Hegel's Pantheistic "World Spirit" - Excerpt from Hegel's "Philosophy of Right"

Hegel and History

This is a passage from Hegel's work The Philosophy of Right, and deals with his notion of the evolution of the "world spirit" or "universal spirit" (a reference to his quasi-pantheistic notion of collective consciousness). 

History as the Process of a Greater Self Awareness
He is describing how the universal spirit develops itself over historical time, and likewise is manifest in the historical expressions that society has as it develops. For example, the passage begins by him talking about how art, religion, and philosophy are concrete expressions of the universal spirit throughout world history. And thus the movement of time is an expression of this collective mind growing in understanding of reason, freedom, and itself. "[World history is] ... therefore, an unfolding of the spirit's self-consciousness and freedom. It is the exhibition and actualization of the universal spirit." 

The growth of the universal spirit is through an increased awareness of itself throughout history. This growth happens when the spirit actually contradicts and challenges itself. In doing so it is resolving issues down to more fundamental truths and levels, and thus knows itself on a deeper level. Hegel refers to this as "self-renunciation." 1 Each government, constitution of laws, and the individuals within them are expressing of the world spirit of the time. "Yet are they the unconscious tools and organs of the world-spirit, through whose inner activity the lower forms pass away." 

Possession of the Individual by the World Spirit 
And so all the ups and downs of a particular age, its heroes and villains, ("Justice and virtue, wrong, force, and crime, talents and their results, small and great passions, innocence and guilt, the splendor of individuals, national life, independence, the fortune and misfortune of states and individuals ...") are necessary steps in the development of the world mind. They are judged by the understanding of their time, and yet they play a role in the long term development of something higher which cannot be fully understood in their own time. 

This also means, for Hegel, that if history is the embodiment of the spirit in its individual circumstances and forms, that the ideas themselves are the driving principles of each age. They are forces which exist beyond the individual, but control the individual. "Since history is the embodiment of spirit in the form of events, that is, of direct natural reality, the stages of development are present as direct natural principles." Which ever nation is dominant in an age, to this culture the rights are given to develop the absolute spirit ... until that culture is itself contradicted by its opposite idea, showing that the world spirit is evolving and moving on. 2

Each individual consciousness is possessed by the world spirit in his actions. "At the summit of all actions, including world-historical actions, stand individuals. Each of these individuals is a subjectivity who realizes what is substantive. He is a living embodiment of the substantive deed of the world-spirit, and is, therefore, directly identical with this deed. It is concealed even from himself, and is not his object and end. Thus they do not receive honor and thanks for their acts either from their contemporaries, or from the public opinion of posterity. By this opinion they are viewed merely as formal subjectivities, and, as such, are simply given their part in immortal fame." 

Forming a State and the Four Stages of History
Hegel seems to place importance on individuals and ideas becoming formalized in state constitutions. Again, just as he mentioned before about the dominant state having the right of the absolute spirit for that age, so too he seems to be emphasizing the right of formalized nations over informal ones. "In the same way civilized nations may treat as barbarians the peoples who are behind them in the essential elements of the state. Thus, the rights of mere herdsmen, hunters, and tillers of the soil are inferior, and their independence is merely formal." 

Hegel then identifies four major historical periods/states. These were examples of the world spirit becoming aware of itself and breaking its natural unthinking course. 3 Each of the four historical stages has a corresponding nation with whom he identifies it. 

[I am not fully sure I am understanding Hegel correctly here, but ...] First, is the presence of the world spirit in an unconscious way in human beings. Second, is the awakening of the spirit as it begins to become self-conscious in these individuals. Third, the spirit abstracts itself from individuals and retreats into pure subjectivity and abstraction. Fourth, the spirit is contradicted by its opposite, objectivity, causing it to have to synthesize its opposite, and the spirit then returns having become the foundation for both the spiritual but also the physical world. "In accordance with these four principles the four world-historic empires are (1) the Oriental, (2) the Greek, (3) the Roman, and (4) the Germanic." 4

Hegel connects the four historical stages to these states in particular, with the Germanic state being the last and bearer of this historical process. "This new basis, infinite and yet positive, it has been charged upon the northern principle of the Germanic nations to bring to completion."
1 - Hegel, Georg Friedrich. The Philosophy of Right. James Fieser and Samuel Stumpf. Philosophy A Historical Survey With Essential Readings. 291
2 - 292
3 - 293
4 - 294
5 - 295