History Quotes

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People have been fascinated about the people and events that came before for them for all of human history.

While the first recorded Greek history dates back to the time of the First Olympiad, or 776BC, people were writing about and preserving knowledge long before that.

The Greeks and Romans were masters of writing their own history, and their elaborate accounts eventually gave way to the increasingly sophisticated methods adopted in the Medieval (manuscript) and Early Modern (print) periods.

Today, history as a discipline demands greater evidence and less bias than ever before.

We have diversified our interests away from the study of the great and the good, instead focusing on grass-roots history, history from below, gender history, black history, and every other kind of history you can think of. We are lending our voices to those in the past, and we are learning more about ourselves and where we came from in the process.

These history quotes are all about exploring our history: finding out what history really is, what it means to us as people, what we can learn from it, and what studying history is all about.

Quotes About What History Is

We’ve just talked a little bit about what the practice and discipline of history is, but defining history has been a subject that many people have weighed in on.

From scholars and writers to politicians and inventors, everyone has a differing opinion on why the past is relevant, and what the study of history is.

The dictionary defines history as “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs” or “a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events.” As a historian myself, I’d argue that history is much more than that! But I’ll let you decide for yourself while you read these quotes about what history is.

Three shelves of old leather-bound books the Oxford Library
“History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” – George Santayana

History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.

Ambrose Bierce

The history of mankind is the instant between two strides taken by a traveler.

Franz Kafka

What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past.

Victor Hugo

History is mostly guessing; the rest is prejudice.

Will Durant

History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.

Alexis de Tocqueville

History is a race between education and catastrophe.

H.G. Wells
Thucydides history quote "History is philosophy teaching by examples"
“History is philosophy teaching by examples.” – Thucydides

History is a vast early warning system.

Norman Cousins

Human history in essence is the history of ideas.

H.G. Wells

The pull, the attraction of history, is in our human nature. What makes us tick? Why do we do what we do? How much is luck the deciding factor?

David McCullough

A myth is far truer than a history, for a history only gives a story of the shadows, whereas a myth gives a story of the substances that cast the shadows.

Annie Besant

History reports that the men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.

Will Durant
David Miliband quote "History is information. Memory is part of your identity"
“History is information. Memory is part of your identity.” – David Miliband

Isn’t history ultimately the result of our fear of boredom?

Emile Cioran

History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory.

George Santayana

History provides no precise guidelines.

Douglas Hurd

History has been the history of warfare.

Godfrey Reggio

History is a resource.

Laura Linney

History develops, art stands still.

E.M. Forster
Graydon Carter quote "History is nothing if not an epic tale of missed opportunities"
“History is nothing if not an epic tale of missed opportunities.” – Graydon Carter

History is more or less bunk.

Henry Ford

History, a distillation of rumour.

Thomas Carlyle

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

Voltaire

History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.

Lord Acton

Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history, there could be no concept of humanity.

Hermann Hesse
Napoleon Bonaparte historical quote "History is a set of lies agreed upon"
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

History shows that there are no invincible armies.

Joseph Stalin

History is merely gossip.

Oscar Wilde

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

Karl Marx

There is properly no history; only biography.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

History is a pack of lies we play on the dead.

Voltaire

To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning.

Hermann Hesse
Aristotle quote "Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular"
“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” – Aristotle

History is a relay of revolutions.

Saul Alinsky

I do not speak Hebrew, but I understand that it has no word for ‘history’. The closest word for it is memory.

David Miliband

Blood alone moves the wheels of history.

Martin Luther

Revolutions are the locomotives of history.

Karl Marx

Black history is American history.

Morgan Freeman
Karl Vonnegut quote "History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again"
“History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” – Karl Vonnegut

Quotes About People in History

When we think about history, we don’t just think broadly about the past. We focus in on specific events and specific people.

Arguably, the study of history is the study of people: a series of influential, significant figures who shape the way we see different phases of the past.

From politicians to religious leaders, notable orators and leading chroniclers, these figures didn’t just have a significant impact on the way people during their time thought about and experienced the world.

Whether we’re talking about Leonardo da Vinci or Lord Byron, Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr., these historical figures still play an incredibly important role in shaping way we think about the events, movements, and changes that happened in the past.

Tourists walking among enormous stone columns in a cultural site in Jordan
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey

People who make history know nothing about history. You can see that in the sort of history they make.

G.K. Chesterton

The only history is a mere question of one’s struggle inside oneself. But that is the joy of it. One need neither discover Americas nor conquer nations, and yet one has as great a work as Columbus or Alexander, to do.

D.H. Lawrence

History is formed by the people, those who have power and those without power. Each one of us makes history.

Anselm Kiefer

History is a tool used by politicians to justify their intentions.

Ted Coppell

Certain periods in history suddenly lift humanity to an observation point where a clear light falls upon a world previously dark.

Anne Sullivan
Churchill quote "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it"
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” – Winston Churchill

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 Kennedy

Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.

David Ben Gurion

We are all tourists in history, and irony is what we win in wars.

Anatole Broyard

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

I’ve been completely fascinated with history because it tells everything about what’s going to happen next because it’s cyclical, everything repeats in general.

Emile Autumn
Leonardo Da Vinci quote "It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things"
“It had long come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” – Leonardo da Vinci

On the day when man told the story of his life to man, history was born.

Alfred de Vigny

Today is either the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. Today we are making history.

Eckhard Pfeiffer

The public history of modern art is the story of conventional people not knowing what they are dealing with.

Golda Meir

People say history is boring, and that is true because people are boring. We haven’t changed since time began. We’re still the same. We’ve obviously made some changes.

Colin Hay

The human race tends to remember the abuses to which it has been subjected rather than the endearments. What’s left of kisses? Wounds, however, leave scars.

Bertolt Brecht
William Hazlitt quote "No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history"
“No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.” – William Hazlitt

I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.

James Baldwin

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

Oscar Wilde

I believe that we must maintain pride in the knowledge that the actions we take, based on our own decisions and choices as individuals, link directly to the magnificent challenge of transforming human history.

Daisaku Ikeda

History is who we are and why we are the way we are.

David McCullough

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

George Orwell

The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarized as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces – in nature, in society, in man himself.

Leon Trotsky
Thomas Friedman quote "Optimists are usually wrong. But all the great change in history, positive change, was done by optimists"
“Optimists are usually wrong. But all the great change in history, positive change, was done by optimists.” – Thomas Friedman

People have an annoying habit of remembering things they shouldn’t.

Christopher Paolini

History of the world is the biography of the great man. And I said: The great man always act like a thunder. He storms the skies, while others are waiting to be stormed.

Thomas Carlyle

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Martin Luther King Jr.

After making a mistake or suffering a misfortune, the man of genius always gets back on his feet.

Napoleon Bonaparte

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

Malcolm X
MLK history quote "We are not makers of history. We are made by history"
“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

The past changes a little every time we retell it.

Hilary Mantel

Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

C. Wright Mills

Fear not for the future, weep not for the past.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.

B.C. Forbes

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
James Baldwin quote "People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them"
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” – James Baldwin

The main thing is to make history, not to write it.

Otto von Bismarck

Never doubt that you can change history. You already have.

Marge Piercy

The best prophet of the future is the past.

Lord Byron

History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this.

Karl Marx
Gandhi quote "A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history"
“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Quotes About Learning From History

You might’ve heard the old saying that goes, if we don’t learn from history, we are destined to repeat it. And history shows us that, in a lot of ways, this is true.

However, there are many other valuable lessons that we can learn from studying history, whether our own or the history of somewhere, or someone, entirely different.

When we become familiar with different cultures we grow in respect for its rituals and traditions, however far removed they are from our own. When we engage with the past, we are able to consider how far we have come and how fortunate we are to live as we do.

Whether you use them to reflect on the past or be grateful for the present, these quotes are all about learning from history.

Desmond Tutu quote "We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!"
“We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!” – Desmond Tutu

Life moves fast. As much as you can, learn from your history, you have to move forward.

Eddie Vedder

The man who has no sense of history, is like a man who has no ears or eyes.

Adolf Hitler

History laughs at both the victim and the aggressor.

Mahmoud Darwish

Patriotism ruins history.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.

Plato

Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts.

Edward Murrow
Edmund Burke quote "Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it"
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke

History is written by the victors.

Winston Churchill

What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles.

George Wilhelm Hegel

The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.

Aldous Huxley

A generation which ignores history has no past – and no future.

Robert A. Heinlein

We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.

George Bernard Shaw

History shows you don’t know what the future brings.

Rick Wagoner
Daisaku Ikeda quote "To communicate the truths of history is an act of hope for the future"
“To communicate the truths of history is an act of hope for the future.” – Daisaku Ikeda

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.

Edward Gibbon

I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.

Bar Rafaeli

If you think you have it tough, read history books.

Bill Maher

If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.

George Bernard Shaw

One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.

Will Durant
Pearl S Buck history quote "One faces the future with one’s past"
“One faces the future with one’s past.” – Pearl S. Buck

If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth.

E.O. Wilson

The history of the past interests us only in so far as it illuminates the history of the present.

Ernest Dimnet

All our experience with history should teach us, when we look back, how badly human wisdom is betrayed when it relies on itself.

Martin Luther

The so-called lessons of history are for the most part the rationalizations of the victors. History is written by the survivors.

Max Lerner

There runs a strange law through the length of human history – that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves.

G.K. Chesterton
Gertrude Stein quote "History takes time. History makes memory"
“History takes time. History makes memory.” – Gertrude Stein

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall – think of it, always.

Mahatma Gandhi

History, we can confidently assert, is useful in the sense that art and music, poetry and flowers, religion and philosophy are useful. Without it — as with these — life would be poorer and meaner; without it we should be denied some of those intellectual and moral experiences which give meaning and richness to life. Surely it is no accident that the study of history has been the solace of many of the noblest minds of every generation.

Henry Steele Commager

The game of history is usually played by the best and the worst over the heads of the majority in the middle.

