This text comprises Hegel's introduction to a series of lectures on the "philosophy of history." As an introduction, the text lays out only the general outline of Hegel's method of "philosophic history"--any details tend to be about theoretical entities and concepts, and there are very few direct analyses of historical periods or events.
Hegel begins by outlining three major types of historical method: original history, which is written during the historical period in question; reflective history, which is written after the period has passed and which brings reflective thought and interpretation to bear on it; and philosophic history, which uses a priori philosophical thought to interpret history as a rational process. (Reflective history is further broken down into universal history, pragmatic, critical, and specialized methods).
Focusing on his own method (philosophic history), Hegel gives a brief defense of the idea that Reason rules history. Reason is infinitely free because it is self-sufficient, depending on nothing outside of its own laws and conclusions. It is also infinitely powerful, because by nature it seeks to actualize its own laws in the world. Hegel argues that, in a very real sense, the "substance" or content of world history is nothing but Reason, since all of history is caused and guided by a rational process. This idea, he points out, is different from the idea that God has an unknowable plan that guides history--Hegel believes that this is close to the truth, but that God's plan is knowable through philosophy. The idea that Reason rules the world, he says, is both an assumption we must make before we practice philosophic history and a conclusion drawn from that practice.
The bulk of the Introduction is concerned with the elaboration of three aspects of this guidance of history by rational Spirit. The first concerns the abstract characteristics of Spirit itself: the central principle of Spirit is rational freedom (the only true freedom), which Spirit realizes in the world through the mechanism of human history. The second thing Hegel considers, then, is this human aspect--the "means" Spirit uses to actualize itself in the world. Human interests and passions are subjective and particular--they do not necessarily conform to any universal laws. History unfolds as this subjective realm of human passion is joined to universal principles, thus allowing Spirit to become conscious of itself in its subjective aspect (the aspect that allows it to unfold in the concrete world).
The third major section of Hegel's discussion of Spirit focuses on this union of the subjective particular and the objective universal. The union occurs in the form of the State (by which term Hegel means the entirety of a people's culture and government). Thus, the State is the "material" in which universal Spirit realizes itself in particular forms.
Much of the remainder of Hegel's Introduction is concerned with "the course of history," the process by which Spirit moves, changes, and transforms itself through the progression of historical events. This happens as States are formed, achieve some level of perfection (in which the subjective wills of the citizens coincides with the universal principle of the State), and decline. In actualizing itself in the form of the State, Spirit is making an effort to actualize its central principle of rational freedom, to unify its own subjective and objective aspects. This happens to some degree, but the State never remains stable indefinitely; as soon as it is perfected in its universality, times have changed and Spirit destroys itself in order to arise in a new, stronger form (a new State or "spirit of a people").
Through this process of improvement through self-negation, then, Spirit drives human history through its stages toward the goal of complete realization of Spirit in self-conscious, rational freedom. The Introduction seeks to allow us to grasp the nature of this series of transitions both through straight philosophical analysis and through the study of the historical stages themselves.