Texts by Historians: from Herodotus to Braudel

Texts by Historians: From Herodotus to Braudel


1. Greece: Herodotus | Thucydides | Aristotles | Polybius | Plutarch | Lucian of Samosata

2. Jewish Tradition: Samuel | Daniel

3. Rome: Cicero | Livy |Tacitus | Saint Augustine of Hippo | Cassiodorus

4. The Middle Ages: Saint Isidore of Seville | Bede | Otto of Freising | Dino Compagni

5. The Renaissance and the Baroque: Francesco Guicciardini | Juan Luis Vives | Philipp Melanchthon | Francesco Robortello | François Baudouin | Jean Bodin | Francis Bacon | Tommaso Campanella | René Descartes | Jean Mabillon | Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

6. The Enlightenment: Giambattista Vico | Bolingbroke | Voltaire | David Hume | Edward Gibbon | Nicolas Condorcet | Johann Gottfried von Herder

7. Nineteenth Century: Hegel | Alessandro Manzoni | Arthur Schopenhauer | Leopold von Ranke | Auguste Comte | Jules Michelet | Thomas Babington Macaulay | Theodor Mommsen | Karl Marx 

8. Twentieth Century: Benedetto Croce | José Ortega y Gasset | Marc Bloch | R. G. Collingwood | Fernand Braudel H.-I. Marrou | Paul Ricoeur | Lawrence Stone


1. Greece


Herodotus (ca. 495–425 B.C.)

“Thus it appears certain to me, by a great variety of proofs, that Cambyses was raving mad; he would not else have set himself to make a mock of holy rites and long-established usages. For if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others. Unless, therefore, a man was mad, it is not likely that he would make sport of such matters. That people have this feeling about their laws may be seen by very many proofs.”

[Herodotus, Histories. In Kelley, Donald R. (1991). Versions of History: from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, p. 26].


Thucydides (ca. 471–400 B.C.)

“With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire and exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

[Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 34-35].


Aristotle (384–322 B.C.)

“It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen, –what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with metre no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of given character will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.”

[Aristotle, Poetics. In Butcher, S. H. ed. (2008). The Poetics of Aristotle. BiblioBazaar, LLC, p. 35].


Polybius (ca. 198–117 B.C.)

“Had previous chroniclers neglected to speak in praise of History in general, it might perhaps have been necessary for me to recommend everyone to choose for study and welcome such treatises as the present, since men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past. But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History, and that the surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others. Evidently therefore no one, and least of all myself, would think it his duty at this day to repeat what has been so well and often said. For the element of unexpectedness in the events I have chosen as my theme will be sufficient challenge and incite everyone, young and old alike, to peruse my systematic history. For who is worthless or indolent as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government –a thing unique in history? Or who again is there so passionately to other spectacles or studies as to regard anything as of greater moment than the acquisition of this knowledge?”

[Polybius, The Histories of Polybius. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 36-37].


“Fortune has guided almost all the affairs of the world in one direction and has forced them to incline towards one and the same end; a historian should likewise bring before his readers under one synoptical view the operations by which she has accomplished her general purpose. Indeed it was this chiefly that invited and encouraged me to undertake my task; and secondarily the fact that none of my contemporaries have undertaken to write a general history, in which case I should have been much less eager to take this in hand. […] He indeed who believes that by studying isolated histories he can acquire a fairly just view of history as a whole, is, at it seems to me, much in the case of one, who, after having looked at the dissevered limbs of an animal once alive and beautiful, fancies he has been as good as an eyewitness of the creature itself in all its action and grace. […] For we can get some idea of a whole from a part, but never knowledge of the whole and conviction of all the particulars, their resemblances and differences, that we are enabled at least to make a general survey, and thus derive both benefit an pleasure from history.”

[Ibidem, pp. 38-39].


Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46–120)

“I think that I had better make some kind of outlines, and list, in general terms, the indications by which we can determine whether a narrative is written with malice or with honesty and good will. […] First, then, the man who in his narrative of events uses the severest words and phrases when gentler terms will serve. […] Secondly, when something is discreditable to a character, but not relevant to the issue, and the historian grasps at it and thrusts it into his account where there is no place for it, drawing out his story and making a detour so as to include someone’s ill-success or foolish unworthy act, there is no doubt that he delights in speaking ill of people. […] My fourth sign of ill will in history-writing is a preference for the less creditable version, when two or more accounts of the same incident are current. […] The historian, on the other hand, if he is to be fair, declares as true what he knows to be the case and, when the facts are not clear, says that the more creditable appears to be the true account rather than the less creditable… […] Furthermore, with respect to the way in which a deed is accomplished, a historian’s narrative is open to the charge of malice if it asserts that the success was won not by valour but by money (as some say of Philip), or easily and without any trouble (as they say of Alexander), or not by intelligence but by the good luck […] It is evident that writers detract from the greatness and virtue of the deeds when they deny that they were done in a noble spirit or by hard work or by valour or by a man’s own effort…”

[Plutarch, On the Malice of Herodotus. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 63-64].


Lucian of Samosata (ca. A.D. 125–200)

“History is not of those things than can be put in hand without effort and can be put together lazily, but is something which needs, if anything does in literature, a great deal of thought if it is to be what Thucydides calls ‘a possession for evermore’. […] The dividing line and frontier between history and panegyric is not a narrow isthmus but rather a mighty wall […] history cannot admit a lie, even a tiny one, any more than the windpipe, as sons of doctors say, can tolerate anything entering it in swallowing. Again, such writers seem unaware that history has aims and rules different from poetry and poems. In the case of the latter, liberty is absolute and there is one law –the will of the poet… I maintain then that the best writer of history comes ready equipped with these two supreme qualities: political understanding and power of expression; the former is an unteachable gift of nature, while power of expression may come through a deal of practice, continual toil, and imitation of the ancients. These then need no guiding rules and I have no need to advise on them; my book does not promise to make people understanding and quick who are not so by nature…”

[Lucian, How to Write History. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 64-65].


“Above all, let him bring a mind like a mirror, clear, gleaming-bright, accurately centered, displaying the shape of things just as he receives them, free from distortion, false colouring, and misrepresentation. His concern is different from that of the orators –what historians have to relate is fact and will speak for itself, for it has already happened: what is required is arrangement and exposition. […] In general please remember this –I shall repeat again and again–: do not write with your eye just on the present, to win praise and honour from your contemporaries; aim at eternity and prefer to write for posterity: present your bill for your book to them, so that it may be said of you: ‘He was a free man, full of frankness, with no adulation or servility anywhere, but everywhere truthfulness.’ That, if a man were sensible, he would value above all present hopes, ephemeral as they are.”

[Ibidem, pp. 67-68].


2. Jewish Tradition


Book of Samuel (ca. 6th century B.C.)

“And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel. Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abiah: they were judges in Beersheva. And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, and said unto him: ‘Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said: ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Samuel, ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee. Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.’

And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said: ‘This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.’

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said: ‘Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.’ And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel: ‘Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king.’ And Samuel said unto the men of Israel: ‘Go ye every man unto his city’.”

[Holy Bible1 Samuel [ca. 6th century B.C.], 8. King James Version. Cambridge Edition].


Book of Daniel (ca. 164 B.C.)

“In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters. Daniel spoke and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. The first was like a lion, and had eagle’s wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man’s heart was given to it. And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh. After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame. As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time.

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. I came near unto one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things. These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.

Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet; And of the ten horns that were in his head, and of the other which came up, and before whom three fell; even of that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows. I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.

Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings. And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end. And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.

Hitherto is the end of the matter. As for me Daniel, my cogitations much troubled me, and my countenance changed in me: but I kept the matter in my heart.”

[Holy BibleDaniel [ca. 164 B.C.], 7. King James Version. Cambridge Edition].


3. Rome


Cicero, Marcus Tullius (106–43 B.C.)

