History can inform the present and help us shape the future. History can mean what happened in the past, or the story about what happened in the past, and these two don’t necessarily agree. Historian’s goals were often to glorify a person or nation, more than to tell objectively what happened. History textbooks have sometimes been bound by political rules about not telling embarrassing stories about the past. Every historian has cultural influences and assumptions, even if they attempt to be inclusive and objective. These quotations on history come from a variety of perspectives, moods, and authors.

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Love is more pleasant than marriage for the same reason that novels are more amusing than history.

— Nicolas Chamfort

History is a vast early-warning system.

— Norman Cousins

I am where I am because of the bridges that I crossed. Sojourner Truth was a bridge. Harriet Tubman was a bridge. Ida B. Wells was a bridge. Madame C. J. Walker was a bridge. Fannie Lou Hamer was a bridge.

— Oprah Winfrey

Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.

— Oscar Wilde

Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.

— Oscar Wilde

But myth is something else than an explanation of the world, of history, and of destiny.

— Paul Ricoeur

The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.

— Paulo Freire

Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future.

— Paulo Freire

One little person, giving all of her time to peace, makes news. Many people, giving some of their time, can make history.

— Peace Pilgrim

The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than the whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature. Until human beings discovered a way across that boundary, the future was a mirror of the past or the murky domain of oracles and soothsayers who held a monopoly over knowledge of anticipated events.

— Peter L. Bernstein

Perhaps the problem is that for some people biblical history is not just about history but about Bible. Somehow, when the word ‘Bible’ is raised scepticism becomes bad and credulity (‘belief) good. ‘Sceptics’ who employ labels like ‘biblicist’ and ‘fundamentalist’ merely accept that agenda and turn the issue on its head.

— Philip R. Davies

[A]ll talk of history is talk about the present. And the future.

— Philip R. Davies

Perhaps the rediscovery of our humanity, and the potential of the human spirit which we have read about in legends of older civilizations, or in accounts of solitary mystics, or in tales of science fiction writers— perhaps this will constitute the true revolution of the future. The new frontier lies not beyond the planets but within each one of us.

— Pierre Elliot Trudeau

Someday, after mastering the winds, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love and then, for a second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Can anybody remember when the times were not hard and money not scarce?

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is properly no history; only biography.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

A man finds room in the few square inches of the face for the traits of all his ancestors; for the expression of all his history, and his wants.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

— Robert Burns

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

— Robert F. Kennedy

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.

— Robert F. Kennedy

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.

— Robert Fulghum

There is a lie some Americans tell themselves when America is on its worst behavior: “This isn’t America!” or “This isn’t who we are!” or “We’re better than this!”

— Sam Sanders

It has been said that though 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

Skepticism is an important historical tool. It is the starting point of all revision of hitherto accepted history.

— Samuel E. Morison

Wars, plagues, names upon tombs tell us only what happened. But history lies in the cracks in between. In the inexplicable, invisible turns and decisions. A person saying no instead of yes. …It is not that they had lived…but how.

— Sarah Blake

History says, don’t hope / On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.

— Seamus Heaney

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

— Seamus Heaney, from “The Cure of Troy”

We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.

— Shirley Abbott

I think students should know something about religion as a historical phenomenon, in the same way that they should know something about socialism and humanism and the other great ideas that have shaped political philosophies and therefore the course of human events.

— Steven Pinker

I want to live in a world where everyone who studies American history reads Frederick Douglass and everyone who studies English reads George Eliot—just to stay with the nineteenth century. If they are cloistered, another generation will grow up thinking they can learn American history without Douglass, English literature without Eliot.

— Susan Neiman

Narratives start with words and are reinforced by symbols, and many symbols involve remembering the dead. Which heroes do we valorize, which victims do we mourn? The United States has hundreds of monuments depicting a noble-looking Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army. In 2018, Bryan Stevenson dedicated a national monument to honor the victims of lynching, but where are the national monuments to the freedom fighter John Brown—or at least to Harriet Tubman? There are no monuments to the Nazis in Germany, East or West, but only after reunification did West Germany build significant monuments to the victims.

— Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil

The line from Southern hatred of Reconstruction to Southern opposition to government programs is a straight one, though it’s rarely explicitly drawn. So Mississippi prefers potholes that can ruin your wheels in its capital, and schools that leave their graduates illiterate in its countryside, to imposing taxes that might fix them.

— Susan Nieman

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates

Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.

— Thich Nhat Hanh

History is the essence of innumerable biographies.

— Thomas Carlyle

History maketh a young man to be old, without either wrinkles or gray hairs, — privileging him with the experience of age, without either the infirmities or inconveniences thereof.

— Thomas Fuller

While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work [Plato’s Republic], I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this?

— Thomas Jefferson

Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.

— Thomas Merton

Rosa sat so Martin could walk, Martin walked so Barack could run, Barack ran so we all can fly.

— Unknown

The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.

— Virginia Woolf

I worshipped dead men for their strength,
Forgetting I was strong.

— Vita Sackville-West

History should be written as philosophy.

— Voltaire

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.

— Walter Benjamin

There is a certain meddlesome spirit, which, in the garb of learned research, goes prying about the traces of history, casting down its monuments, and marring and mutilating its fairest trophies. Care should be taken to vindicate great names from such pernicious erudition.

— Washington Irving

The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

— Willa Cather

Truth does not reside in exact recording of every detail. It never has. Instead, it resides in myth — generalizing myths that direct attention to what is common amid diversity by neglecting trivial differences of detail.

— William H. NcNeill

I do not believe that human nature is uniform and unchanging. Rather, whatever penchants and capabilities we inherit with our genes are so malleable that their expression takes infinitely diverse forms.

— William H. NcNeill

An irresistible cycle seemed to operate, repeating patterns of the ancient world where civil strife and war brought disaster… I surmised that patterned and predictable changes were in turn rooted in the very nature of civilization — the ineluctable breaker of custom and eroder of moral codes, and itself a product and expression of rapid technological and social change.

— William H. NcNeill
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