Human reason asks, what was the cause of this movement, or according to what laws did it occur?
Historians, in answer to this question, lay before us the deeds and speeches of several dozen men in one of the buildings in the city of Paris, calling these deeds and speeches by the name of ‘revolution’; then they give a detailed biography of Napoleon and of some persons sympathetic or hostile to him, tell of the influence of some of these persons on others, and say: here is the origin of this movement, and here are its laws.
But human reason not only refuses to believe in this explanation, but says straight out that this method of explaining is incorrect, because in this explanation a weaker phenomenon is taken as the cause of a stronger one. The sum of individual human wills produced the revolution and Napoleon, and only the sum of those wills endured them and then destroyed them.
'But every time there were conquests, there were conquerors; every time there were upheavals in the state, there were great men,' says history. Indeed, each time conquerors appeared, there were wars, human reason replies, but that does not prove that the conquerors were the cause of the wars, and that is is possible to find the laws of war in the personal activity of one man. Every time I look at my watch and see the hand approaching ten, I hear the bells start to ring in the neighboring church, yet from the fact that the bells start to ring every time the hand reaches ten, I have no right to conclude that the position of the hand is the cause of the movement of the bells.
Every time I see the movement of a locomotive, I hear a whistling sound, I see the opening of the valve and the movement of the wheels; but I have no right to conclude from this that the whistling and the movement of the wheels are the cause of the movement of the locomotive.
Peasants say that a cold wind blows in late spring because the leaf buds of the oak are sprouting, and indeed a cold wind blows every spring when the oak is sprouting. But though the cause of the cold wind that blows as the oak sprouts is unknown to me, I cannot agree with the peasants about the sprouting of the oak being the cause of the cold wind, if only because the force of the wind is beyond the influence of the leaf buds. I only see the coincidence of conditions that occurs in every phenomenon of life, and I see that however long and thoroughly I observe the hand of my watch, the valve and wheels of the locomotive, and the leaf buds, I will not learn the cause of the bells ringing, the movement of the train, and the spring wind. For that I must change of point of observation completely, and study the laws of the movement of the steam, bells, and the wind. Historical science must do the same. And attempts at it have already been made.
To study the laws of history, we must change completely the object of observation, leave kings, ministers, and generals alone, and study the uniform, infinitesimal elements that govern the masses. No one can tell to what extent it is given to man to achieve in this way an understanding of the laws of history; but it is obvious that the possibility of grasping historical laws lies only on this path, and that on this path human reason has not yet made one millionth of those efforts the historians have made in describing the deeds of various kings, commanders, and ministers, in setting forth their reflections on the occasion of those deeds.By Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (via lindseylipscomb)