“In history the standard by which everything is judged is the truth, while in poetry it is generally the pleasure one gives; however, in the works of Herodotus, the Father of History, and those of Theopompus, one finds innumerable fabulous tales.”

[Cicero, Orator [46 B.C.]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 76].


“[The orator] should also be acquainted with the history of the events of the past ages, particularly, of course, of our state, but also of imperial nations and famous kings. […] To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the record of history? Moreover, the mention of antiquity and the citation of examples give the speech authority and credibility as well as affording the highest pleasure to the audience. […] And as History, which bears witness to the passing of the ages, sheds light upon reality, gives life to recollection and guidance to human existence, and brings tidings of ancient days, whose voice, but the orator’s, can entrust her to immortality? […] For who does not know history’s first law to be that an author must make bold to tell anything but the truth? And its second that he must make bold to tell the whole truth? That there must be no suggestion of partiality anywhere in his writings? Nor of malice? […] Then again the kind of language and type of style to be followed are the easy and the flowing, which run their course with unvarying current and a certain placidity, avoiding alike the rough speech we use in Court and the advocate’s stinging epigrams.”

[Cicero, De Oratore [55 B.C.]. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 77-79].


“History is indeed the witness to times past, the light of the truth, the life of memory, the guide to life, the messenger of antiquity – by what voice other than the orator’s may she be entrusted to immortality?”

[Cicero, De Oratore [55 B.C.], II, 36. In Feldherr, Andrew (2009). The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 210].


Livy (Titus Livius, ca. 59 B.C.–A.D. 17)

“Whether I am likely to accomplish anything worthy of the labour, if I record the achievements of the Roman people from the foundation of the city I do not really know, nor if I knew would I dare to avouch it; perceiving as I do that the theme is not only old but hackneyed, through the constant succession of the new historians, who believe either that in their facts they can produce more authentic information, or that in their style they will probe better than the rude attempts of the ancients. Yet, however this shall be, it will be a great satisfaction to have done myself as much as lies in me to commemorate the deeds of the foremost people of the world; and if in so vast a company of writers my own reputation should be obscure, my consolation would be the fame and greatness of these whose renown will throw mine into the shade. […] What chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience set forth as on a conspicuous monument; from these you may choose for yourself and for your own state what to imitate, from these mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result.”

[Livy, Ab Urbe Condita [27-9 B.C.]. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 70-73].


Tacitus, Cornelius (A.D. 56-120)

“I think it proper, however, before I commence my purposed work, to pass under review the condition of the capital, the temper of the armies, the attitude of the provinces, and the elements of weakness and strength which existed throughout the whole empire, that so we may become acquainted, not only with the vicissitudes and the issues of events, which are often matters of chance, but also with their relations and their causes.”

[Tacitus, Annals [Annales, ca. A.D. 96]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 100].


Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

“But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation. If we are allowed to speak of these things so, I see three times, and I grant that there are three. Let it still be said, then, as our misapplied custom has it: ‘There are three times, past, present, and future’. I shall not be troubled by it, nor argue, nor object– always provided that what is said is understood, so that neither the future nor the past is said to exist now. There are but few things about which we speak properly –and many more about which we speak improperly– though we understand one another’s meaning.”

[Augustine, Confessions [398]. Book XI, Chapter XX].


“Further, when the past arrangements of men are recounted in historical narration, we must now consider history itself among those human institutions. For things which have now passed away and cannot be revoked must be considered to be in the order of time, whose Creator and Administrator is God. It is one thing to relate what has been done, but another to teach what should be done. History reports honestly and profitably what has been accomplished. On the other hand, books of the soothsayers and all similar writings endeavour to teach what should be done or heeded, with the presumption of an instructor and not with the reliability of a guide.”

[Augustine of Hippo, Christian Instruction [De doctrina christiana, 397-426]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 148].


Cassiodorus (Flavius Magnus Aurelius, ca. 490-575)

“On Christian Historians. In addition to the various writers of treatises, Christian studies also possess narrators of history, who, calm in their ecclesiastical gravity, recount the shifting movements of events and the unstable history of kingdoms with eloquent but very cautious splendour. Because they narrate ecclesiastical matters and describe changes with occur at various times, they must always of necessity instruct the minds of readers in heavenly affairs, since they strive to assign nothing to chance, nothing to the weak power of gods, as pagans have done, but to assign all things to the will of the Creator.”

[Cassiodorus, Divine and Human Letters [Institutiones Divinarum et Saecularium Litterarum, 543-555]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 137].


4. The Middle Ages


Saint Isidore of Seville (ca. 570-636)

“Grammas: On history. History is the narration of deeds [res gestae] by which things done in the past are known. In Greek history is derived from see [videre] or know [cognoscere]. According to the ancients, only those wrote history who participated in it, and they wrote only what they had seen. We apprehend by sight better than we learn by hearsay. For things which are seen may be described without exception. This task belongs to grammar, because whatever is worthy of memory must be written down. But the monuments of history are said to be what carry the memory of deeds. Succession [series] comes by derivation from sertis, a wreath of flowers bound together successively. […] On the use of history. The histories of nations do not deprive readers of useful things. For many wise men included in their histories past deeds of men for the instruction of the present, so that through history the reckoning of past ages and years is understood, and by the succession of consuls and kings many necessary things are made known.”

[Isidore of Seville, Etymologies [Etymologiae630]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 141].


Bede (673-735)

‘For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the good, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse, and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God. Your Majesty is well aware of this: and since you feel so deeply responsible for the general good of those over whom the divine Providence has set you, you wish that this history may be better know both to yourself and your people. But in order to avoid any doubts as to the accuracy of what I have written in the minds of yourself or of any who may listen to or read this history, allow me briefly to state the authorities upon whom I chiefly depend.’

[Bede, A History of the English Church and People [Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum, ca. 731]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 174].


Otto of Freising (d. 1158)

“Thus, I think, has been the purpose of all who have written history before us: to extol the famous deeds of valiant men in order to incite the hearts of mankind to virtue, but to veil in silence the dark doings of the base or, if they are drawn into the light, by the telling to place them on record to terrify the minds of those same mortals.”

[Otto of Freising, The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa [Gesta Friderici imperatoris1145]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 199].


“Even so great a king of the Persians, Ahasuerus or Artaxerxes, although he had not attained to the knowledge of the true light through the worship of the one God, yet, realizing by reason of the nobility of his soul that this was of profit to royal grandeur, commanded that the yearbooks which had been written during his own reign or under his predecessors be examined, and so he gained glory thereby, his purpose being that the innocent should not be punished as if he were guilty and that the guilty should not escape punishment as though he were blameless. […] For you know that all teaching consists of two things: avoidance and selection. […] So also the art of the historian has certain things to clear away and to avoid and others to select and arrange properly; for it avoids lies and selects the truth.”

[Otto of Freising, The Two Cities: A Chronicle of Universal History to the Year 1146 A.D[Chronica sive Historia de duabus Civitatibus, 1145]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 202-204].


Dino Compagni (ca. 1264-1324)

“The remembrance of the ancient histories has long stirred my mind to write the events, fraught with danger and ill-fitted to bring prosperity, which the noble city, the daughter of Rome, has for many years undergone, and especially at the time of the Jubilee of the year 1300. However, for many years I excused myself from writing on the ground of my own incompetence, and in the belief that another would write: but at last, the perils having do multiplied, and the outlook having become so significant that silence might no longer be kept concerning them, I determined to write for the advance of those who shall inherit the prosperous years, to the end that they may acknowledge that their benefits are from God, who rules and governs throughout all ages.”

[Dino Compagni, The Chronicle of Dino Compagni [Cronica, 1312]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 197].

