causes, on those which were best and greatest; it
leaves all the rest in shadow and unseen.
Walter Bagehot (1826-77), English economist, critic. Physics and Politics, ch. 2, sct. 2 (1872).
American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.
James Baldwin (1924-87), U.S. author. "A Talk To Teachers," 16 Oct. 1963 (published in The Price of the Ticket, 1985).
History. An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), U.S. author. The Devil's Dictionary (1881-1906).
That great dust-heap called "history."
Augustine Birrell (1850-1933), British essayist, Liberal politician. Obiter Dicta, "Carlyle" (1884).
Acts themselves alone are history. . . . Tell me the acts, O historian, and leave me to reason upon them as I please; away with your
reasoning and your rubbish!  All that is not action is not worth reading.
William Blake (1757-1827), English poet, painter, engraver. A Descriptive Catalogue, no. 5 (1809; repr. in Complete Writings, ed. by
Geoffrey Keynes, 1957).
Universal history is the history of a few metaphors.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Argentinian author. Pascal's Sphere (1951; repr. in Other Inquisitions, 1960; tr. 1964).
English history is all about men liking their fathers, and American history is all about men hating their fathers and trying to burn down
everything they ever did.
Malcolm Bradbury (b. 1932), British author. Stepping Westward, bk. 2, ch. 5 (1965).
All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry,
shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.
Ann Brontë (1820-49), English novelist, poet. Agnes Grey, ch. 1 (1847).
The history of the world is the record of the weakness, frailty and death of public opinion.
Samuel Butler (1835-1902), English author. Notebooks, "Pictures and Books" (1912).
If man is reduced to being nothing but a character in history, he has no other choice but to subside into the sound and fury of a completely
irrational history or to endow history with the form of human reason.
Albert Camus (1913-60), French-Algerian philosopher, author. The Rebel, pt. 3, "State Terrorism and Rational Terror" (1951; tr. 1953).
Camus was criticizing Hegelian theory.
History, as an entirety, could only exist in the eyes of an observer outside it and outside the world. History, only exists, in the final analysis,
for God.
Albert Camus (1913-60), French-Algerian philosopher, author. The Rebel, pt. 5, "Historic Murder" (1951; tr. 1953).
Happy the people whose annals are vacant.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Scottish essayist, historian. History of the French Revolution, pt. 1, bk. 2, ch. 1 (1837), written in reply to an
aphorism of Montesquieu, "Happy the people whose annals are tiresome.
History, a distillation of Rumour.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Scottish essayist, historian. History of the French Revolution, pt. 1, bk. 7, ch. 5 (1837).
Only the history of free peoples is worth our attention; the history of men under a despotism is merely a collection of anecdotes.
Sébastien-roch Nicolas de Chamfort (1741-94), French writer, wit. Maxims and Considerations, vol. 2, no. 487 (1796; tr. 1926).
The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which
alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living.
G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), British author. All I Survey, "On St. George Revivified" (1933).
History is nothing but a procession of false Absolutes, a series of temples raised to pretexts, a degradation of the mind before the
E. M. Cioran (b. 1911), Rumanian-born French philosopher. A Short History of Decay, ch. 1, "Genealogy of Fanaticism" (1949).
History is a needle
for putting men asleep
anointed with the poison
Of all they want to keep.
Leonard Cohen (b. 1934), Canadian singer, poet, novelist. Flowers For Hitler, "On Hearing A Name Long Unspoken," st. 3 (1964).
The bases for historical knowledge are not empirical facts but written texts, even if these texts masquerade in the guise of wars or
Paul de Man (1919-83), Belgian-born U.S. literary critic. "Literary History and Literary Modernity," lecture, Sept. 1969 (repr. in Blindness and
Insight, 1971, rev. 1983).
History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.
E. L. Doctorow (b. 1931), U.S. novelist. Writers at Work (Eighth Series, ed. by George Plimpton, 1988).
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
Andrea Dworkin (b. 1946), U.S. feminist critic. "Our Blood: The Slavery of Women in Amerika," speech, 23 Aug. 1975, to the National
Organization for Women, Washington, D.C. (published in Our Blood, ch. 8, 1976).
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Anglo-American poet, critic. Little Gidding, pt. 5, in Four Quartets.
History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker's
damn is the history we make today.
Henry Ford (1863-1947), U.S. industrialist. Interview in Chicago Tribune (25 May 1916). Ford later sued the paper for libel after an editorial
had described him as an "anarchist" and "ignorant idealist." In the course of the action, the motor magnate was cross-examined for eight
days during which he was forced to defend his views of history. The Tribune was found guilty and fined 6 cents.
