In this broad discussion of the "course of world history," Hegel has been primarily discussing the beginnings of history (defining the point at which history begins). Now, he says, he will move on to consider the course of world history as it proceeds from that beginning. World history, he writes, "presents the development of consciousness, the development of Spirit's consciousness of its freedom, and the actualization that is produced by that consciousness."
The concept on which history runs is dialectical in nature (though Hegel does not use that term here): it "posits determinations in itself, then negates them, and thereby gains...an affirmative, richer, and more concrete determination." The abstract details of this process, however, are a matter for pure philosophical logic to address. Each stage in the process has its own "distinct differentiation of Spirit," which is the particular principle of a given people (their Volksgeist, or "spirit of the people").
It remains for historical study to show, from the details of a given society on up, that there is such a "distinct particularity" for each people. This pursuit requires prior (a priori) knowledge of the Idea, in the sense that the physical laws of the planets deduced by Kepler required that he first know the rules of geometry. Hegel rejects the view, held by "empirical" historians, that such a priori knowledge compromises historical accuracy. Philosophy doesn't use the same categories as science, but instead allows us to see the "essential." If particular historical details would seem to counter Hegel's arguments about the progress of history, this is due simply to a lack of understanding of his conceptual theory. In fact, as with "monstrosities" in nature, any minor exceptions to Hegel's theory simply prove the rule.
Exceptions to the "progress" model can be found anywhere, if we are only looking on the level of fickle, subjective morality--Homer's principles can be found in ancient Hindu texts, and civilized morals can be found in savages. For Hegel, such comparisons are specious notations of similarity in form (rather than in actual conceptual content); they are "bare formalism" without any "concrete principle." World history deals with a higher ethical level than subjective morality.
Some figures in world history may also present exceptions to historical progress, but they too fall into the formalism trap. They exercise their "formal right" to deny progress but, precisely because they deny Spirit in doing so, their actions have no real content. World-historical individuals, on the other hand, often have dubious personal morals even as they advance the development of Spirit. History has nothing to do with moral judgments on such figures or on their actions; it is concerned only with the "actions of the Spirit of peoples." Philosophic history cannot concern itself with formalism, which breaks everything down into parts and analyses the similarities and differences between those parts. Philosophy must instead pursue "thought about thought," seeking and explicating "free universality."
General culture, which contains a great deal of differentiated content, is a prerequisite for the emergence of philosophy. But culture itself is nothing other than the capacity to lend universality to such differentiated content, melding the two so that all formal distinctions are bound to a universal content. The forms that culture brings about (law, religion, etc.) are actually "forms of universality," not entirely separate pieces of formal content.
Thus, all "plastic arts" (visual arts) require "the shared civilized life of a human community," though poetry does not (as Hegel has already said, language is capable of very high development without any State). Philosophy arises for certain in any such community, precisely because content becomes culture through thought (and thought is the "material" and subject matter of philosophy). All cultures, at certain times, reach a point where comfortable traditions are "flattened" by the ideals and reflections of individuals. This is a necessary step, since Reason must then be brought in to construct a replacement.
Thus, all world-historical peoples will develop poetry, plastic arts, science, and philosophy. Hegel emphasizes again that what is important in these cultural institutions is not just their form but primarily their content. In any case, their form and content must be recognized as so intimately bound together that one entails the other--a "form can be classic only insofar as the content is classic." The differences between various cultures at various stages of history is very real, a matter of fundamental difference in "concrete content."
There are, however, some aspects ("spheres") of culture that remain the same through history. These include any aspects that deal directly with "the thinking Reason and freedom," with the human necessity to know oneself as an instance of a universal and therefore as "inherently infinite." Even subjective morality, though dependent on individuals, can generate this unchanging aspect in as much as it recognizes universal, "objective" commandments and links them with the subjective. Hegel mentions Confucian morality and Hindu ascetic practices as having garnered recent praise from Europeans in this respect, but once again concludes that those systems do not contain true universal principles (specifically, they lack "the essential consciousness of personal freedom" which is the link between universal Reason and subjective morality).