5. The Renaissance and the Baroque


Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540)

“Some men write discourses on the future, basing themselves on current events. And if they are informed men, their writings will seem very plausible to the readers. Nevertheless, they are completely misleading. For since one conclusion depends upon the other, if one is wrong, all that are deduced from it will be mistaken. But every tiny, particular circumstance that changes is apt to alter a conclusion. The affairs of this world, therefore, cannot be judged from afar but must be judged and resolved day by day… To judge by example is very misleading. Unless they are similar in every respect, examples are useless, since every tiny difference in the cause may be a cause of great variations in the effects. And to discern these tiny differences takes a good and perspicacious eye… […] Past events shed light on the future. For the world has always been the same, and everything that is and will be, once was; and the same things recur, but with different names and colors. And for that reason, not everyone recognizes them –only those who are wise, and observe and consider them diligently.”

[Guicciardini, History of Italy [Storia d’Italia, 1540]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 298].


Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540)

“Hence it appears that History took its rise at once with that of men, because it was thus expedient for the human race. It is well to learn the course of history from the beginning of the world or a people continuously right through their course to the latest time for, then, all is more rightly understood and more firmly retained than if we read it in disconnected parts, in the same way that in a description of the whole world, land and sea are placed before the eyes at a glance. For thus it is easier to see the face of the world and the arrangements of its parts one by one, and to understand how each is placed. […] Thus we should do as far as the diversity in writers will permit us, by employing the method of chronology, than which nothing is more apt and suitable in the study of history.”

[Juan Luis Vives, On Education [Introduction ad sapientiam, 1524]. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 257-258].


Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560)

“But this is the true history of the world, in which the msot powerful kingdoms and monarchies have succeeded one another in a certain order, and the world has never declared their power as it has in this age. Therefore we shall divide this period into four monarchies. For God seems to have wanted to keep the world in operation with a certain fixed from of control, so that a sense of shame and honor would be conserved, and the evil punished, and to that end he created monarchies. But monarchies exist where one man has the highest power, to conserve peace and make law. But monarchies of this kind were so powerful that other kings  even when they lived outside them  could not resist or oppose them. And there were only four of these monarchies in a certain fixed succession. First the Kingdom of the Assyrians, after them the Persians ruled, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. And God has raised Germany to the peak of this empire in these last times, before all the other nations”.

[J. Carion and P. Melanchthon. Chronicorum libri tres [Paris: Cavellat, 1557], 14. In A. Grafton, op. cit., p. 171].


Francesco Robortello (1516-1567)

“If the historian must take into account this whole long sweep of years, it is clear that he must be knowledgeable about all of antiquity, so far as it pertains to customs, to ways of life, to the building of cities, to the movements of peoples. Let Thucydides serve as our example. In book six he offers a very thorough and precise account of the antiquity of the cities and peoples of Sicily. And since the remains of old buildings and the inscriptions cut into marbles, gold, brass, and silver can help us greatly when we try to gain knowledge of ancient times, he must also master them. In book six Thucydides  for why we do need to depart from the authority of this outstanding historian?  uses a marble inscription that was placed on the citadel as a monument for posterity to prove that Hippias was the tyrant of Athens and had five children, which many others recorded differently.”

[F. Robortello, Disputatio on history [De historica facultate disputatio or De arte historica, 1548]. In Anthony Grafton (2007). What is History? The Art of History in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 24].


François Baudouin (1520-1573)

“I would prefer that writers narrated only those thing that they saw, and in which they took part. Polybius professes that he desires this above all in history; and the ancients clearly demanded it”.

“What a certain Florentine tried to do in the last century to sections of Livy’s history, for his own utility and that of his fellow Italians, we should do all the more intensively in universal history, especially where the matter deserves it, and a reasonable comparison comes to mind. Finally, the historical hypothesis should yield, so to speak, a political thesis”.

[F. Baudouin, Prolegomena on law and history [De institutione historiae universae et eius cum iurisprudentia coniunctione. Paris: A. Wechel, 1561], pp. 54, 170. In A. Grafton, op. cit., pp. 63-64].


“But even if the world is immobile, yet how admirable is the revolution  if I may use Polybius’s term  of events that take place in it? It is certainly true, as Cornelius Tacitus once wrote, that there is a kind of revolution in all things, and that as times change, so do customs. Those who feigned that the heavens stand still and the earth revolves were fools. But just as this is an absurd dream, so when we turn over the pages of history, we are forced to recognize that the motion of the earth is just as varied and full of changes as the sate of the heavens is stable and constant, so to speak, and we learn that Plato and Aristotle spoke the truth: there are also natural changes in states”.

[F. Baudouin, op. cit., p. 4. In A. Graftonop. cit., p. 71].


“The ancients applied the term ‘pragmatic’ to the form of history that exerts itself to explain and wisely and usefully demonstrates what it narrates, so that it describes not only events, but their causes, and gives events with their counsels. […] As Cicero writes to Atticus in Book 14, ‘You, if you have anything pragmatic to report, write it down.’ Here he calls anything that took palce in the forum or the Senate pragmatic. So I believe that anything of this kind belongs to the writing of history. In addition, the matters that are called in legal texts pragmatic constitutions or sanctions should also be included in history, so that it may be truly pragmatic, as it should be“.

[F. Baudouin, op. cit., p. 29 and 117. In A. Graftonop. cit., pp. 71-72 and 72-73].


“As Cicero’s books could provide rich and ample matter for Roman history, so testimonies on many points that now escape us could be derived from other writers, even if they do not claim to be historians. Therefore I must rebuke the negligence of those who do not lokk in this direction when they are seeking histories. And why confine myself to books and parchements? Everywhere ancient statues and painting, and inscriptions carved on stone slabs and coins, and woven into tapestries and coverings, provide us with historical materials of every kind”.

[F. Baudouin, op. cit., pp. 70-72. In A. Graftonop. cit., pp. 94-95].


When Flavius Vopiscus set out to write a history, he did not blush to confess that there is no writer of history who has not told at least one lie. But he certainly did not think that this fact should make us reject the writings of all of them, and he did not pronounce all histories to be what Iulius Capitolinus terms ‘mythological histories.’ […] I remember that Polybius wrote that the largest and hardest part of the historian’s task is making correct judgments about historical writers. I refer not to their language, butto their testimony and the credibility it bears, if any.”

[F. Baudouin, op. cit., pp. 44 and 51. In A. Graftonop. cit., pp. 97 and 96].


“We cannot, understand our history without that of the so-called barbarians. If we are French, or British, or German, or Spanish, or Italian, we cannot speak of our countrymen if we do not know the history of the Franks, the Angles, the Saxons, the Goths, the Lombards. And since our countrymen have often encountered Saracens and Turks, we dare not be ignorant of Saracen and Turkish history. We must not immediately classify as barbarous or condemn as unknown everything that is alien from our customs or from the eloquence of the Romans and the Greeks”.

[F. Baudouin, op. cit., pp. 36-37. In A. Graftonop. cit., p. 117].


Jean Bodin (1530-1596)

“Although history has many eulogists, who have adorned her with honest and fitting praises, yet among them no one has commended her more truthfully and appropriately than the man who called her the ‘master of life.’ […] This, then, is the greatest benefit of historical books, that some men, at least, can be incited to virtue and others can be frightened away from vice. […] But history is placed above all branches of knowledge in the highest rank of importance and needs the assistance of no tool, not even of letters, since by hearing alone, passed on from one to another, it may be given to posterity. […] Of History, that is, the true narration of things, there are three different kinds: human, natural and divine. The first concerns man; the second, nature; the third, the Father of nature. One depicts the acts of man while leading his life in the midst of society. The second reveals causes hidden in nature and explains their development from earliest beginnings. The last records the strength and power of Almighty God and of the immortal souls, set apart from all else. In accordance with these divisions arise history’s three accepted manifestations –it is probable, inevitable, and holy– and the same number of virtues are associated with it, that is to say, prudence, knowledge, and faith. The first virtue distinguishes base from honorable; the second, true from false; the third, piety from impiety.”

