Arnold J. Toynbee? Max Plowman? H. A. L. Fisher? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote a monumental 12-volume work titled “A Study of History” in which he delineated the trajectories of several major human civilizations. Surprisingly, a comically depreciatory definition of history is attributed to him. Here are two versions:
History is just one damn fact after another.
History is just one damned thing after another.
This thought seems out of character for Toynbee. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that this statement about the contingency of history was built upon an earlier expression which emerged circa 1909:
Life is just one damned thing after another.
The Quote Investigator website article tracing the above saying is available here. This entry will concentrate on tracing the evolution of the variant remark about history.
In 1932 a journal called “The Adelphi” published “Keyserling’s Challenge” by Max Plowman who was very unhappy with treatises that emphasized the naïve collection and reiteration of miscellaneous facts. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
So, like savages before their gods, they worship facts. And in return, the facts hit them like hailstones. Life is just one damned fact after another. They turn to collecting facts—laying them down—making “Outlines” of every real and fancied fact in the universe, until “truth” becomes an endless succession of stepping-stones that have a way of disappearing into the bog as soon as they are passed over. . .
Plowman was critical of the saying in boldface. He asserted the primacy of elements that were non-material and not easily reducible to simple facts such as community, emotion, and beauty. This instance of the saying did not employ the word “history”; hence, it did not completely match the expression under examination.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1932 December, The Adelphi (New Series), Section: The Adelphi Forum, Keyserling’s Challenge by Max Plowman, Start Page 212, Quote Page 213, The Adelphi, Bloomsbury Street, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of California, Berkeley library system) ↩