IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Monday, July 4, 2011

Of History and Historians

It is natural for a good man to love his country and his friends, and to hate the enemies of both. But when he writes history he must abandon such feelings, and be prepared to praise enemies who deserve it and to censure the dearest and most intimate friends. Polybius, Histories, I, c. 125 B.C.

The first law is that the historian shall never dare to set down what is false; the second, that he shall never dare to conceal the truth; the third, that there shall be no suspicion in his work of either favoritism or prejudice. Cicero, De orotore, II, c. 80 B.C.

The historian should be fearless and incorruptible; a man of independence, loving frankness and truth; one who, as the poet says, calls a fig a fig and a spade a spade. He should yield to neither hatred nor affection, but should be unsparing and unpitying. He should be neither shy nor deprecating, but an impartial judge, giving each side all it deserves but no more. He should know in his writings no country and no city; he should bow to no authority and acknowledge no king. He should never consider what this or that man will think, but should state the facts as they really occurred. Lucian, How History Should be Written, c. 170

We are much beholden to Machiavel[li] and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, II, 1605

We may gather out of history a policy no less wise than eternal, by the comparison and application of other men’s forepassed miseries with our own like errors and ill deservings. Walter Raleigh, Historie of the World, pref., 1614

If an historian were to relate truthfully all the crimes, weaknesses and disorders of mankind, his readers would take his work for satire rather than for history. Pierre Bayle, Dictionary, 1697

History can be well written only in a free country. Voltaire, Letter to Frederick the Great, May 27, 1737

The first quality of an historian is to be true and impartial; the next to be interesting. David Hume, Letter to William Mum, Oct., 1754

On whatever side we regard the history of Europe, we shall perceive it to be a tissue of crimes, follies, and misfortunes. Oliver Goldsmith, The Citizen of the World, XLII, 1762

Great abilities are not requisite for an historian, for in historical composition all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent. He has facts ready to his hand, so there is no exercise of invention. Imagination is not required to any high degree — only about as much as is used in the lower kinds of poetry. Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life, July 6, 1763

We are very uncorrupt and tolerably enlightened judges of the transactions of past ages; where no passions deceive and where the whole train of circumstances, from the trifling cause to the tragical event, is set in an orderly series before us. Few are the partisans of departed tyranny; and to be a Whig on the business of an hundred years ago is very consistent with every advantage of present servility. Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770

The histories of mankind that we possess are histories only of the higher classes. Thomas R. Malthus, The Principle of Population, 1798

There is the moral of all human tales;
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First freedom, and then glory — when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, — barbarism at last.
Byron, Childe Harold, IV, 1818

History fades into fable; fact becomes clouded with doubt and controversy; the inscription molders from the tablet: the statue falls from the pedestal. Columns, arches, pyramids, what are they but heaps of sand; and their epitaphs, but characters written in the dust? Washington Irving, The Sketch-Book, 1820

The public history of all countries, and all ages, is but a sort of mask, richly colored. The interior working of the machinery must be foul. John Quincy Adams, Diary, Nov. 9, 1822

History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents. Thomas B. Macaulay, Hallam, Edinburgh Review, Sept. 1828

He that would know what shall be, must consider what hath been. H.G. Bohn, Handbook of Proverbs, 1855

History is a voice forever sounding across the centuries the laws of right and wrong. J.A. Froude,The Science of History, 1864

The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterward. Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics, 1869

All history is only one long story to this effect: men have struggled for power over their fellow-men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others, and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others. William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man, 1833

Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it. Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891

A boy who hears a lesson in history ended by the beauty of peace, and how Napoleon brought ruin upon the world and that he should be forever cursed, will not long have much confidence in his teacher. He wants to hear more about the fighting and less about the peace negotiations. William Lee Howard, Peace, Dolls, and Pugnacity, 1903

History is a fairy tale whose end is death. Author unidentified (quoted in J.A. Cramb, The Origins and Destiny of Imperial Britain), I, 1915

It is not the neutrals or the lukewarm who make history, Adolf Hitler, Speech in Berlin, April 23, 1933

Human history is similar to the heroic tales pigs relate of swine. Welsh Proverb

Source: Mencken, Dictionary of Quotations