[Jean Bodin, Method for the Easy Comprehension of History [Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem, 1566]. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 382-386].


Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

“[The historian’s task was] to carry the mind in writing back into the past, and bring it into sympathy with antiquity; diligently to examine, freely and faithfully to report, and by the light of words to place as it were before the eyes, the revolutions of times, the characters of persons, the fluctuations of counsels, the courses and currents of actions, the bottoms of pretences, and the secrets of governments.”

[Spedding, J.; Ellis, R.L. and Heath, D.D., eds., The Works of Francis Bacon (14 vols., London, 1858-74), vol. IV, p. 7. In Haddock, op. cit., p. 27].


“Letters of Affaires from such as Manage them, or are privie to them, are of all others the best instructions for History, and to a diligent reader, the best Histories in themselves.”

[F. Bacon. The Advancement of Learning [1605], Bk II, 17 ro. In A. Grafton, op. cit., p. 95].


“Antiquities, or Remnants of History, are, as was said, tanquam Tabula Naufragi: when industrious persons, by an exact and scrupulous diligence and observation, out of Monuments, Names, Wordes, Proverbes, Traditions, Private Recordes, and Evidences, Fragments of stories, Passages of Books, that concerne not story, and the like, do save and recover somewhat from the deluge of time”

[F. Bacon. The Advancement of Learning [1605], II.2.3, 11 ro. In A. Grafton, op. cit., pp. 95-96].


Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639)

“Read the individual histories of all the nations, French, Spanish, German, British, and Ethiopian (for you will find this too) and Turkish and Moorish. You must receive the traditions of the New World from their inhabitants, for they lacked writing. Likewise what the Chinese, Japanese and Tartars, the inhabitants of Ceylon, Persia, India and other nations record in writing or by memory of their origins and their deeds. Jesuits and voyagers have written much about this. But his should really be a task for kings, especially the Spanish one… Whatever the pretenders claim, universal history is not yet complete, but only partial”

[Tommaso Campanella, Philosophia rationalis partes quinque juxta propria principia [1638]In A. Grafton, op. cit., pp. 121-122].


René Descartes (1596-1650)

“I thought by now that I have spent enough labour on the study of ancient languages, on the Reading of ancient authors, and on their histories and narratives. To live with men of an earlier age is like travelling in foreign hands. It is useful to know something of the manners of the other peoples in order to judge more impartially of our own, and not despise and ridicule whatever differs from them, like men who have never been outside their native country. But those who travel too long end by being strangers in their own homes, and those who study too curiously the actions of antiquity are ignorant of what is done among ourselves today. Moreover these narratives tell of things which cannot have happened as if they had really taken place, and thus invite us to attempt what is beyond out powers or to hope for what is beyond our fate. And even histories, true though they be, and neither exaggerating nor altering the value of things, become more worthy of a reader’s attention; hence the things which they describe never happened exactly as they describe them, and men who try to model their own acts upon them are prone to the madness of romantic paladins and meditate hyperbolical deeds.”

[Descartes. Paragraph on history in the first part of the Discourse on Method [Discourse de la méthode, 1637]. In Collingwood, op. cit., p. 59].


Jean Mabillon (1623-1707)

“Therefore, those who wish to learn the art of criticizing ancient documents must consider themselves experts only after careful and thorough preparation. For if it is difficult for someone without experience in this field to give an authoritative judgement about one single document, how much more arduous and dangerous will it be for him to judge all kinds of documents if he does not have at his guide that experience which cannot be acquired without long familiarity with documents of this kind?”

[Jean Mabillon, On Diplomatics [De re diplomatica, 1681]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 417].


Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-17047)

“This kind of universal history is to the history of every country and of every people what a world map is to particular maps. In a particular map you see all the details of a kingdom or a province as such. But a general map teaches you to place these parts of the world in their context; you see what Paris or the Ile-de-France is in the kingdom, what the kingdom is in Europe, and what Europe is in the world. In the same manner, particular histories show the sequences of events that have occurred in a nation in all their detail. Bur in order to understand everything, we must know what connection that history might have with others; and that can be done by a condensation in which we can perceive, as in one place, the entire sequence of time. […] But just as, to help our memory in the knowledge of places, we must retain certain principal towns around which to place the others according to their distance, so also, in the succession of centuries, we must have certain times marked by some great event to which we can relate all the rest. That is what we call an epoch, from a Greek word meaning to stop, because we stop there in order to consider, as from a resting place, all that has happened before or after, thus avoiding anachronisms, that is, the kind of error that confuses ages.”

[Bossuet, Discourse on Universal History [Discours sur l’histoire universelle1681]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 426-427].

6. The Enlightenment


Giambattista Vico (1668-1744)

“By means of these principles of ideas and tongues, that is by means of this philosophy and philology of the human race, he develops an ideal eternal history based on the idea of providence by which, as he shows throughout the work, the natural law of the peoples was ordained. This eternal history is traversed in time by all the particular histories of the nations, each with its rise, development, acme, decline and fall. Thus from the Egyptians, who twitted the Greeks for being always children and knowing nothing of antiquity, he takes and puts to use two great fragments of antiquity. One of these is the division of all preceding time into three ages: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. The other is their reduction of the languages spoken before their time to three types, coeval respectively with the three ages. First, the divine, a dumb language of hieroglyphics or sacred characters. Second, the symbolic, consisting of metaphors as the heroic language did. Third, the epistolographic [demotic], consisting of expressions agreed upon for the everyday uses of life.”

[Vico, The Autobiography of Giambattista Vico [Vita di Giambattista Vico1735-1741]. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 476].


Bolingbroke, Henry Saint John (1678-1751)

“A man must be as indifferent as I am to common censure or approbation, to avow a thorough contempt for the whole business of these learned lives. […] All the systems of chronology and history, that we owe to the immense labours of a Scaliger, a Bochart, a Petavius, an Usher, and even a Marsham [had brought historical learning into disrepute. And no wonder.] […] The same materials are common to them all; but these materials are few, and there is a moral impossibility that they should ever have mroe. They have combined these into every form that can be given to them; they have supposed, they have guessed, they have joined disjointed passages of different authors, and broken traditions of uncertain origin, of various peoples, and of centuries remote from one another as well as from our own. In short, that they might leave no liberty untaken, even a wild fantastical similitude of sound has served to prop up a system”.

[Bolingbroke, Henry Saint John, Lord Viscount. Letters on the Study and Use of History [London: Millar, 1752], 7. In A. Grafton, op. cit., pp. 251-252].


“History is philosophy teaching by examples. […] I doubt that this method of Bodin would conduct us in the same, or as bad, a way; would leave us no time for action, or would make us unfit for it. A huge common-place book, wherein all the remarkable sayings and facts that we find in history are to be registered, may enable a man to talk or write like Bodin, but will never make him a better man, nor enable him to promote, like an useful citiziten, the security, the peace, the welfare, or the grandeur of the community to which he belongs”.

[Bolingbroke, op. cit., pp. 14 and 57. In A. Grafton, op. cit., p. 252].


“To converse with historians is to keep good company; many of them were excellent men, and those who were not such, have taken care however to appear such in their writings”.

[Bolingbroke, op. cit., p. 28. In A. Grafton, op. cit., p. 254].


Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778)

History, n.f., is the account of things represented as true, as contrasted with fable, which is the account of things represented as false. There is history of opinions, which is only the collection of human errors; a history of the arts, perhaps the most useful of all, when it joins the knowledge of the invention and progress of arts to a description of their working; and natural history, improperly called history and actually an essential part of physical science. The history of events is divided into sacred and profane. Sacred history in an account of divine and miraculous operations by which God was formerly pleased to guide the Jewish nation and today guides our faith. I shall not pursue this respectable matter. […]

On the certitude of history. All certitude which is not from mathematical demonstrations in only extreme probability. There is no historical certitude. […] Of Cicero’s maxim about history, that the historian should never tell anything false, nor hide the truth. The first part of the precept is incontestable, but we must examine the other. If a truth can be of some use to your state, your silence is condemnable. But supposing that you write the history of a prince who has given you a secret, should you reveal it? Should you tell posterity what you would be wrong to tell one man? Does the duty of the historian outweigh a larger duty?”