There is a sort of myth of History that philosophers have. . . . History for philosophers is some sort of great, vast continuity in which the
freedom of individuals and economic or social determinations come and get entangled. When someone lays a finger on one of those great
themes-continuity, the effective exercise of human liberty, how individual liberty is articulated with social determinations-when someone
touches one of these three myths, these good people start crying out that History is being raped or murdered.
Michel Foucault (1926-84), French philosopher. Interview in La Quinzaine Littéraire (15 March 1968; repr. in Didier Eribon, Michel Foucault,
1989; tr. 1991).
History . . . is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
Edward Gibbon (1737-94), English historian. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ch. 3 (1776).
There are only two great currents in the history of mankind: the baseness which makes conservatives and the envy which makes
Goncourt Edmond de (1822-96) and Jules de (1830-70), French writers. The Goncourt Journals (1888-96; repr. in Pages from the Goncourt
Journal, ed. by Robert Baldick, 1962), entry for 12 July 1867.
But what experience and history teach is this-that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles
deduced from it.
Georg Hegel (1770-1831), German philosopher. The Philosophy of History, Introduction (1807).
World history is a court of judgment.
Georg Hegel (1770-1831), German philosopher. The Philosophy of Right, pt. 3, sct. 3, "World History" (1821). See below, a similar
statement on history by Schiller.
Regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been
victimized-the question involuntarily arises-to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered.
Georg Hegel (1770-1831), German philosopher. The Philosophy of History, sct. 3, "Introduction" (1837).
History is a child building a sand-castle by the sea, and that child is the whole majesty of man's power in the world.
Heraclitus (c. 535-c.475 B.C.), Greek philosopher. Herakleitos & Diogenes, pt. 1, Fragment 24 (tr. by Guy Davenport, 1976).
To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning. It is a very serious task, young man, and
possibly a tragic one.
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), German novelist, poet. Father Jacobus, in The Glass Bead Game, ch. 4 (1943; tr. 1960).
History seems to us an arena of instincts and fashions, of appetite, avarice, and craving for power, of blood lust, violence, destruction, and
wars, of ambitious ministers, venal generals, bombarded cities, and we too easily forget that this is only one of its many aspects. Above all
we forget that we ourselves are a part of history, that we are the product of growth and are condemned to perish if we lose the capacity for
further growth and change. We are ourselves history and share the responsibility for world history and our position in it. But we gravely lack
awareness of this responsibility.
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), German novelist, poet. The Glass Bead Game, ch. 11 (1943; tr. 1960).
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.
W. R. Inge (1860-1954), Dean of St. Paul's, London. Assessments and Anticipations, "Prognostications" (1929).
Who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood?
Carl Jung (1875-1961), Swiss psychiatrist. Woman in Europe (1927; repr. in Collected Works, vol. 10, para. 26, ed. by William McGuire,
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
Karl Marx (1818-83), German political theorist, social philosopher. Paraphrase of the opening sentences of Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire
of Louis Bonaparte (1852; repr. in Karl Marx: Selected Works, vol. 2, 1942). The actual words were: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all
great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."
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), German political theorist, social philosopher. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, sct. 1 (1852; repr. in
Selected Works, vol. 2, 1942).
We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the
history of men. However, the two sides are not to be divided off; as long as men exist the history of nature and the history of men are
mutually conditioned.
Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95), German social philosophers, revolutionaries. The German Ideology, sct. 1, footnote
(1845-46; repr. in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: Collected Works, vol. 5, 1976). This note was crossed out in the finished version.
History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this. . . . It is not
"history" which uses men as a means of achieving-as if it were an individual person-its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in
pursuit of their ends.
Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95), German social philosophers, revolutionaries. The Holy Family (1844-45).
All history is the record of man's signal failure to thwart his destiny-the record, in other words, of the few men of destiny who, through the
recognition of their symbolic rôle, made history.
Henry Miller (1891-1980), U.S. author. The Wisdom of the Heart, "Creative Death" (1947).
History is the myth, the true myth, of man's fall made manifest in time.
Henry Miller (1891-1980), U.S. author. Plexus, ch. 12 (1949)
Only strong personalities can endure history, the weak ones are extinguished by it.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German philosopher. Thoughts out of Season, pt. 2, sct. 5 (1874).
We have need of history in its entirety, not to fall back into it, but to see if we can escape from it.
José Ortega Y Gasset (1883-1955), Spanish essayist, philosopher. The Revolt of the Masses, ch. 10 (1930).
I believe that history has shape, order, and meaning; that exceptional men, as much as economic forces, produce change; and that passé
abstractions like beauty, nobility, and greatness have a shifting but continuing validity.
