Department of History College of Arts and Sciences
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Department of History

The University of Memphis
219 Mitchell Hall
3705 Alumni Drive
Memphis TN 38152-3450
Telephones: 901.678.2515, 901.678.4097
Fax: 901.678.2720
E-mail: history@memphis.edu
History is _______ (fill in the blank)


Henry Ford did not say, as many people think he did, “History is bunk.” What he actually said was, “History is more or less bunk.” (Perhaps there is not much meaningful difference between the two forms of the quotation, but historians are sticklers for accuracy.) The quotation is also incomplete. Ford continued: “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 dam is the history we make today.”

Henry FordHistory was not all that Ford considered more or less bunk. He also said: “Exercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don’t need it: if you are sick you should not take it.” Ford later established the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, so he must have changed his mind about the value of history.

 

Many persons have spoken about history and historians, some of them more favorably, some less favorably than Ford. Here are some of the things they have said — or are reported to have said:

The past is never dead; it isn’t even past.
    — William Faulkner

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.
    — Abraham Lincoln

“History” is a Greek word which means, literally, just “investigation.”
    — Arnold Toynbee [see footnote]

History is the memory of things said and done.
    — Carl L. Becker

History is organized memory, and the organization is all-important.
    — Henry Steele Commager


History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past.
    — A. J. P. Taylor

In its amplest meaning History includes every trace and vestige of everything that man has done or thought since first he appeared on the earth.
    — James Harvey Robinson

History is past politics and politics present history.
    — E. A. Freeman

Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.
    — Thomas Carlyle

History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.
    — Johann Huizinga


The principal 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

History is a people’s memory, and without memory man is demoted to the lower animals.
    — Malcolm X

Genuine historical knowledge requires nobility of character, a profound understanding of human existence — not detachment and objectivity.
    — Friedrich Nietzsche

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
    — Niccolo Machiavelli

History is, in its essentials, the science of change. It knows and it teaches that it is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical.
    — Marc Bloch


History is the “know thyself” of humanity — the self-consciousness of mankind.
    — Johann Gustav Droysen

The history of thought, and therefore all history, is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind.
    — R. G. Collingwood

History is the only laboratory we have in which to test the consequences of thought.
    — Etienne Gilson

Historical knowledge is not a variety of knowledge, but it is knowledge itself; it is the form which completely fills and exhausts the field of knowing.
    — Benedetto Croce

Historical knowledge is the knowledge of what mind has done in the past, and at the same time it is the redoing of this, the perpetuation of past acts in the present.
    — R. G. Collingwood


History is Philosophy teaching by examples.
    — Thucydides; also attributed to Dionysius of Helicarnassus

History is philosophy teaching by example and also by warning.
    — Lord Bolingbroke

History is the witness of time, the lamp of truth, the embodied soul of memory, the instructress of life, and the messenger of antiquity.
    — Cicero

Reason has arranged the infinite variety of History to delight the reader and educate the soul. For inquiring souls there is nothing more attractive than History.
    — Theophylactus Simocatta

[History is] the sweetest recreation of the mind.
    — Henry Brathwaite


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

History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.
    — David C. McCullough

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
    — George Santayana

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
    — Niccolo Machiavelli

History is invaluable in increasing our knowledge of human nature because it shows how people may be expected to behave in new situations.
   —Bertrand Russell


History teaches us the mistakes we are going to make.
   —Laurence J. Peter

History is but the unrolled scroll of prophecy.
   —James A. Garfield

Historians ought to stay out of the future.
   —Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

History is not concerned with predicting; the ability to predict would mean a closed and determined universe or, perhaps worse, a managed one. And if we know anything from our observation of the drama of history, it is that history is open, full of extraordinary potential and inexplicable turns and changes.
    — Page Smith

The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.
    — R. G. Collingwood


The function of 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

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

History has to be rewritten because history is the selection of those threads of causes or antecedents that we are interested in.
    — Oliver W. Holmes, Jr.

