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A Collection of Historical Sayings in English, French,
German, Greek, Italian, and Latin
I know not what profit there may be in the study of history, what value in the sayings of wise nen, or in the recorded experience of the past, if it be not to guide and instruct us in the present. —Speech of Benjamin Disraeli, July 2, 1849.
In some shape or other doubt has been thrown on the majority of the best known historical sayings. Indeed, after perusing E. Fournier's L'Esprit dans l'Histoire, we are tempted to come to the conclusion that there is very little truth in any of them; but it must, on the other hand, be borne in mind that M. Fournier deals almost exclusively with those sayings concerning which there is some question : the authentic sayings are scarcely mentioned at all. Still, it is not to be wondered at that so little reliance is to be placed upon such a large number of historical sayings—these landmarks of history, as they may be called—when we have Dr. Johnson's opinion that “We must consider how very little history there is; I mean real authentic history. That certain kings reigned, and certain batiles were fought, we can depend upon as true; but all the colouring, all the philosophy of history is conjecture.” (Boswell's Life, 1824 ed., vol. ii, pp. 340-1). Carlyle (French Revolution, pt. i, bk. 7., ch. 5) remarks: “Remarkable Maillard, if fame were not an accident, and History a distillation of Rumour, how remarkable wast thou ! The doubtful points in historical sayings may be roughly classified as follows:
(1) inaccuracy of form, slight or considerable ;
(3) attribution to another person than the real author. (1) In considering the first point we have only to reflect how difficult it is, even with the best intentions, to faithfully report another person's words, and how treacherous the memory is as to exact words. (Historic sayings, occurring in speeches that have the advantage of being taken down” in shorthand, stand the best chance, but even here discrepancies creep in.)
Further, if the words uttered are not concise or pithy enough to suit the taste of posterity, it is only to be expected that a little alteration or improvement will be made to enable them to be handled more easily or render them more effective.
(2) With regard to invented sayings, or those for which no authority has been found (e.g., L'état, c'est moi). Sainte-Beuve puts their case very strongly when he writes (Causeries du Lundi, vol. xiii. pp. 107-8), referring to a mot of Villars which seems never to have been uttered by him . . "le mot est si bien dans sa nature que, s'il ne l'a pas dit, il a dû le dire." *
In these cases the Italian saying, "se non è vero è ben trovato, is often very appropriate ; and, on the other hand, as Boileau writes (L'Art poétique, iii, 48), “Le vrai peut quelquefois n'être pas vraisemblable." So that there is something to be said in favour of these (from one point of view useful) inventions after all.
(3) There is often a very good reason for a saying being fathered on the wrong person. Molière's words (Amphytrion, act ii, sc. 2) seem very appropriate here:
“ Tous les discours sont des sottises,
Partant d'un homme sans éclat :
Si c'étoit un grand qui parlât.” Pope, too, expresses a similar idea in his Essay on Criticism, pt. ii, 11. 220-1.
“But let a Lord once own the happy lines,
How the wit brightens ! how the style retines !” But, without either adopting M. Fournier's apparently pessimistic attitude towards historic sayings in general, or going to the other extreme and accepting them all without question, the compiler's object in the following pages has been to bring together, in their original language, what he hopes may be considered a fairly representative collection of historic sayings, real or apocryphal, improved or altered, rightly or wrongly attributed, as the case may be; answering the questions by whom said, and under what circumstances; giving authorities as far as he has been able to ascertain them, varying versions, and, by means of frequent cross-references, enabling interesting comparisons to be made between them. The task of selection has been by no means an easy one, for a similar. sized volume might have been easily tilled with sayings in any one of the six languages chosen.
Bon mots, as such, have not been included, for as Voltaire
* Tacitus (Annals, 1, 74) has it : “ Quia vera erant, dicta etiam credebantur."