What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Napoléon Bonaparte? Voltaire? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Claude Adrien Helvétius? Wendell Phillips? Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular skeptical viewpoint about history can be expressed in a few different ways:

1) What is history but a fable agreed upon?
2) History is a set of lies agreed upon.
3) History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.

These cynical adages have been linked to several major figures including: the military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, the French philosopher and firebrand Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet), and the author and wit Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI appeared in a 1724 essay about historiography titled “L’Origine des Fables” (“Of the Origin of Fables”) by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The French excerpt below from a 1728 collection is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added:[ref] 1728, Oeuvres Diverses by M. De de Fontenelle, (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Volume 1, De L’Origine des Fables, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, A La Haye, Chez Gosse & Neaulme. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1961, French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, Selected and edited by Leonard M. Marsak (Leonard Mendes Marsak), The Origin of Myths by Bernard de Fontenelle, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Meridian Books: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

A quel dessein nous l’auroit-on donné pour faux? Quel auroit été cet amour des hommes pour des faussetés manifestes & ridicules, & pourquoi ne dureroit-il plus? Car les Fables des Grecs n’étoient pas comme nos Romans qu’on nous donne pour ce qu’ils sont, & non pas pour des Histoires; il n’y a point d’autres Histoires anciennes que les Fables.

Why would they have bequeathed us a mass of falsehoods? What could this love of men for manifest and ridiculous falsehood, have been, and why did it not last longer? For the Greek fables were not like our novels, which are intended as stories and not as histories; there are no ancient histories other than these fables.

Fontenelle’s comment above provided only a partial match to the saying under examination. He was referring to ancient history and not all history. Nevertheless, prominent figures such as the French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire ascribed the adage to Fontenelle. Perhaps Fontenelle wrote or spoke an expression that provided a closer match elsewhere, but QI has not yet located it.

Many years later Napoléon Bonaparte used an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson also used an instance, but he credited Napoléon. The well-known orator Wendell Phillips employed a version with the word “lies” in 1881. Detailed illustrations for these assertions are given in the chronological citations below.

QI thanks previous researchers on this topic including Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Professor William C. Waterhouse, and Barry Popik.

In 1758 Helvétius authored a controversial book called “De L’Esprit” (“On Mind”) which upon publication was condemned in the Parlement of Paris and publicly burned. Within this volume Helvétius printed the adage and attributed the words to Fontenelle as shown below in the original French with English translation:[ref] 1758, De L’Esprit by Claude Adrien Helvétius, Chapter 13: Esprit de conduite, Quote Page 592, Chez Durand, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link[/ref][ref] 1807, De L’Esprit; or, Essays on the Mind and Its Several Faculties by C. A. Helvétius (Claude Adrien Helvétius), Translated from French to English, Quote Page 458, Published by M. Jones, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Les motifs qui, dans ces cas, déterminent les sultans, sont presque toujours cachés; les historiens ne rapportent que les motifs apparents, ils ignorent les véritables; & c’est, à cet égard, qu’on peut, d’après M. de Fontenelle, assurer que l’histoire n’est qu’une fable convenue.

The motives, which in this case determine the sultans, are almost constantly concealed; historians relate only the apparent motives, they are ignorant of the true ones; and, in this respect, we may, after M. de Fontenelle, assert, that history is only a fable, which people consider as true.

The last statement may also be translated in a way that closely matches an instance of the modern saying:

… history is but a fable agreed upon.

In 1764 Voltaire published a fictional tale titled “Jeannot et Colin”, and the adage was spoken by a character who credited an unnamed wit. The variant spellings: “antient”, “meer” and “any thing’ appeared in the original text of the translation:[ref] 1764, Contes de Guillaume Vadé by Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) Jeannot et Colin, Start Page 97, Quote Page 101, Published by Cramer, Geneva (Publisher not listed in book; specified by WorldCat) (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1768, The Oxford Magazine: Or, Universal Museum, by A Society of Gentlemen (Members of the University of Oxford), Volume 1, Jeannot and Colin, Translated from Voltaire, Start Page 189, Quote Page 190, Printed for the Authors, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Hélas! madame, à quoi cela est-il bon? répondit-il; il n’y a certainement d’agréable & d’utile que l’histoire du jour. Toutes les histoires anciennes, comme le disait un de nos beaux esprits, ne font que des fables convenues; & pour les modernes c’est un cahos qu’on ne peut débrouiller.

Alas, madam, what is that good for? answered he; there certainly is no useful or entertaining history but the history of the day; all antient histories, as one of our wits has observed, are only fables that men have agreed to admit as true; with regard to modern history, it is a meer chaos, a confusion which it is impossible to make any thing of.

Voltaire sent a letter dated July 15, 1768 to the English literary figure Horace Walpole that was reprinted in the periodical “Mercure de France” in 1769. Voltaire attributed the saying to Fontenelle:[ref] 1769 Mai (1769 May), Mercure de France, Lettre de M. de Voltaire à M. Horace Walpole, Date: 15 Juillet 1768 (July 15, 1768), Start Page 134, Quote Page 135, Chez Lacombe, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1777, Historical Memoirs of the Author of the Henriade with Some Original Pieces to which Are Added, Genuine Letters of Mr. de Voltaire, Taken from His Own Minutes, Translated from the French (by J. L. Wagnière), Letter Number 15: To Horace Walpole, Letter Date: July 15, 1768, Start Page 168, Quote Page 169, Printed for R. Moncrieffe, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

J’ai toujours pensé, comme vous, qu’il faut se défier de toutes les histoires anciennes. Fontenelle, le seul homme du siécle de Louis XIV qui fût à la fois poëte, philosophe & sçavant, disait qu’elles étaient des fables convenues; & il faut avouer que Rollin a trop compilé de chimères & de contradictions.

