Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace is a historic fiction and part essay in which Tolstoy regularly expresses his views on how events happen. More specifically, Tolstoy says that the actions of great men such as Napoleon are inconsequential and that great events are a result of millions of individual actions. Tolstoy criticizes the historians of his time saying that they wrong in thinking that Napoleon's actions in the 1812 campaign did not matter because the reason things happen the way they did was because of the sum will of all individual persons.

As an example, Tolstoy often says that after the Battle of Borodino, the Russian army abandoned Moscow without another battle not because General Kutuzov commanded it, but because that the spirit of the army as a whole made the Russian army abandon without a fight.

How accepted is this idea in the historic community? I guess more philosophically, how do historians in general think great events take place (via great men or as a result of how the populace wills)?

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    This Guardian article is an interesting take on what you're after. I suppose it's a matter of degree, of leaders and the masses. One needs the other. Historiography is, ultimately, a matter of perspective. – J Asia Dec 4 '19 at 5:52
  • I think that one might reasonably ask whether, without Napoleon as the "great man" insisting upon it, there would even have been a French invasion of Russia? Certainly it seems a highly irrational exercise. – jamesqf Dec 4 '19 at 18:37
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    For what little it's worth, many areas of study, (and I don't except the sciences) have fads and fashions. Today's "Of course" is tomorrow's "How could they think that?" The nature of history is to try to take a set of events, often partial & contradictory and come up with a narrative that explains it all. What historians see as the mechanism, what historians see as significant is different in different time spans. CURRENTLY, the Great Man explanation is out. – Sherwood Botsford Dec 10 '19 at 3:21

Historiography roundly rejects both great man theories of history and national will theories of history. Both are considered pre-"modern" in terms of accounts of the past. The idea of "the individual" and action are both suspect. "Will," is generally rejected. The idea of summation of individuals producing a spirit doesn't exist. "Great events," are also rejected as such.

Basically, reactionary conceptions of the world are rejected historiographically. Conservative or non-conservative liberal views have had to accomodate systems and process in order to be accepted; though quite often this is achieved by isolating the subject of biography from the forces of the world or their engagement, and instead focusing on personal process minutæ, even if these minutæ comprise cabinet meetings of a man who liked to appear as a drunkard publicly. Attempts to preserve a grand history of whiggery, as if the world were naturally capitalist and British are laughable and widely laughed at by the discipline (the reaction to Fukuyama's Hegelian worship of Americana, for example.)

While efforts have been made to preserve the individual or action, they have done so by retreat, rather than advance. The individual's action exists constrained by a documentary horizon that neuters any of the great claims of determinative actions: while white European men may exist to be historicised, their historicisation relies on feeble appeals to cultural myths about, for example, World War I as a determinative process which my subject participated in….

At the conceptual level you seem to want to engage in, the field is dominated by institutional analyses as if laws and cultures have meaning, contrasted with historical materialist analyses as if classes existed. Tolstoy's contradiction is one of a long past age where "Dieu et mon droit" ['God and my right'] was being debated in a recapitulation just as it became obsolete. The obsession with will and personage is not accepted scholarly practice in the discipline of history: historiography is defined at its core not by the meaning of the past, but by the explanation of the documentary record of the past.

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    I realize this may be tougher for historiography questions, but still this answer makes a lot of assertions that could sorely use some references. There is one good example in it though, with enough info to look it up, so well done there. – T.E.D. Dec 4 '19 at 14:08

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