[Voltaire, “Histoire”, in [Denis Diderot], Encyclopédie [1751-1772]. In Kelley, op. cit., pp. 442, 445-446].


David Hume (1711-1776)

“Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human actions and behaviour.”

[Hume, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals[1748-1751, 1777]. In Haddock, B. A. (1980). The Idea of History. London: Edward Arnold, p. 88].


Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

“That history is a liberal and useful study, and that the history of our own country is best deserving of our attention, are propositions too clear for argument, and too simple for illustration. Nature has implanted in our breasts a lively impulse to extend the narrow span of our existence, by the knowledge of the events that have happened on the soil which we inhabit, of the characters and actions of those men from whom our descent, as individuals or as a people, is probably derived. The same laudable emulation will prompt us to review, and to enrich our common treasure of national glory: and those who are the best entitled to the esteem of posterity, are the most inclined to celebrate their merits of their ancestors. […] The English will be ranked among the few nations who have cultivated with equal success the arts of war, of learning, and of commerce.”

[Gibbon, An Address. In Kelley, op. cit., p. 461].


Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1793)

“Were we to confine our observations to an enquiry into the general facts and unvarying laws which the development of these faculties presents to us, in what is common to the different individuals of the human species, our enquiry would bear the name of metaphysics.

But if we consider this development in its results, relative to the mass of individuals co-existing at the same time on a given place, and follow it from generation to generation, it the exhibits a picture of the progress of human intellect. This progress is subject to the same general laws, observable in the individual development of our faculties; being the result of that very development considered at once in a great number of individuals united in society. But the result which every instant presents, depends upon that of the preceding instants, and has an influence on the instants which follow.

This picture, therefore, is historical; since, subjected as it will be to perpetual variations, it is formed by the successive observation of human societies and the different eras through which they have passed. It will accordingly exhibit the order in which the changes have taken place, explain the influence of every past period upon that which follows it, and thus show, by the modifications which the human species has experienced, in its incessant renovation through the immensity of ages, the course which it has pursued, and the steps which it has advanced towards knowledge and happiness. From these observations on what man has heretofore been, and what he is at present, we shall be led to the means of securing and of accelerating the still further progress, of which, from his nature, we may indulge the hope.

Such is the object of the work I have undertaken; the result of which will be to show, from reasoning and from facts, that no bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is absolutely indefinite; that the progress of this perfectibility, henceforth above the control of every power that would impede it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has placed us. The course of this progress may doubtless be more or less rapid, but it can never be retrograde; at least while the earth retains its situation in the system of the universe, and the laws of this system shall neither effect upon the globe a general overthrow, nor introduce such changes as would no longer permit the human race to preserve and exercise therein the same faculties, and find the same resources. […]

Everything tells us that we are approaching the era of the grand revolutions of the human race. What can better enlighten us as to what we may expect, what can be a surer guide to us, amidst its commotions, than the picture of the revolutions that have preceded and prepared the way for it? The present state of knowledge assures us that it will be happy. But is it not upon condition that we know how to assist it with all our strength? And, that the happiness it promised may be less dearly bought, that it may spread with more rapidity over a greater space, that it may be more complete in its effects, it is not requisite to study, in the history of the human mind, what obstacles remain to be feared, and by what means those obstacles are to be surmounted?

Condorcet, N. de (1795). Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind [Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain1793]. London: J. Johnson, pp. 2-5 and 19.


Herder (Johann Gottfried von Herder, 1744-1803)

“In order to feel the whole nature of the soul which reigns in everything, which models after itself all other tendencies and all other spiritual faculties, and colours even the most trivial actions, don not limit your response to a word, but penetrate deeply into this century, this region, this entire history, plunge yourself into it all and feel it all inside yourself. Then only will you be in a position to understand; then only will you give up the idea of comparing everything, in general or in particular, with yourself. For it would be manifest stupidity to consider yourself to be the quintessence of all times and all peoples.”

[Bernard, F.M., ed., Herder on Social and Political Culture (Cambridge 1969, p. 182). In Haddock, op. cit., p. 96].

7. Nineteenth Century


Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831)

“That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process… this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason.”

“World history is the record of the spirit’s efforts to attain knowledge of what it is in itself. The Orientals do not know that the spirit or man as such are free in themselves. And because they do not know that, they are not themselves free. They only know that One is free…. The consciousness of freedom first awoke among the Greeks, and they were accordingly free; but, like the Romans, they only knew that Some, and not all men as such, are free…. The Germanic nations, with the rise of Christianity, were the first to realize that All men are by nature free, and that freedom of spirit is his very essence.”

“World history… represents the development of the spirit’s consciousness of its own freedom and of the consequent realization of that freedom.”

[Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History [Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, 1837]. In Nisbet, H. B. (Trans.) (1974). Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 28, 54, 138].


Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873)

“History may truly be defined as a famous War against Time; for she doth take from him the Years that he had made Prisoner, or rather utterly slain, and doth call them back into Life, and pass them in Review, and set them again in Order to Battle. But those braw Champions, that in such Lists doth reap the Harvests of Palms and of Laurels, may carry off in their Nief only the most pompous and grandiloquent of their Spoils, embalming in their Inks the Enterprises of Princes and Powers and such qualified Personages, and embroidering with the most delicate Needle of Wit the Threads of God and of Silk, that form a perpetual Tapestry of glorious Actions.”

[Manzoni, A. (1972). The Betrothed [I promessi sposi, 1827-1841]. London: Penguin Classics, p. 19, “Foreword”].


“It might not be out of place to mention that history sometimes also uses the verisimilar, and can do so harmlessly if it uses it properly and presents it as such, thereby distinguishing it from the real. It can do this without impairing the narrative unity, for the simple reason that the verisimilar does not really try to become part of the narrative. It is merely suggested, advanced, considered, in short, not narrated on the same level as or melded with real facts, as is the case in the historical novel… When the mind becomes aware of information that arouses its interest but that is fragmentary or lacking crucial details, it tends to invoke the ideal… History, at such moments, I would say, abandons narrative, but only in order to produce a better narrative. As much when it conjectures as when it narrates, history points to the real; there lies its unity.”

[Manzoni, A. (1984). On the Historical Novel. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 36-37.]


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

“History lacks the fundamental characteristic of science, namely the subordination of the objects of consciousness; all it can do is to present a simple co-ordination of the facts it has registered. Hence there is no system in history as there is in the other sciences… The sciences, being systems of cognitions, speak always of kinds; history always on individuals. History, therefore, would be a science of individuals, which implies a self-contradiction.”

[Schopenhauer, A. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (3rd edn., 1859), vol ii, pp. 499-509, Über Geschichte. In Collingwood, op. cit., p. 167].


Leopold von Ranke (1796-1886)

“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen].”

[Ranke, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations [Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Völker von 1494 bis 1514, 1824], p. vii. In Hughes-Warrington, M. (2007). Fifty Key Thinkers on History. London: Routledge, p. 294].


“I see the time approaching when we shall base modern history, no longer on the reports even of contemporary historians, except insofar as they were in possession of personal and immediate knowledge of facts; and still less on work yet more remote from the source; but rather on the narrative of eyewitnesses, and on genuine and original documents.”

[Ranke, History of the Reformation in Germany [Deutsche Geschichte im Zeitalter der Reformation, 1845-47], I, X. In Hughes-Warrington, M., op. cit., p. 294].


“Every act which is truly part of world history, which never consists solely of negation, but rather is able to engender in the fleeting present moment something for the future, includes within itself a full and immediate sense of its own indestructible value.”