Eric Hoffer
Norman Mailer quote "It’s not the sentiments of men which make history but their actions"
“It’s not the sentiments of men which make history but their actions.” – Norman Mailer

Sometimes history takes things into its own hands.

Thurgood Marshall

If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.

Baruch Spinoza

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, however, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

Maya Angelou

Our history is not our destiny.

Alan Cohen

Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.

Anne Sullivan

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
Margaret Bourke-White history quote "The beauty of the past belongs to the past"
“The beauty of the past belongs to the past.” – Margaret Bourke-White

Whatever we do or fail to do will influence the course of history.

Arthur Henderson

Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.

A.J.P. Taylor

If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.

Michael Crichton

History never looks like history when you are living through it.

John W. Gardner

On human stupidity: It is one of the most powerful forces that shape history.

Yuval Noah Harari

Ideas shape the course of history.

John Maynard Keynes
Hilary Mantel quote "What fascinates me are the turning points where history could have been different"
“What fascinates me are the turning points where history could have been different.” – Hilary Mantel

Sometimes – history needs a push.

Vladimir Lenin

The main thing history can teach us is that human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone. They foreclose the possibility of making other choices and thus they determine future events.

Gerda Lerner

Who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood?

Carl Jung

Condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me.

Fidel Castro
“People live in the present. They plan for, and worry about, the future. Given all the demands that press in from living in the present and anticipating what is yet to come, why bother with what has been?” – Peter Stearns
Abraham Lincoln quote "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history"
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” – Abraham Lincoln

Quotes about Learnign from the Past

There was never a time in my life when I wasn’t interested in history. From an elementary school obsession with Ancient Egypt to completing a PhD in Renaissance history, my thirst for knowledge about the past has always been an important aspect of my personality.

Many historians will tell you the same thing. And yet, the study of history is in decline. In late 2018, Benjamin M. Schmidt, a professor of history at Northeastern University, published a study demonstrating that history has been declining more rapidly than any other major in the last decade, even as more and more students attend college. Children are in danger of losing their ability to interpret the past, as history lessons at school level are increasingly pushed out of the curriculum.

Losing our interest in, and grip on, the past shouldn’t even be a consideration today! With resources and collections of artifacts, books, manuscripts, and images increasingly available online, it is easier than ever before to engage with the past. Whatever you are interested in, I hope that these quotes about writing history inspire you to learn more.

Karl Schlegel quote "The historian is a prophet looking backward"
“The historian is a prophet looking backward.” – Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel

Hindsight is the historian’s necessary vice.

Hilary Mantel

Study the past if you would define the future.

Confucius

Historian: an unsuccessful novelist.

H.L. Mencken

No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.

David McCullough

Skepticism is a virtue in history as well as in philosophy.

Napoleon Bonaparte
Douglas Hurd quote "We must admit that history is enjoyable to a large extent because it enables us to pass judgement on the past"
“We must admit that history is enjoyable to a large extent because it enables us to pass judgement on the past.” – Douglas Hurd

People take the longest possible paths, digress to numerous dead ends, and make all kinds of mistakes. Then historians come along and write summaries of this messy, nonlinear process and make it appear like a simple, straight line.

Dean Kamen

The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

Mark Twain

The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.

E.L. Doctorow

Memoirs are the backstairs of history.

George Meredith
George Sand history quote "Every historian discloses a new horizon"
“Every historian discloses a new horizon.” – George Sand

Yeah, I read history. But it doesn’t make you nice. Hitler read history, too.

Joan Rivers

To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse.

Barbara Tuchman

I go into my library and all history unrolls before me.

Alexander Smith

Like a historian, I interpret, select, discard, shape, simplify. Unlike a historian, I make up people’s thoughts.

Hilary Mantel

You don’t hate history, you hate the way it was taught to you in high school.

Stephen Ambrose

A library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas, a place where history comes to life.

Norman Cousins
Rudyard Kipling quote "If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten"
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” – Rudyard Kipling

Each one writes history according to his convenience.

Jose Rizal

It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.

Henry James

Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.

Winston Churchill
Harry Truman quote "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know"
“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” – Harry S. Truman

There is an ancient Indian saying that something lives only as long as the last person who remembers it. My people have come to trust memory over history. Memory, like fire, is radiant and immutable while history serves only those who seek to control it, those who douse the flame of memory in order to put out the dangerous fire of truth. Beware these men for they are dangerous themselves and unwise. Their false history is written in the blood of those who might remember and of those who seek the truth.

Floyd Red Crow Westerman, X-Files: The Blessing Way

I hope you’ve enjoyed this huge collection of history quotes. What is your favorite thing about studying the past? Share it with us in the comments!

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Natalie Seale

Natalie Seale is a writer, researcher, and editor for keepinspiring.me. She holds an MA, MSc, and PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh, and has started two businesses since 2011. Natalie is an avid reader, a keen traveller, and enjoys cooking and walking with her English Spaniel. Her posts focus on inspiring others to live healthy, happy, and active lives.