History and Biography

This came to me in a dream last night: “What is the history of a people except their biography writ large? Our history is the sum of our biographies.”

I must have read that somewhere at some time, but I don’t remember doing so. A Google search today brought no results. Could this possibly be original with me? So I ask you, dear readers, if you know of a source for those two statements, or statements so like them as to be the original source for them, that can be verified as having been written prior to 7:00 AM, December 4, 2015. Pending the results of this, I hereby copyright those two sentences.

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16 comments

  1. HI Al…

    I may not be the first to respond. I too had an after-echo of this thought in the back of my head, once I saw you raise the question. I think once upon a time you may have been reading Thomas Carlyle. His essay “On History,” 1830, makes a similar statement. He hits it again in the collected lectures “Heroes and Hero Worship,” from 1841. He sometimes gets quoted as saying “biography writ large,” but I can’t find it that way verbatim. But, he does explore the metaphor of history as the collected biographies of great men.

    I’m on a work computer, that for some reason isn’t opening the text of Google Books selections. But, both works show up at Archive.org. I’d look at both examples, and check.

    It’s still a great thought–Carlyle thought so.

    Best,

    David Fletcher

    1. Thanks, David. I appreciate it. I don’t recall reading Carlyle, but perhaps I read a quote from him somewhere. I’ll check it out. Thanks again.

  2. Not sure if the comment I just left posted—my work PC just flipped screens. In case it didn’t, to recap: take a look at Thomas Carlyle’s “On History” from 1830, as well as “Heroes and Hero Worship” lectures from 1841. I think you’ll find a similar thought, in reference to history being the collective biographies of great men. It’s sometimes referenced as “biography writ large,” but I can’t find that as an exact quote from Carlyle–you may have better luck.

    Best,

    David Fletcher

    1. One thing I wanted to add was that I wasn’t limiting my thought to biographies of great men. Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, but that great act was facilitated by the work of many others. As full a history as we can get would include as many biographies as we can understand, which includes not only the so-called “great men,” but also the biographies of the common people.

  3. Here’s what Thomas Carlyle has in his essay, “On History“: “History is the essence of innumerable Biographies. But if one Biography, nay, our own Biography, study and recapitulate it as we may, remains in so many points unintelligible to us, how much more must these million, the very facts of which, to say nothing of the purport of them, we know not, and cannot know!”

    1. Except that I don’t see where Carlyle actually said it yet. I’m looking at the “On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History” lectures and the phrase isn’t in there.

      I do appreciate your looking, though, Bob. Thanks very much. I may have read a criticism of Carlyle in the past that’s bubbling up in my subconscious.

      1. Bob Nelson · · Reply

        I’m way behind the other guys. Replied from my email. Was going to send a link to Carlyle but found you already had it when I checked “other comments.”

  4. Bob Nelson · · Reply

    Another Caryle quote: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

    1. In his essay, “Biography,” Carlyle wrote, “Of History, for example, the most honoured, if not honourable species of composition, is not the whole purport Biographic? ‘History,’ it has been said, is the essence of innumerable biographies.’ Such, at least, it should be: whether it is, might admit of question.”

  5. Emerson said something similar, but was making a different point:

    We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, — must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know.

    — Essays, First Series: History (1841)

    1. Thanks, Andy. That’s an interesting perspective.

  6. Robert A. Garrett M.D. Emeritus Professor, Urology History …

    urology.iupui.edu/img/pdfs/History of Urology dept – …

    History is the sum of the biographies of the participants . A bit over a century ago, in 1887, … Our own staff is in regular demand for those

    1. Thanks, though I don’t think the quote is original to this document from the 1990s, nor have I ever read it before, so it’s not where I got the statement. But I do appreciate the effort.

  7. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    I think if you go back to the time of Giambattista Vico you will find him implying this, but not actually saying it. Since the word biography appears to have been coined in the late 17th century, somebody from that period could be presumed to have been talking about history and biography together and in 1725 Vico was doing so with his work, “New Science.”

    In his life Vico’s writings did not reach a large audience, but in the early 19th century they did whereupon they heavily influenced French Romantic historians around 1820. I have a gut feeling that this was what influenced Carlyle and others.

    Vico rejected the Cartesian view of human beings by stating that natural sciences did not explain human phenomena. To better explain human phenomena he created or wrote New Science. He still focused on nations, but through the lens of the people that made them up via a cycle. This was the development of a cultural cycle of history. As Breisarch says in his book on page 211, “Vico had discovered the concept of culture as a systemic whole.”

    Vico still worked with Divine Providence which I think the French Romanticists tossed out thereby modifying Vico’s work to suit their views which is where Carlyle makes his statements. How much did Vico’s work influence both German and French schools of historical thought is a good question because it seems as if von Ranke was pulling from Vico’s ideas as well when the two separate schools existed.

    1. Thanks, Jimmy.

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