Spirit, the central concept in Hegel's method of philosophic history, unifies the three concepts of freedom, Reason, and self-consciousness, which are interdependent almost to the point of identity. Freedom is simply total self-sufficiency, and self-consciousness is essential to the sense of freedom that Hegel is getting at. Universal Reason is the only true context for this true freedom, because only Reason is truly self-sufficient. It doesn't depend on anything but itself.

We might think of Spirit as a kind of blanket term for the conjunction of these concepts as they pass together from their abstract unity to their realization as operative principles in human history. It is this unfolding of Spirit from a self-contained abstraction into a set of worldly human institutions that constitutes history itself. Specifically, Spirit unfolds in a series of stages—each of which is a unique spirit of a historical people, embodied in a State—whose rising and falling away stems from the struggle of Spirit to known itself.

This process involves much destruction, but it is overall a rational process: Spirit destroys embodiments of itself as it struggles to effect a more complete union between its universal aspect and the particular aspects by which it becomes a part of the concrete world. Through this dialectical process of self-destruction and self-renewal, Spirit (along with humanity) comes to know itself better and better. The only interest of Spirit is to realize its own principle of true freedom, and it does this by unfolding as human history, where the consciousness of universal, rational freedom is the driving force.

Hegel's metaphor for Spirit is a seed, which contains all it will become within itself but which also needs to see those contents actualized in the world.

Popular pages: Introduction to the Philosophy of History