Camille Paglia (b. 1947), U.S. author, critic, educator. Sex, Art, and American Culture, "Sexual Personae: The Cancelled Preface" (1992).
What is history?  Its beginning is that of the centuries of systematic work devoted to the solution of the enigma of death, so that death itself
may eventually be overcome. That is why people write symphonies, and why they discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves.
Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), Russian poet, novelist, translator. Nikolay Nikolayevich, in Doctor Zhivago, ch. 1, sct. 5 (1957).
Anyone, however, who has had dealings with dates knows that they are worse than elusive, they are perverse. Events do not happen at the
right time, nor in their proper sequence. That sense of harmony with place and season which is so stong in the historian-if he be a readable
historian-is lamentably lacking in history, which takes no pains to verify his most convincing statements.
Agnes Repplier (1858-1950), U.S. author, social critic. To Think of Tea!, ch. 1 (1932).
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana (1863-1952), U.S. philosopher, poet. Life of Reason, "Reason in Common Sense," ch. 12 (1905-6). William L. Shirer
used this quote as an epigraph in his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959).

The history of the world is the world's court of justice.
Friedrich Von Schiller (1759-1805), German dramatist, poet, historian. Inaugural lecture, 26 May 1789, as Professor of History at the
University of Jena, Weimar, Germany. See Hegel on HISTORY above, rendering a similar idea.
The subject of history is the gradual realization of all that is practically necessary.
Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), German philosopher, critic, writer. Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, "Selected Aphorisms from
The Athenaeum," aph. 90 (1968; first published 1798).
Science and Technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response. Expelled from individual consciousness
by the rush of change, history finds its revenge by stamping the collective unconscious with habits, values, expectations, dreams. The
dialectic between past and future will continue to form our lives.
Arthur M., Jr. Schlesinger (b. 1917), U.S. historian. "The Challenge of Change," in New York Times Magazine (27 July 1986).
History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember. All other history defeats itself.
W. C. Sellar (1898-1951) and R. J. Yeatman (1897-1968), British authors. 1066 and All That, Preface (1930).
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.), Roman historian. The Histories, bk. 3, sct. 65.
History is Philosophy teaching by examples.
Thucydides (c. 460-c. 400 B.C.), Athenian historian. Quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in: Ars Rhetorica, ch. 11, sct. 2.
History not used is nothing, for all intellectual life is action, like practical life, and if you don't use the stuff-well, it might as well be dead.
A. J. Toynbee (1889-1975), British historian. Television broadcast, 17 April 1955, NBC-TV.
Social history might be defined negatively as the history of a people with the politics left out.
G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962), British historian. English Social History, Introduction (1942).
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.
Harry S Truman (1884-1972), U.S. Democratic politician, president. Quoted in: William Hillman, Mr. President, pt. 2,
ch. 1 (1952).
The very ink in which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.
Mark Twain (1835-1910), U.S. author. Following the Equator, ch. 69, "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar" (1897).
History should be written as philosophy.
Voltaire (1694-1778), French philosopher, author. Letter, 31 Oct. 1738.
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
George Walden (b. 1939), British Conservative politician. Times (London, 20 Dec. 1986).
As soon as histories are properly told there is no more need of romances.
Walt Whitman (1819-92), U.S. poet. Leaves of Grass, Preface (1855).
The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Anglo-Irish playwright, author. Gilbert, in The Critic as Artist, pt. 1 (published in Intentions, 1891).
Americans, more than most people, believe that history is the result of individual decisions to implement conscious intentions. For
Americans, more than most people, history has been that. . . . This sense of openness, of possibility and autonomy, has been a national
asset as precious as the topsoil of the Middle West. But like topsoil, it is subject to erosion; it requires tending. And it is not bad for
Americans to come to terms with the fact that for them too, history is a story of inertia and the unforeseen.
George F. Will (b. 1941), U.S. political columnist. Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does, ch. 7 (1984).
What has history to do with me?  Mine is the first and only world! I want to report how I find the world. What others have told me about the
world is a very small and incidental part of my experience. I have to judge the world, to measure things.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Austrian philosopher. Notebooks 1914-1916, entry for 2 Sept. 1915 (ed. by Anscombe 1961; later
refomulated in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, sct. 5:63, 1921, tr. 1922). Wittgenstein paraphrased: "I am my world. (The microcosm)."
It would strike me as ridiculous to want to doubt the existence of Napoleon; but if someone doubted the existence of the earth 150 years
ago, perhaps I should be more willing to listen, for now he is doubting our whole system of evidence.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Austrian philosopher. On Certainty, sct. 185 (ed. by Anscombe and von Wright, 1969).

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