History is understood by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as the movement of Spirit toward the attainment of self-consciousness. To comprehend world history as the progress of the consciousness of Spirit it is necessary to arrive at a conceptual grasp of the three constitutive elements that structure historical movement: the idea of Spirit, the means of actualization, and the state as the final and perfect embodiment of Spirit.


Hegel begins his discussion with a formulation of the abstract characteristics of the idea of Spirit. The peculiar quality of Spirit is grasped when it is seen in contrast with its opposite—matter. The essence of matter is gravity, which means that it has its center outside itself and thus is dependent upon a central point toward which it tends. The essence of Spirit is freedom, which designates a self-contained existence.

Another characteristic of Spirit is self-consciousness. It is of the essence of Spirit to know itself or be conscious of itself. The self-contained existence of Spirit as freedom is thus self-consciousness. In the phenomenon of self-consciousness, two modes must be distinguished—the fact that I know and what I know. There is the self that is conscious, and there is also the self of which the self is conscious. Insofar as in self-consciousness the self is conscious of itself, these two modes are merged into a unity. The self has itself within itself. Self-consciousness is a unity, but it is a unity that expresses a reduplication. I can know myself, I can love myself, and I can hate myself. Spirit as freedom is self-reflexive or self-reduplicative. As it is the nature of Spirit to know itself, so also it is the nature of Spirit to actualize itself. Spirit forever drives beyond that which it is potentially to make itself what it can become actually. Spirit yearns for actualization. “The very essence of Spirit is activity; it realizes its potentiality—makes itself its own deed, its own work—and thus it becomes an object to itself; contemplates itself as an objective existence.”

Reason and Reality

Hegel’s definition of Spirit must be understood in its context of a rational philosophy that proclaims an identification of reason and reality. In the Hegelian system, the laws of logic are at the same time the laws of being. This undergirding principle of Hegel’s philosophy was first formulated in Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1868; also known as The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910), and he expressed it thus: The real is the rational and the rational is the real. This principle also governs his interpretation of history. In Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he writes:The only Thought which Philosophy brings with it to the contemplation of History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process. . . . That this “idea” or “Reason” is the True, the Eternal, the absolutely powerful essence; that it reveals itself in the World, and that in that World nothing else is revealed but this and its honor and glory—is the thesis which, as we have said, has been proved in Philosophy, and is here regarded as demonstrated.

Idea or reason thus constitutes the primary formative principle in Hegel’s philosophical system. This idea expresses itself first in nature but also in Spirit. The triadic unity of idea, nature, and Spirit thus defines the whole of Hegel’s system. Expressed in terms of his dialectical logic, idea is the thesis, nature the antithesis, and Spirit the synthesis. Nature exhibits the emergence of the idea in space; Spirit exhibits the actualization of the idea in time and history. The primary category for nature is space. The primary category for Spirit is time. Through the workings of Spirit, the idea is wrested from...

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Human Passions

The second constitutive element of the world-historical process is that of the means of actualization. The idea of Spirit, as the aim or goal of history as such, is merely general and abstract. It resides in thought as a potentiality that has not yet passed over into existence, so a second element, actualization, must be introduced. The source of power that drives Spirit from its potential being into actuality is will. Hegel defines will as “the activity of man in the widest sense.” In this definition, he seeks to keep the ranges of meaning sufficiently broad so as to include people’s needs, instincts, inclinations, and passions. “We may affirm absolutely,” Hegel says, “that nothing great in the World has been accomplished without passion.” Two elements are thus disclosed as essential for an understanding of history. One is the idea of Spirit; the other is the complex of human passions. Hegel speaks of the former as the warp and of the latter as the woof of the cloth of universal history. The concrete union of these two provides the third and final element of world history—freedom embodied in the state. The means or material of history is thus the passions and interests of people, used by Spirit for the attainment of its end.

Individuals, activated by their inclinations and passions, constitute the power plant for the world-historical process. However, these individuals are, in the final analysis, sacrificed for the end or goal of history. History is the slaughter bench at which the happiness and welfare of each individual is sacrificed. The individual constitutes but a moment in the vast general sweep of world history and remains historically unimportant. “The particular is for the most part of too trifling value as compared with the general: individuals are sacrificed and abandoned. The idea pays the penalty of determinate existence and of corruptibility, not from itself, but from the passions of individuals.” Spirit uses people’s passions to attain its final self-consciousness. It sets the passions to work for itself. This integration of human passions with the aim of Spirit is accomplished through the “cunning of Reason.” The cunning of reason weaves together all the expressions of passion and makes them contributory to the final goal.

The Four Types of Individuals

The passions that are put to work by the cunning of reason arise from the wills of particular individuals, as they play their diverse roles and carry out their various functions. These particular individuals are classified by Hegel into four distinct, yet interrelated, historical categories: the citizen, the person, the hero, and the victim.

The citizen is subject to what Hegel calls customary morality. The determinant of action for the citizen is the will of society, the will of a nation-state, or the will of a religious institution. The citizen has not yet apprehended his or her subjective existence and consequently has no consciousness of freedom—neither personal nor universal.

The person is the individual who can transcend the morality of his or her particular society and act on the basis of a morality grounded in subjectivity. It is in the person that subjective freedom makes its appearance. The morality of the person is not subordinate. It is determined by a personal consciousness of freedom. The person exhibits an implicit awareness of the idea as Spirit, and thus drives beyond the static customary morality of the citizen. Hegel finds in Socrates the example par excellence of the person who has been liberated from the confining morality of the citizen. “Though Socrates himself continued to perform his duties as a citizen, it was not the actual State and its religion, but the world of Thought that was his true home.”

However, it is only the hero who is the “world-historical individual.” The hero is the historically decisive actor. Like all other people, he or she is motivated by private gain and interest, but the hero’s actions express at the same time an attunement with the will of the World-Spirit. The hero’s own will incorporates the larger issues of world history. The heroes of history are practical and political people. They are neither philosophers nor artists. They have no theoretical understanding of the idea that they are unfolding. However,...

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The State

The third constitutive element of world history is the state. The aim or goal of history is Spirit as freedom; the means of actualization are the passions of humankind; the embodiment or fulfillment of this freedom is found in the state. The state, as understood by Hegel, is the concrete unity of universal, objective freedom and particular, subjective passion. Thus the state synthesizes freedom and passion, the universal and the particular, the objective and the subjective. In the state, universal freedom becomes concretized and is given substance. The freedom of subjective passion is mere arbitrariness and caprice. The actualized freedom of universal history, on the other hand, is organized liberty, or freedom structured...

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Additional Reading

Butler, Clark. G. W. F. Hegel. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A comprehensive study of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that aims not to be merely about Hegel but to communicate the essence of Hegelian philosophy to a wider public by being accessible but not oversimplistic. Approaches Hegel from the cultural standpoint of the present. Contains an annotated bibliography and a chronology of Hegel’s life.

Christensen, Darrell E., ed. Hegel and the Philosophy of Religion: The Wofford Symposium. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970. A collection of essays presented at the first conference of the Hegel Society...

(The entire section is 565 words.)