World history ("in its course") deals with the "concrete Spirit of a people," which is the form universal Spirit takes in order to know itself objectively: "Spirit seeks to bring itself...to the sight of itself [and to]...the thought of itself." In the successive Spirits of given peoples, universal Spirit brings forth stages of itself that function and then decline in favor of a newer, stronger stage. This series of transitions is the course of world history. Hegel says that attention to these transitions should draw our attention to the interconnectedness of the whole of history as "the unfolding of [universal Spirit] in time."
Nonetheless, the "restless succession" of world-historical events can be awesome in its seeming chaos and randomness--huge results stem from minor incidents (and vice-versa), and beautiful civilizations are destroyed without any immediately apparent reason. These events draw our interest and raise our emotions as historians. As one historical event passes on to another, the clearest concept we find is simply that of change. We may sorrow at the collapse of a civilization, but our "next thought" must be that any such decline is also a rebirth. Hegel remarks, however, that the legend of the phoenix consuming itself in fire and rising anew from its ashes is inadequate here--Spirit doesn't merely rise again as it was before, but rather emerges in a new "exalted and transfigured" form.
Thus, these changes in Spirit (these declines and rebirths in human enterprise) are "elaborations of its own self," Spirit's experiments with unfolding its universal nature in the world. It is true, Hegel says, that Spirit can be stymied sometimes in the face of certain "natural conditions," but he points out that such temporary failings are due only to Spirit's own activities (not to any conscious counteraction on nature's part). Therefore, these failings can only call our attention to the fact that the historical decline itself is a matter of spiritual activity. "It is the essence of Spirit to act," Hegel writes, "to make itself explicitly into what it already is implicitly...so that its own existence is there for it to be conscious of." Thus, Volksgeist is also a matter of action: "a people is what its deeds are." A people is strong if it does what it wills--i.e., if its subjective aspect meets its objective aspect.
When this ideal state of affairs (in which a people's Spirit is fully realized in their society) actually occurs, however, "the activity of Spirit is no longer needed" in that society--it becomes static or stagnant, a matter of "habit." This should lead to a slow, natural death (as in old age), but the restlessness of Spirit means that States will more often commit "national suicide" after reaching a static state. Any abstract category, any "genus," "carries its negative within it," Hegel says. Eventually, the perfected State falls apart, and Spirit is reborn in a new form. Hegel uses the figure of Zeus here: Zeus founded the first ethical State by defeating Time (not by waiting for the natural death of what came before).
Spirit manifests itself through thought, which is the only medium by which a people and Spirit itself can come to know themselves in their universal dimension. This thought must at first be different from the way the society actually works--Hegel cites Plato as an example of this "dichotomy" between universal principle and actual culture. Nonetheless, thought tends to show the faults of tradition, and eventually replaces that tradition. Zeus defeats Time to build his State, and then he himself is defeated by thought (as reason and cognition replace traditional deity-worship).
Thus, thought destroys aspects of the "finite being" or particularity of a culture, but at the same time it resurrects culture in a new and stronger form by applying universal principles to it. Again, this is a case of Spirit transfiguring itself by negating itself (which is possible only because it is essentially self-conscious). In making itself an object, Spirit "destroys the particular determinacy of its being [and] grasps its own universality." This allows it to "give a new determination of its principle." Grasping this transition (this back and forth or constant self-re-creation) is the most important thing in grasping the meaning of the course of history itself.
In summing up, Hegel uses the seed metaphor again to describe the unfolding of Spirit. This time, however, he extends it: the seed blossoms and bears fruit, which "the life of a people brings...to ripeness." The people feast on this fruit, even though it eventually proves poison to them (after the State has been perfected and begins to decline). Then new seeds of the fruit take hold, and the process begins again.
Each National Spirit in this series is a phase in the development of one universal Spirit toward an eventual "self-comprehending totality." Philosophic history, then, is in a sense only concerned with an eternal present--"the Idea is ever present, [and] Spirit is immortal...the present form of Spirit contains all the earlier stages within itself." In as much as philosophic history deals with history, the cycle of stages of Spirit are past. In as much as philosophic history is philosophy, these stages are eternally "co-present."
In this section, Hegel is addressing history in its moving aspect, history as it changes. We learn much more detail about the mechanism by which Spirit realizes itself in the world, this time less in the context of the immediate means by which this happens (which were addressed previously) than that of the overall process. Hegel is dealing with major historical transitions here; where he has previously been discussing the means by which States arise, here he is focused on the transitions from State to State.