[Ranke, Weltgeschichte [1886], IX, part 1. In Gadamer, H. G. (2006). Truth and Method. London: Continuum Publishing Group, p. 200].


“Let us admit that history can never have the unity of a philosophical system; but it is not without inner coherence. Before us we see a range of successive events that condition one another. When I say ‘condition’ I do not mean with absolute necessity. Rather, the important thing is that human freedom is involved everywhere. The writing of history follows the scenes of freedom. This is its greatest attraction. But freedom involves power, germinal power. Without the latter the former disappears, both in world events and in the sphere of ideas. At every moment something new can begin, something whose sole origin is the primary and common source of all human activity. Nothing exists entirely for the sake of something else, nothing is entirely identical with the reality of something else. But still a deep inner coherence penetrates everywhere, and no one is entirely independent of it. Beside freedom stands necessity. It consists in what has already been formed and cannot be destroyed, which is the basis of all new activity. What has already come into being coheres with what is coming into being. But even this continuity itself is not something arbitrary to be merely accepted, but it has come into existence in one particular way, and not another. It is, likewise, an object of knowledge. A long series of events –succeeding and simultaneous to one another– linked together in this was constitute a century, an epoch…”

[Ranke, Weltgeschichte [1886], IX, part 2. In Gadamer, H. G., op. cit., p. 202].


Auguste Comte (1798-1857)

“I believe that I have discovered a great fundamental law, to which the mind is subjected by an invariable necessity. The truth of this law can, I think, be demonstrated both by reasoned proofs furnished by a knowledge of our mental organization, and by historical verification due to an attentive study of the past. This law consist in the fact that each of our principal conceptions, each branch of our knowledge, passed in a succession through three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious states, the metaphysical or abstract state, and the scientific or positive state. […]

In the theological state, the human mind directs its researches mainly toward the inner nature of beings, and toward the first and final causes of all the phenomena that it observes–in a word, toward absolute knowledge. It therefore represents these phenomena as being produced by the direct and continuous action of more or less numerous supernatural agents, whose arbitrary intervention explains all the apparent anomalies of the universe.

In the metaphysical state, which is in reality only a simple general modification of the first state, the supernatural agents are replaced by abstract forces, real entities or personified abstractions, inherent in the different beings of the world. These entities are looked upon as capable of giving rise by themselves to all the phenomena observed, each phenomenon being explained by assigning it to its corresponding entity.

Finally, in the positive state, the human mind, recognizing the impossibility of obtaining absolute truth, gives up the search after the origin and hidden causes of phenomena. It endeavours now only to discover, by a well-combined use of reasoning and observation, the actual laws of phenomena–that is to sat, their invariable relations of succession and likeness. The explanation of facts, thus reduced to its real terms, consists henceforth only in the connection established between different particular phenomena and some general facts, the number of which the progress of science tends more and more to diminish.”

[Comte, A. (1988). Introduction to Positive Philosophy [Cours de philosophie positive, 1830-1842]. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, pp. 1-2].


Jules Michelet (1798-1874)

“Forgotten! O terrible word! That a soul should perish among souls! Had not he whom God created for life the right to live at least in the mind? What mortal shall dare inflict, even on the most guilty, this worst of deaths –to be eternally forgotten? No, do not believe it. Nothing is forgotten –neither man nor thing. What once has been, cannot be thus annihilated. The very walls do not forget, the pavement will become accomplice, and convey signs and noises; the air will not forget. […] Yes, each dead person leaves a little goods, his memory, and demands that someone take care of it. For him who has no friends, a magistrate must care for it. For the law, justice is more certain than all our forgetful tendernesses, our tears so quickly dried. This magistrate is History… Never have I in my whole career lost sight of this, the Historian’s duty. I have given to many of the dead too soon forgotten the aid of which I myself will have need. I have exhumed them for a second life (159) […] Past is never a given fact which he [the historian] can apprehend empirically by perception. […] The historian must re-enact the past in his own mind.”

[Michelet, History of the French Revolution [Histoire de la Révolution française, 1847-1853]. In White, H. (1975). Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, pp. 156, 159].


Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859)

“In the philosophy of history, the moderns have very far surpassed the ancients. It is not, indeed, strange that the Greeks and Romans should not have carried the science of government, or any other experimental science, so far as it has been carried in our time; for the experimental sciences are generally in a state of progression. They were better understood in the seventeenth century than in the sixteenth. But this constant improvement, this natural growth of knowledge, will not altogether account for the immense superiority of the modern writers. The difference is a difference, not in degree, but of kind. It is not merely that new principles have been discovered, but that new faculties seem to be exerted. It is not that at one time the human intellect should have made but small progress, and at another time have advanced far; but that at one time it should have been stationary, and at another time constantly proceeding. In taste and imagination, in the graces of style, in the arts of persuasion, in the magnificence of public works, the ancients were at least our equals. They reasoned as justly as ourselves on subjects which required pure demonstration. But in the moral sciences they made scarcely any advance. During the long period which elapsed between the fifth century before the Christian era and the fifth century after it, little perceptible progress was made. All the metaphysical discoveries of all the philosophers, from the time of Socrates to the northern invasion, are not to be compared in importance with those which have been made in England every fifty years since the time of Elizabeth. There is not the least reason to believe that the principles of government, legislation, and political economy, were better understood in the time of Augustus Caesar than in the time of Pericles. In our own country, the sound doctrines of trade and jurisprudence have been, within the lifetime of a single generation, dimly hinted, boldly propounded, defended, systematized, adopted by all reflecting men of all parties, quoted in legislative assemblies, incorporated into laws and treaties.”

Macaulay, T. B. “History”, 1828. [In Macaulay, T. B. (1844). Essays, Critical and Miscellaneous. Philadelphia: Carey and Hard, pp. 60-61].


Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903)

“The distinction between ancient and modern history, therefore, is no mere accident, nor yet a mere matter of chronological convenience. What is called modern history is in reality the formation of a new cycle of culture, connected in several stages of its development with the perishing or perished civilization of the Mediterranean states, as this was connected with the primitive civilization of the Indo-Germanic stock, but destined, like the earlier cycle, to traverse an orbit of its own. It too is destined to experience in full measure the vicissitudes of national weal and woe, the periods of growth, of maturity, and of age, the blessedness of creative effort in religion, polity, and art, the comfort of enjoying the material and intellectual acquisitions which it has won, perhaps also, some day, the decay of productive power in the satiety of contentment with the goal attained. And yet this goal will only be temporary: the grandest system of civilization has its orbit, and may complete its course but not so the human race, to which, just when it seems to have reached its goal, the old task is ever set anew with a wider range and with a deeper meaning.”

[Mommsen, T. (2008). The History of Rome [Römische Geschichte, 1855-1856], Vol. 1. San Diego: Icon Classics, pp. 12-13].


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development, of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure.”

[Marx, K. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, 1859]. In Marx, K. (1992). Early Writings. London: Penguin Classics, p. 425].

8. Twentieth Century


Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)

“History, therefore, not only may not separate facts into good and bad and periods into progressive and regressive, but only begins when the psychological conditions that permit such antitheses have been overcome and substituted by an act of the spirit that tries to discover what function the fact or period that was earlier condemned has played in the development of history; or what it has brought to that development, and thus produced; and, since all facts and periods are productive in their way, not only is none of them to be condemned in the light of history, but are to be praised and venerated.”

[Croce, B. (1927). Teoria e storia della storiografia. Bari: Laterza, p. 78. In Gladfelder, H. (1993). “Seeing Black: Alessandro Manzoni between Fiction and History”. MLN, vol. 108, no. 1, p. 67.]


“If the course of history is not a movement from evil to good, nor an alternation of good and evil, but a movement from good to better; if history must explain and not condemn; it will pronounce only positive judgments, and will forge chains of good, closely linked and secure enough to prevent the insertion of the smallest link of evil or the opening of empty spaces.”

