According to Hegel, history is the process by which Spirit, or the Absolute, or God, or the Idea, or something like that, becomes conscious of itself, understands itself, and thereby becomes more free or generates more freedom in the world, or something to that effect. World-historical figures like Napoleon and Goethe play a crucial role in this process of increasing freedom and self-knowledge, as do certain world-historical nations (e.g. Greece, Rome, Prussia). The state is the principal mechanism by which history progresses, and such progress occurs in a dialectical manner (although Hegel didn’t use the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” terminology; those were Fichte’s words).
This is an interesting theory, even if it’s simultaneously obscure and implausible. Although this relatively short book is supposed to be the best introduction that Hegel wrote to his own philosophy, that isn’t saying much. It is filled with statements like “the spirit is essentially the product of its own activity, and its activity consists in transcending and negating its immediacy and turning in upon itself”, and “world history is the expression of the divine and absolute process of the spirit in its highest forms, of the progression whereby it discovers its true nature and becomes conscious of itself”. Repeating such statements does little to clarify their meaning.
Hegel was able to express himself clearly in some cases, however. For example: “A mighty figure” — someone like Napoleon, for example — “must trample many an innocent flower underfoot, and destroy much that lies in its path”. And “duty requires that men should defend not whatever country they choose but their own particular fatherland”, for “the worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect and represent the national spirit”, not by their pursuit of goodness for its own sake, since that is an “empty notion”.
Hegel’s obscurity has helped make his writings a popular object of scholarly interpretation. He might have been referring to himself in this passage: “The intellectual attitude which adopts such formal points of view certainly affords unlimited scope for ingenious questions, scholarly opinions, striking comparisons, and seemingly profound reflections and declamations; their brilliance may in fact seem to increase in proportion to their capacity for indefiniteness”. (12/4/11)