History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.
    — George Santayana

The past is a kind of screen upon which we project our vision of the future, and it is indeed a moving picture, borrowing much of its form and color from our fears and aspirations.
    — Carl Becker


History is simply a piece of paper covered with print; the main thing is still to make history, not to write it.
    — Otto Von Bismarck

Any fool can make history, but it takes genius to write it.
    — Oscar Wilde

History is life; he who has not lived, or has lived only enough to write a doctoral dissertation, is too inexperienced with life to write good history.
    — Louis Gottschalk

The older I get the more I’m convinced that it’s the purpose of politicians and journalists to say the world is very simple, whereas it’s the purpose of historians to say, “No! It’s very complicated.”
    — David Cannadine

History is as much an art as a science.
    — Ernest Renan


History is the only science enjoying the ambiguous fortune of being required to be at the same time an art.
    — Johann Gustav Droysen

[History is] an art just like painting or architecture and is designed like them only to give intellectual and artistic pleasure.
    — A. J. P. Taylor

Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.
    — Robert Penn Warren

History is a great deal closer to poetry than is generally realised: in truth, I think, it is in essence the same.
    — A. L. Rowse

The case against the notion of historical objectivity is like the case against international law, or international morality; that it does not exist.
    — Isaiah Berlin


It has been said that although God cannot alter the past, historians can. It is perhaps because they can be useful to him in this respect that he tolerates their existence.
    — Samuel Butler

The easiest way to change history is to become a historian.
    — Paul Dickson

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.
    — Winston Churchill

Not all that is presented to us as history has really happened; and what really happened did not actually happen the way it is presented to us; moreover, what really happened is only a small part of all that happened. Everything in history remains uncertain, the largest events as well as the smallest occurrence.
    — Goethe

The things that we know about the past may be divided into those which probably never happened, or those which do not much matter.
    — Dean Inge


History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.
    — Gore Vidal

The future is certain, it is only the past that is unpredictable.
    — Said to be a Soviet joke about Soviet historiography

No opinion can be trusted; even the facts may be nothing but a printer's error.
    — W. C. Williams

History is the most dangerous product evolved from the chemistry of the intellect. . . . History will justify anything. It teaches precisely nothing, for it contains everything and furnishes examples of everything.
    — Paul Valery

Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.     — Herodotus


To give an accurate description of what never happened is the proper occupation of the historian.
    — Orson Wells

I don't believe the truth will ever be known, and I have a great contempt for history.
    — General George Meade

The researches of many eminent antiquarians have already thrown much darkness on the subject; and it is possible, if they continue their labors, that we shall soon know nothing at all.
    — Artemus Ward

Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them.
    — Leo Tolstoy

History: An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.
    — Ambrose Bierce


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 dam is the history we make today.
    — Henry Ford

History is a myth that men agree to believe.
    — Napoleon Bonaparte

History is the lie commonly agreed upon.
    — Voltaire

History is a bag of tricks we play upon the dead.
    — Voltaire

Voltaire to the contrary, history is a bag of tricks which the dead have played upon historians.
    — Lynn White, Jr.


History is the distillation of rumour.
    — Thomas Carlyle

History is only a confused heap of facts.
    — G. K. Chesterton

History is written by the winners.
    — George Orwell

History . . . is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.
    — Edward Gibbon

What are all the records of history, but narratives of successive villainies, of treasons and usurpations, massacres and wars?
    — Samuel Johnson


Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.
    — Voltaire

Official history is a matter of believing murderers on their own word.
    — Simone Weil

History consists of a series of swindles, in which the masses are first lured into revolt by the promise of Utopia, and then, when they have done this job, enslaved over again by new masters.
    — George Orwell

I’m a historian. Ask me in 10 years and I’ll tell you why what happened was inevitable.
    — Richard S. Tedrow

Any event, once it has occurred, can be made to appear inevitable by a competent historian.
    — Lee Simonson


Turned wrong way around, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as history, harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
    — Philip Roth

The present, as historians well know, re-creates the past. This is partly because, once we know how things have come out, we tend to rewrite the past in terms of historical inevitability.
   —Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

