What Is History? A Collection of Definitions

Love it or Leave it Alone

Milky Way rising over Mt. Ruapehu, New Zealand
"When it is dark enough you can see the stars..." - Martin Luther King. New Zealand Transition / Getty Images

History is the study of the human past as it is described in the written documents left by human beings. The past, with all its decisions completed, its participants dead and its history told, is what the general public perceives as the immutable bedrock on which we historians and archaeologists stand. But as purveyors of the past, we recognize that the bedrock is really quicksand, that bits of the story are yet untold, and that what has been told comes tainted by the conditions of what we are today.

  That's my opinion, of course—here are a collection of others. 

History Definitions

Pithy: no one could argue that the best definition isn't a short one, but it helps if you can be witty as well.

  • History is a narration of the events which have happened among mankind, including an account of the rise and fall of nations, as well as of other great changes which have affected the political and social condition of the human race.—John J. Anderson. 1876. A Manual of General History.
  • History is not what you thought. It is what you remember. All other history defeats itself.—W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman. 1930 Preface, 1066 and All That.
  • History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.—James Joyce. Ulysses. 1922(1988) Published by Oxford University Press. P. 34
  • History not used is nothing, for all intellectual life is action, like practical life, and if you don't use the stuff well, it might as well be dead.—Arnold J. Toynbee April 17, 1955. NBC television broadcast.

    The Psycho-Historian

    Between 1942 and 1944, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote the first short stories which were to become the basis for the Foundation trilogy. The main conceit of the Foundation Trilogy is that if you are a good enough mathematician, you can accurately predict the future, based on the record of the past.

    Asimov read very widely indeed, so it should come as no surprise that his ideas were based on the writings of other historians.

    • If a science of history were achieved, it would, like the science of celestial mechanics, make possible the calculable prediction of the future in history. It would bring the totality of historical occurrences within a single field and reveal the unfolding future to its last end, including all the apparent choices made and to be made. It would be omniscience. The creator of it would possess the attributes ascribed by the theologians to God. The future once revealed, humanity would have nothing to do except to await its doom.—Charles Austin Beard. 1933. "Written History as an Act of Fate." Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Urbana, Illinois. December 28, 1933. American Historical Review 39(2):219-231.
    • History is and should be a science. .... History is not the accumulation of events of every kind which happened in the past. It is the science of human societies.—Fustel de Coulanges
    • The first foundations of all history are the recitals of the fathers to the children, transmitted afterward from one generation to another; at their origin they are at the very most probable, when they do not shock common sense, and they lose one degree of probability in each generation.—Voltaire [1694-1778]. The Philosophical Dictionary. translated 1924 by H.I. Woolf
    • History is ... a dialogue between the present and the past. (originally: Geschichte ist ... ein Dialog zwischen Gegenwart und Vergangenheit.)— Edward Hallet Carr. 1961. What Is History? New York: Vintage Books.
    • The major lessons of history? There are four: First, whom the gods destroy they first make mad with power. Second, the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small. Third, the bee fertilizes the flower it robs. Fourth, when it is dark enough you can see the stars.—Although this quote has been attributed to historian Charles Austin Beard, I couldn't find an original source. This version is the one Martin Luther King used in "The death of evil upon the seashore" in Strength to Love, 1981. Fortress Press, p. 83

    A Pack of Tricks

    Not everyone likes the study of history or finds it useful.

    Henry Ford was a prime example of that and so was Henry David Thoreau, what may be one of the very few things those two gentlemen had in common.

    • History is nothing but a pack of tricks we play on the dead. (French original) J'ay vu un temps où vous n'aimiez guères l'histoire. Ce n'est après tout qu'un ramas de tracasseries qu'on fait aux morts...) —Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet). 1757. Letter to Pierre Robert Le Cornier de Cideville. In Voltaire's Correspondence vol. xxxi. edited by Theodore Besterman, 1958. Geneva
    • As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.—Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
    • History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome.— Catherine Morland [Jane Austen]. 1803. Northanger Abbey.
    • HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools: Of Roman history, great Niebuhr's shown 'Tis nine-tenths lying. Faith, I wish 'twere known, Ere we accept great Niebuhr as a guide, Wherein he blundered and how much he lied. —Ambrose Bierce (writing as Salder Bupp). 1911. Devil's Dictionary
    • A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself. —Attributed to Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz)

    The Passage of Time

    Whether you like history or not, there's no denying the impact it has on us.

    • Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.—Henry David Thoreau. 1849. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
    • You know, it's so strange, I've lived through four forms of government in my life: monarchy, republic, Hitler's Reich, American democracy. The [Weimar] republic was only ... 1918 to 1933, that's fifteen years! Imagine that, only fifteen years. But, then, Hitler was going to last a thousand years and he lasted only ... 1933 to 1945... twelve, twelve years only! Hah! —Gusti Bienstock Kollman (born 1912, escaped Austria to the United States after Kristallnacht 1938)
    • So very difficult a matter it is to trace and find out the truth of anything by history. —Plutarch. ca. 46-120 AD—from Dryden's translation of Plutarch's Lives, edited and revised by A. H. Clough
    • The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question "How can we eat?" the second by the question "Why do we eat?" and the third by the question "Where shall we have lunch? —Douglas Adams. 1981. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. Harmony Books. P. 215

      According to Prufrock

      After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
      History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
      And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
      Guides us by vanities. Think now
      She gives when our attention is distracted
      And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
      That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
      What's not believed in, or if still believed,
      In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
      Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with
      Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
      Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
      Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
      Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
      These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
      —T.S. Eliot. 1920 Gerontion. In The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems.