Events in the Past May Be Roughly Divided Into Those Which Probably Never Happened and Those Which Do Not Matter

William Ralph Inge? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once heard the humorous claim that recorded history may be divided into two parts:

  • Events that probably never happened.
  • Events that do not matter.

Would you please explore the provenance of this observation?

Quote Investigator: William Ralph Inge was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and a professor of divinity at Cambridge. Dean Inge, as he was commonly known, was a prolific author and newspaper columnist. In 1925 “The Advertiser” of Adelaide, Australia published a piece “On Utopians” that acknowledged Inge and included the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The things that we know about the past may be divided into those which probably never happened and those which do not much matter. As Samuel Butler says, historians have the power, which is not claimed by the Deity, of altering the past; and this is perhaps the reason why they are allowed to exist.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1927 a collection of writings by Inge was selected and arranged by Sir James Marchant and published under the title “Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge”. The section titled “Utopias” included this: 2

It is an erroneous notion that we know a great deal about the past and nothing about the future. The things that we know about the past may be divided into those which probably never happened and those which do not much matter.

In August 1927 Inge received credit for a similar remark published as a filler item in the “Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette” of England: 3

Events in the past may be divided into those which probably never happened, and those which do not matter.—Dean Inge.

In 1929 Inge published “Assessments and Anticipations” which contained a collection of his pieces that had previously appeared in periodicals such as “The Evening Standard”, “The Strand”, and “The Spectator”. A version of the saying under analysis was included: 4

On the other hand, what we know of the past is mostly not worth knowing. What is worth knowing is mostly uncertain. Events in the past may be roughly divided into those which probably never happened and those which do not matter. This is what makes the trade of historian so attractive.

In 1980 “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations” credited Inge with an excerpt from “Assessments and Anticipations” that included the humorous remark. 5

In conclusion, William Ralph Inge should receive credit for this remark. QI suggests using the version in “Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge” or the version in “Assessments and Anticipations”.

Image Notes: Depiction of a fantasy book from thommas68 at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1925 April 11, The Advertiser (Adelaide Advertiser), On Utopians: Some Thoughts on the Present Discontents, Quote Page 16, Column 6, Adelaide, South Australia. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1927, Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge by William Ralph Inge, Selected and arranged by Sir James Marchant, Part III: Sociology, Article: Utopias, Quote Page 83 and 84, Reprint 1968 by Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1927 August 10, Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette), (Filler item), Quote Page 5, Column 6, Devon, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1929, Assessments and Anticipations by William Ralph Inge (Dean of St. Paul’s), Section: Prognostications, Chapter 15: Introductory, Quote Page 148 and 149, Cassell and Company Limited, London. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1980 (Reprint dated 1983), The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations, Edited by J. M. Cohen and M. J. Cohen, Second Edition, Section: W. R. Inge (Dean of St Paul’s), Quote Page 165, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)