I have constantly been of your opinion, Sir, that we ought to distrust all ancient histories. Fontenelle, the only man of the age of Louis XIV, who united poetry, philosophy, and learning, declared that they were fables agreed upon. And it must be confessed that Rollin has compiled too many chimeras and contradictions.

Napoléon Bonaparte surrendered to the British and was exiled to the island of Saint Helena in 1815 where he died in 1821. Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases met regularly with the ex-emperor, and he took notes of conversations. The popular work “Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena” was released and translated into English in 1823. Napoléon reportedly spoke the adage, but disclaimed credit. Below a short excerpt in French is shown followed by a longer excerpt in English:[ref] 1823, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal de la Vie Privée et des Conversations de l’Empereur Napoléon, à Sainte Hélène par Le Comte de Las Cases, Volume 7, Date: November 1816, Quote Page 238, Chez Henri Colburn, Londres. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1823, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by The Count De las Cases, Volume 4, Part the Seventh, Date: November 1816, On the Difficulties which History presents.–Georges, Pichegru, Moreau, the Duke d’Enghien, Start Page 251, Quote Page 251, Printed for Henry Colburn and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Mais qu’est alors cette vérité historique, la plupart du temps? Une fable convenue. Ainsi qu’on l’a dit fort ingénieusement…

The truth of history, so much in request, to which every body eagerly appeals, is too often but a word. At the time of the events, during the heat of conflicting passions, it cannot exist; and if, at a later period, all parties are agreed respecting it, it is because those persons who were interested in the events, those who might be able to contradict what is asserted, are no more. What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon. As it has been very ingeniously remarked, there are, in these matters, two essential points, very distinct from each other: the positive facts, and the moral intentions.

The acclaimed essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson mentioned the saying in his essay titled “History” in 1841. Emerson linked the words to Napoleon:[ref] 1841, Essays by R. W. Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson), Essay 1: History, Start Page 3, Quote Page 8, James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts. No anchor, no cable, no fences avail to keep a fact a fact. Babylon and Troy and Tyre and even early Rome are passing already into fiction. The Garden of Eden, the Sun standing still in Gibeon, is poetry thenceforward to all nations. Who cares what the fact was, when we have thus made a constellation of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign? London and Paris and New York must go the same way. “What is History,” said Napoleon, “but a fable agreed upon?”

A book review appearing in “The Eclectic Review” in 1854 employed an interesting phrasing for the adage:[ref] 1854 November, The Eclectic Review, Article 5: (Book Review of “History of French Literature in the Eighteenth Century by Alexandre Vinet), Start Page 553, Quote Page 567, Ward and Co., Paternoster Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Fontenelle used to say, ‘histories are preconcerted fables’ (les histoires sont les fables convenus), and we are afraid we cannot make any exceptions in favour of literary histories.

In 1872 an article by a writer named Karl Blind in the periodical “The Dark Blue” included an instance. No attribution was given, but the key phase was enclosed in quotation marks signaling pre-existence:[ref] 1872 July, The Dark Blue, Volume 3, Edited by John C. Freund, Spanish Struggle for Light and Right by Karl Blind, Start Page 550, Quote Page 550, British & Colonial Publishing Company, Limited, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Lastly, the men most actively engaged in the heat and hurry of political warfare, sorely lack the leisure necessary for writing memoirs. Hence the records of history so often become a mere ’tissue of fables that have been agreed upon.’

During a speech in Boston, Massachusetts published in 1881 the well-known orator Wendell Phillips spoke a version of the adage with the word “lies”:[ref] 1881, The Scholar in a Republic by Wendell Phillips, (Address at the Centennial Anniversary of the Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard College on June 30, 1881), Quote Page 13, Lee and Shepard, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Education is not the chips of arithmetic and grammar, — nouns, verbs, and the multiplication table; neither is it that last year’s almanac of dates, or series of lies agreed upon, which we so often mistake for history.

A filler item in a Goldsboro, North Carolina newspaper in 1899 credited Phillips with a version of the saying:[ref] 1899 June 30, Goldsboro Daily Argus, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Goldsboro, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

It was Wendell Phillips who defined history as a series of lies agreed upon.

In 1943 “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar included a set of humorous definitions of history. Here were three:[ref] 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Page 135, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

  • An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant.
  • Something that never happened, written by a man who wasn’t there.
  • A series of lies agreed upon.

In conclusion, QI believes that these adages are part of a family that can be traced back to the remark about ancient history made by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle in his essay “L’Origine des Fables”. The French philosopher’s Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire both credited Fontenelle with statements that differed somewhat from Fontenelle’s original remark.

The phrasing of the statements in the family continued to evolve over a period of many years. Napoléon Bonaparte was an important popularizer of the saying although he disclaimed coinage. The term “lies” was employed instead of “fables” by 1881 in a speech by Wendell Phillips

(Great thanks to Lucy Weir whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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