[Croce, B. op. cit, p. 75. In Gladfelder, H., op. cit., p. 68.]


José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)

Man has no ‘nature;’ he has history. His being is not one but many and manifold, different in each time and each place. […]

Man is historical in the sense that he has no actual and immutable constitution but assumes most varied and diverse forms. History, in the first instance, signifies the simple fact that the human being is variable. Man is historical in the sense that what he is at each moment includes a past. Remembrance of what happened to him and what he was before bears upon what he is now. History here means persistence of the past, to have a past, and to come out of it… history is the more or less adequate reconstruction which human life produces of itself… history is the attempt to bring to its possible perfection the interpretation of human life by conceiving it from the viewpoint of all mankind in so far as mankind forms an actual and real unity, not an abstract ideal—in short, history in the formal sense of universal history.

[Ortega y Gasset, J. (1946). In Concord and Liberty [1942]. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 148 and 166].


Marc Bloch (1886-1944)

“No one today, I believe, would dare say, with the orthodox positivists, that the value of a line of research is to be measured by its ability to promote action. Experience has taught us that it is impossible to decide in advance whether even the most abstract speculations may not eventually prove extraordinarily helpful in practice. It would inflict a strange mutilation upon humanity to deny it a right to appease its intellectual appetites apart from all consideration of its material welfare. Even were history obliged to be eternally indifferent to homo faber or homo politicus, it would be sufficiently justified by its necessity for the full flowering of homo sapiens.”

[Bloch, M. (1992). The Historian’s Craft [ Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien, 1941-1949 (posthumous]. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 8].


“For history in not only a science in movement. Like all those which have the human spirit for their object, this newcomer in the field of rational knowledge is also a science in its infancy. Or to explain more fully, having grown old in embryo as mere narrative, for long encumbered with legend, and for still longer preoccupied with only the most obvious events, it is still very young as a rational attempt at analysis. Now, at last, it struggles to penetrate beneath the mere surface of actions, rejecting not only the temptations of legend and rhetoric, but the still more dangerous poisons of routine learning and empiricism parading as common sense. In several of the most essential problems of method, it has passed beyond the first tentative groupings, and that is why Fustel de Coulanges and, even before him, Bayle came very near the truth when they called it ‘the most difficult of all sciences.”

[Ibidem, pp. 11-12].


R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943)

“Historical knowledge is the knowledge of what mind has done in the past, and at the same time it is the redoing of this, the perpetuation of past acts in the present. Its object is therefore not a mere object, something outside the mind which knows it; it is an activity of thought, which can be known only in so far as the knowing mind re-enacts it and knows itself as so doing. To the historian, the activities whose history he is studying are not spectacles to be watched, but experiences to be lived through in his own mind; they are objective, or known to him, only because they are also subjective, or activities of his own. […] Past is never a given fact which he [the historian] can apprehend empirically by perception. […] The historian must re-enact the past in his own mind.”

[Collingwood, R. G. (1986). The Idea of History [1949]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 218, 282].


Fernand Braudel (1902-1985)

“This book is divided into three parts, with each part being an attempt to explain one aspect of the whole.

The first is an inquiry into a history that is almost changeless, the history of a man in relation to his surroundings. It is a history which unfolds slowly and is slow to alter, often repeating itself and working itself out in cycles which are endlessly renewed. I did not wish to overlook this faced of history, which exists almost out of time and tells the story of man’s contact with the inanimate, nor when dealing with it did I wish to make do with one of those traditional geographical introductions to history, which one finds placed to such little effect at the beginning of so many volumes, with their brief reviews of the mineral deposits, the types of agriculture, and the local flora, none of which is ever mentioned again, as if the flowers did not return each spring, as if the flocks were frozen in their migrations, and as if the ships did not have to sail on an actual sea, which changes as the seasons change.

Over and above this unaltering history, there is a history of gentle rhythms, of groups and grouping, which one might readily have called social history if the term had not been diverted from its full meaning. How did these deep-running currents affect the surface of Mediterranean life? That is the question I set myself in the second part of my book, looking successively at economies and states, societies and civilizations, and finally attempting to show, in an effort to clarify my own conceptions of history, how all these forces from the depths came into play in the complex arena of war. For war, as we know, is not an arena governed purely by the actions of individuals.

Lastly comes the third part, concerned with traditional history, history, so to speak, on the scale not so much of man in general as of men in particular. It is that history which François Simiand calls ‘l’histoire événementielle’, the history of events: a surface disturbance, the waves stirred up by the powerful movement of tides. A history of short, sharp, nervous vibrations. Ultrasensitive by definition, the slightest movement sets all its gauges quivering. But though by its nature the most exciting and richest in human interest of all histories, it is also the most perilous. We must beware of that history which still simmers with the passions of the contemporaries who felts it, described it, lived it, to the rhythm of their brief lives, lives as brief as are our own. It has the dimensions of their anger, their dreams, and their illusions. In the sixteenth century, after the true Renaissance, there came a Renaissance of the poor, the lowly, all avid to write, to speak of themselves and others. All these precious records give a somewhat distorted view, invading that lost time and taking up an excessive amount of space in it. A historian, reading some papers of Philip II as if he were in his place and time, would find himself transported into a bizarre world, missing a dimension. A world of vivid passions, certainly, but a blind world, as any living world must be, as ours it, oblivious of the deep currents of history, of those living waters on which our frail barks are tossed like Rimbaud’s drunken boat. A perilous world, granted, but one whose spells and dangerous enchantments we will have exorcised by having previously charted those great underlying currents which so often run silently, and whose true significance emerges only if one can observe their workings over great spans of time. Resounding events often take place in an instant, and are but manifestations of that larger destiny by which alones they can be explained.

Thus we have been brought to the breaking-down of history into successive levels. Or rather to the distinction, within historical time, of a geographical time, a social time, and an individual time. Or again, to the breaking-down of man into a succession of characters. Perhaps it is that which will be found hardest to forgive in me, even though I maintain that the tradition divisions also split up the fundamental integrity of the living body of history, even though I maintain, despite Ranke or Karl Brandi, that narrative history is not an objective method, still less the supreme objective method, but is itself a philosophy of history; even though I maintain and then demonstrate that these levels are intended only as means of exposition, and that I have not refrained from passing from one to another as the need arose. But what is the use of pleading my case? Though I may be criticized for having put the elements of this book together badly, I hope that its parts will at least be found to have been satisfactorily constructed, according to the rules of our historical workshops.”

[Braudel, F. (1982). On History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 3-4. (“The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II” [ La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’Epoque de Philippe II1949, 1966], extract from the Preface)].


Henri-Irénée Marrou (1904-1977)

Let us ask the question once again: What is history? In reply, I would say that history is the knowledge of man’s past. The practical usefulness of this definition is that it sums up briefly the substance of the discussions and the comments which it inspired. But we must explain this more fully.

We shall use the term knowledge rather than the “narration of the human past” or “a literary work whose purpose is to relate the past.” Doubtless a historical study will normally culminate in a written work (and we shall examine this problem in our conclusion), but such a requirement is a practical matter pertaining to the historian’s social mission. Actually, of course, a completely elaborated history already exists in the mind of the historian before he has begun writing a word of it; whatever the reciprocal influences of these two types of activity may be, they are logically distinct and separate.

We shall use the term knowledge rather than “research” or “study” —although “enquiry” is the principal meaning of the Greek word στορία—for this would be confusing the end with the means. After all, it were not attainable we would not be pursuing it. History is delimited by the truth that it can elaborate, and when we say knowledge we mean true and valid knowledge. Consequently, history is the very opposite of anything that is a false description of the past, or one that is distorted and untrue to the facts. It is unlike conceptions of utopia or imaginary history of the kind that was written by Water Pater. It differs from myth, popular traditions and the pedagogical legends of a past that is depicted in patriotic imagery, which in their pride great modern nations inculcate in the minds of their future citizens as early as the primary grades of the elementary school.