Spirit unfolds through these transitions. Arising in a new form in each National Spirit (each spirit of a State-based people), Spirit tests out new actualizations of itself. It then destroys these self-realizations and arises again in a new, even stronger form. This progress-through-negation is a dialectic (though Hegel does not use the term mmuch here) a constant back and forth between aspects of Spirit. Roughly, this is a struggle between the universal (objective) and particular (subjective) aspects of Spirit. Spirit strives for ever greater self-knowledge, which means that it can look at one of these aspects of itself from the point of view of the other; doing this, it either likes what it sees or rejects it in favor of something better.
Thus, the Spirit of a people emerges from particular aspects of traditional culture into a new self-awareness, in which universal principles and laws play the defining role. When the State reaches the stage at which it functions precisely according to these principles, however, Spirit's self-consciousness can only lead to the fall of that State. Spirit looks at the universal principle on which it now functions completely, and moves back toward the particular. Hegel points out that the perfection of the State never lasts long; it never dies a "natural death," but collapses in on itself as restless Spirit constantly seeks self-improvement.
The reference to Zeus and Time is meant to provide both an example of this process and a metaphor for the process in general. Athens arose, according to legend, because Zeus was able to defeat Time. For Hegel, this points to Spirit as a driving force--once history has begun, nothing is stable for too long. Time is defeated by Zeus to form the first ethical State, but Zeus himself is then defeated as Spirit rejects the worship of deities like Zeus in favor of adherence to universal principles. But these universal principles, the substance of the National Spirit, contain their own negative. Hegel means this in the sense that any general category is defined as much by what doesn't fit into it as by what does. A State can only run on a universal principle for so long before things change and that principle no longer fits all of what the people demand. Thus, Spirit struggles back and forth between its universal and particular aspects, destroying each embodiment of itself in favor of a new and better one.
In his picture of a set of progressive stages, Hegel must guard against any theory that might claim that certain things remain the same throughout history-- real, legitimate changes are necessary for Hegel's theory to work. This potential challenge accounts for the arguments Hegel gives against "formalism," by which he primarily means the equating of aspects of different States or cultures based on their apparently similar forms. We can find formal similarities between, say, ancient Greek and ancient Chinese cultures--both had a moral code of duty, for example. But Hegel insists that the content is different, since the Chinese moral duties did not contain any reference to freedom in the context of universal, rational principles (he says the Confucian rules were more like arbitrary commandments). It is real content, in this sense, that marks the real difference between cultures as history progresses. Hegel is simply trying to preserve his Spirit-stages as distinct and actual things.
The use, for a second time, of the "seed" metaphor is helpful, though we should not take it too literally. Spirit contains all of what it will become from the beginning (all the stages, all the National Spirits and their principles). But these are not realized until the seed is planted in the human world and develops into a specific tree. That tree is particular and unique, as each National Spirit is, although the code contained in the seed is a universal code. The metaphor extends further in this section than it did previously. Here, the tree bears fruit--presumably the rewards of the "golden age" of the State, in which the particular (subjective) needs of its citizens are coincident with its central, universal principle. The citizens crave this fruit--it is their very own Spirit, the means by which they can realize themselves and come to know themselves. Yet the fruit eventually "destroys" them; it is poison after a while, when the State has been "perfect" for too long and opposition to the universal principle begins to arise.
Nonetheless, this destruction is also a rebirth--the fruit yields new seeds and new trees, new State Spirits that build on and "transcend" the one that has passed away. This is the cycle that Spirit generates from within its divided self (the self that knows itself as an other). Spirit's struggling with itself (as carried out by humans forming and destroying States), its transition from stage to stage, is the "course of world history" that Hegel means to elucidate in this section--that course is both turbulent and determined, chaotic and ruled by an overarching Reason.
In closing, Hegel makes reference to the idea that, since all these stages of Spirit are contained in the one universal Spirit (and since philosophy is capable of studying that one Spirit itself), philosophic history is in a sense concerned only with an eternal present. He is reminding us that, even as we study the temporal course of history, we must remember that that course is only an unfolding of Spirit, a matter for philosophy as much as for history. It is in this sense that the stages of history, the National Spirits, comprise a "cycle"; they follow one after the other, but all are contained in one constant: Spirit, the self-realization of freedom in Reason.