Posted by: Dominic | November 5, 2010

What is history?

Throughout most of my undergraduate career I had not considered the most basic question of the definition of my studies. What is history? When I did ask the question, it turned out that it was a much more slippery subject than I had previously thought (or not thought, as the case may be). While getting a good definition seems to be a sine qua non for continuing historical studies, I have continued to ask and explore the question. I don’t expect to find the answer, but the asking has become one of the most fruitful lines of thought I have undertaken as a student.

Most people have heard George Santayana’s aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I don’t think this really explains history or its purpose. But, I don’t have any reply to the Spanish philosopher, let alone a slew of famous books and a wikipedia page.

But here are a few other quotes from some famous folks on the subject of history.

History is the lie commonly agreed upon. -Voltaire 

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 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 a genius to write it. -Oscar Wilde 

The first lesson of history is the good of evil. -Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Peoples and government have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deducible from it. -G.W.F. Hegel 

History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in….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 

Nothing capable of being memorized is history. -R.G. Collingwood 

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

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


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