No doubt this truth to be sought in historical knowledge is an ideal. And the further our analysis progresses, the more apparent it will be that the ideal is not easily attainable. History must be at least the result of the most rigorous and most systematic effort to approach it. A concise definition of history as “the scientifically elaborated knowledge of the past” would perhaps be satisfactory if the very notion of science were not itself ambiguous.

The Platonist would be amazed that the word “science” could be used with a reference to knowledge that is so slightly rational and so largely a matter of opinion, pertaining as it does to δóξα. The Aristotelian (from whom there can be no “science” unless it is general) will be quite bewildered when he finds history described—with some exaggeration, as we shall see—as a “science of the concrete” (Dardel), or as a science of “the particular” (Rickert). Apparently we shall have to speak Greek to make ourselves understood. Consequently we must say specifically that when we use the word “science” with reference to history it is not the Greek word for knowledgeεπίοτημηthat we have in mind, but rather the idea of τεχνη, an art or technical method. In other words, as opposed to the ordinary knowledge of daily experience, we have reference to an elaborate knowledge set forth in terms of a systematic and rigorous method which has proved to be productive of the optimum measure of truth.

We use the expression “knowledge of the past” even when it is a matter of wholly contemporary history. We need only mention the traffic policeman who makes a report concerning an accident which he has just witnessed a moment before. This is an example of an elementary historical act. We always mean the knowledge of man’s past. Whatever that past may have been, we make no prejudgments. We especially reject the preliminary demands or exigencies which the philosopher of history might wish to impose on us, for the logician and philosopher of the sciences has no worse enemy than one who affirms or pretends to know what constitutes the essence of the past. We simply deny having knowledge of any such thing. We accept in its fully complexity everything that was part of man’s past—everything that we may be able to learn regarding it.

Accordingly, we speak of man’s past, and reject any addition or specification that may possibly have originated in certain mental reservations.

Why, for instance, would anyone refer to the past “of men living in society”. This is pointless. Since Aristotle we have known that man is an animal living in organized society. (The historian of eremitical life is surprised to learn that the flight to the desert does not really separated man from society: before God, the contemplative takes all of humanity upon himself.) Perhaps it is meant to be suggestive. But I cannot see why anyone would want to exclude from history the most personal aspects of the story of the past, for these are perhaps the most precious of all.

Similarly, why should anyone specify “the facts of man’s past”? This is unnecessary if “facts” merely signify reality as contrasted with what is only fantasy or imagination. It is utterly suspect if this is simply a furtive attempt to exclude ideas, values and the spirit. Moreover, we shall find nothing less clear than this notion of “fact” in the subject matter of history.

The only element that is perhaps still ambiguous in our definition is our use of the expression “man’s past”. By this we mean human activity that can be directly comprehended and interiorly perceived, including actions, thought and feeling; and also all the works of man, the material or spiritual creations of his societies and civilizations, all the works through which we are able to reach their creator. In short we have reference to the past of man insofar as he is truly human: man already becomes man, in contrast to the biological past covering the evolution of the human species. This is no longer studied by history but by human paleontology, which is a branch of biology.

Henri-Irénée Marrou (1966). The Meaning of History [De la connaissance historique, 1954]Baltimore: Helicon, pp. 33-36.


Let us begin with the great Dilthey himself. Despite a good deal of truth, there is also a certain exaggeration in his insistence on biographical and autobiographical considerations, on the knowing by the self in and through its personal past. Dilthey located this personal past at the origin and veritable center of all history. In his view, my inquisitiveness and my inquiries grow out of my personal history, and it is my inquisitiveness and my inquiries that, by spreading from individual to individual, finally engulf the whole of humanity.

Raymond Aron, with his customary flair for pithy observations has neatly summarized this doctrine in a triple aphorism: “At a given moment in time, an individual reflects upon his adventure, a collectivity upon its past, humanity upon its evolution: thus are born respectively autobiography, individual history, universal history.” This point of view is quite acceptable, but it is necessary to explain how the accessible past of humanity can, in a sense, be adopted by each man as his own. Otherwise the history of, say, the Hittites would have hardly any meaning or existential value except to present-day Turks, the Hittites’ successors in Anatolia and, to quite an extent, their descendants.

[Ibidem, p. 214].


Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005)

“History is therefore animated by a will for encounter as much as by a will for explanation. The historian goes to the men of the past with his own human experience. The historian’s subjectivity takes on a striking prominence at the moment when, over and above all critical chronology, history makes the values of past men surge forth. This calling up of values, which is ultimately the only way of evoking man that is open to us since we are unable to relive what they lived, is not possible unless the historian is vitally ‘interested’ in those values and has a deep affinity for the task. Not that the historian should share the faith of his heroes; in that case he would seldom write history but rather apologetics or hagiography. He must, however, be capable of granting their faith hypothetically, which is a way of entering into the problematic of that faith while at the same time “suspending” or “neutralizing” it and not looking upon it as an actually professed faith.

The suspended and neutralized adoption of beliefs of past men is the sympathy proper to the historian; it adds the crowning touch to what was called earlier the imagination of another present by means of temporal projection. Accordingly, this temporal projection is also an extension into another subjectivity which is adopted as a center of perspective. The necessity for these springs from the historian’s radical situation: he is a part of history not only in the sense that the men of the past are part of the same humanity. History is therefore one of the ways by which men ‘repeat’ their belonging to the same humanity; it is a sector of the communication of minds which is divided by the methodological stage of traces and documents; therefore it is distinct from the dialogue wherein the other answers, but is not a sector wholly cut off from full intersubjectivity which always remains open and in process.”

Ricoeur, P. (1992). History and Truth [Histoire et vérité, 1955]. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, p. 29.


Lawrence Stone (1904-1977)

“The two essential ways in which narrative history differs from structural history is that its arrangement is descriptive rather than analytical and that its central focus is on man not circumstances. It therefore deals with the particular and specific rather than the collective and statistical. Narrative is a mode of historical writing, but it is a mode in which also affects and is affected by the content and the method. […]

If I am right in my diagnosis, the movement to narrative by the ‘new historians’ marks the end of an era: the end of the attempt to produce a coherent and scientific explanation of change in the past. Models of historical determinism based on economics, demography or sociology have collapsed in the face of the evidence, but no full-blown deterministic model based on any other social science – politics, psychology or anthropology -has emerged to take its place. Structuralism and functionalism have not turned out much better. Quantitative methodology has proved a faily weak reed which can only answer a limited set of problems. Forced into a choice between a priori statistical models of human behavior, and understanding based on observation, experience, judgment and intuition, some of the ‘new historians’ are now tending to drift back towards the latter mode of interpreting the past. […]

“It is clear that a single word like ‘narrative’, especially one with such a complicated history behind it, is inadequate to describe what is in fact a broad cluster of changes in the nature of historical discourse. There are signs of change with regard to the central issue in history, from the circumstances surrounding man, to man in circumstances; in the problems studied, from the economic and demographic to the cultural and emotional; in the prime sources of influences, from sociology, economics and demography to anthropology and psychology; in the subject-matter, from the stratified and monocasual to the interconnected and multicausal; in the methodology, from group quantification to individual example; in the organization from the analytical to the descriptive; and in the conceptualization of the historian’s function, from the scientific to the literary. These many-faceted changes in content, objective, method, and style of historical writing, which are all happening at once, have clear elective affinities with one another: they all fit neatly together. No single word is adequate to sum them all up, and son, for the time being, ‘narrative’ will have to serve as a shorthand code-word for all that is going on.” (96)

Stone, L. (1981). The Past & the Present. London/ Boston: Routledge, pp. 74, 91-92 and 96.