The continual rearrangement of the past to suit current prejudices is . . . the historian’s work.
    —Ronald Steel

A historian is often only a journalist facing backwards.
Sometimes quoted as: The historian is a prophet turned backwards.
    — Karl Kraus

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


Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.
    — George Bernard Shaw

Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.
    — Russian proverb

History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.
    — Abba Eban

Like most of those who study history, he [Napoleon] learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones.
    — A. J. P. Taylor

History is the science of what never happens twice.
    — Paul Vale


The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
    — Mark Twain

History does not repeat itself. Historians repeat each other.
    — Philip Guedalla

Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.
    — Attributed to numerous persons; one source even says it was graffiti on a wall in Vancouver, British Columbia

History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.
    — Anonymous

One thing about the past,
     It is likely to last.
Some of it is horrid and some sublime,
     And there is more of it all the time.
    — Ogden Nash


Happy people have no history.

    — Leo Tolstoy

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 grey 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

History is a dreadful subject,
     Dead as it can be.
It killed the pre-historics,
     And now it’s killing me.
    — Adaptation of schoolchildren’s chant about the Latin language

Few learn much from history who do not bring much with them to its study.
    — John Stuart Mill

History teachers talk in other people’s sleep.
    — Anonymous


Nothing is easier to teach than historical method, but, when learned, it has little use.

    — Henry Adams

The past is useless. That explains why it is past.
    — Wright Morris

Although this work is a History, I believe it to be true.
    — Mark Twain

Writing fiction is harder than writing history. Fiction has to make sense.
    — Anonymous; probably an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s observation: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”


Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.

    — Arthur Schopenhauer

“History,” Stephen said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
    — James Joyce

History is a damn dim candle over a damn dark abyss.
    — W. S. Holt

It’s too early to tell.
    — Anonymous, said to have been a historian’s response when asked his opinion about the French Revolution, but perhaps applicable to all history.



Footnote to Toynbee quotation:

[Herodotus]

Herodotus, called
the “Father of History”

Toynbee is correct. Liddell and Scott in their lexicon of the Greek language give the original meaning of ἱστορία (from which we derive our English word history) as “Inquiry, systematic or scientific observation; of science generally, of geometry; in empirical medicine, body of recorded cases; mythology” or “Knowledge so obtained, information,” that is, the research itself or the information gathered through research. Only later, they report, did the word take on the meaning of “Written account of one’s inquiries, narrative, history” or “Generally, story, account,” that is, a report containing that knowledge or information.

In the first sentence of his famous Histories, Herodotus writes: Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε. The word ἱστορίης is a plural form. Herodotus is using it in its original meaning to indicate that his book is not a singular unit (a history), but a vast conglomeration of all of his inquiries (histories). (That is why his title is properly Histories and not History). G. Rawlinson, among other translators, preserves this plural meaning in his rendering of the passage: “These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, . . .”

Although most history over the centuries has been written by and about men, the word history is not derived, as some persons maintain, from pushing together the two English words his and story. It’s actually the other way around — story (which can be either his or hers) comes ultimately from the Greek word, which became historia in Latin, estoire in Old French, estorie in Anglo-French, and finally story in English, losing its first syllable along the way. History is an English word only by adoption from Greek and Latin. Cognates of it (histoire: French; historia: Latin, Spanish, Swedish, Polish; história: Portuguese; storia: medieval Latin, Italian; istorija: Serbian; istoriya: Russian; and historie: Danish, Norwegian) are found in many differing languages in which the English word his is unknown. (In fact, in languages in which nouns have gender, the word for history is usually feminine rather than masculine.) It is not obvious to laypersons, but linguists certify that the words which are closely akin to history are the Old English word witan, the Latin word videre, and the Sanskrit word veda, all of which suggest truly knowing something because one has seen for oneself or learned by one’s own efforts. It’s actually more complicated than that, but that’s probably already more explanation than you wanted or thought you needed. David Cannadine (see above) got it right about historians. [Return to the quotation by Toynbee]

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