Hegel pauses here to list what he's outlined so far: the nature of Spirit, "the means it uses to realize its Idea, and the form that it takes in the complete realization of its existence: the State." It remains, he says, to consider the actual "course of world history." Hegel contrasts this course with the course of nature, which is an essentially cyclical process where nothing truly new ever arises. World history, on the other hand, since it actualizes a drive toward perfectibility, often introduces true and fundamental change.
Such change may seem to conflict with religion, Hegel notes, and also with the aim of some states to remain stable—both seem to wish for an unchanging order. But, while he can concede that "perfectibility" in itself is an indefinite idea, Hegel insists that even the basic concept of "development" implies the emergence of some fundamental ground in history, some essential principle. This principle, of course, is Spirit, which uses chance occurrences in history "for its own purpose." In fact, he notes, even nature "brings forth" new forms, even if it does not change its essential elements. Rather, like Spirit, it is always "making itself into what it implicitly is." The difference is that Spirit, unlike nature, realizes itself through "consciousness and will"—human characteristics.
Humankind begins as a part of nature, with natural, unconsidered desires and acts. But, because human consciousness is essentially "animated by Spirit," it moves through historical change toward the realization of the principles of Spirit. Thus, Spirit realizes itself not through a quiescent, natural process, but rather through a struggle against the natural impulses of the very humans in whose consciousness Spirit resides. In this sense, "Spirit, within its own self, stands in opposition to itself. It must overcome itself as its own truly hostile hindrance."
The overall goal of this process is, again, for Spirit to be increasingly "in conformity with its essence, the concept of freedom." This goal, Hegel says, is both the object and the content of what we know as "development." The more common notion of development is a "merely formalistic" one, to which state-wide disasters like the decline and fall of Rome are unintelligible. Hegel's broader view of development, rather than being formalistic, is both "concrete" and "absolute": "world history presents the stages in the development of the principle whose content is the consciousness of freedom." On this view, no disaster, fall of a state, or other major change need be anything but concrete "development" itself.
The general, abstract nature of these stages of development is a matter for philosophical logic to address (since those stages are simply the unfolding of the rational Spirit). Their concrete nature, however, is the subject of the "philosophy of spirit," which finds them to be the following:
1) the "immersion of Spirit in natural life;"
2) the "emergence of Spirit into the consciousness of its freedom," which represents a partial tearing away of Spirit from nature; and
3) the "evolution of Spirit out of this still particular form of freedom into its pure universality—into self-consciousness."
The details of how these stages come about and fall away, the "process of [each stage's] own formation and the dialectic of its own transition in turn," are what philosophic history addresses, and Hegel implies that he will discuss these details later.
Although each stage in the development of Spirit is perfect in itself (for its particular time), there is still a drive toward overall perfection. This drive manifests itself precisely through imperfection, when some aspect of a given stage is recognized to be imperfect. This aspect is then negated and replaced, allowing for development.
Hegel here turns to address the popular pseudo-historical idea of a "state of nature," in which prehistoric man is thought to have lived in a pure, naive state, with total access to God. Hegel refers to Schlegel as a major proponent of this idea, and also notes the massive body of scholarship about ancient civilizations that has sprung up recently. If humans once lived in this ideal state, then history would simply be a matter of searching for the most ancient texts and cultural relics, as scholars are doing with, say, Sanskrit texts. The aim would be to reconstruct an originary, cross-cultural community of God.
Hegel thinks this idea is largely fallacious, primarily because it does not deal with true "history" so much as with myth and speculation. True history, he argues, begins "at the point where rationality begins to enter into worldly existence." It requires a basic concept of individuality, moral right, and law—in short, true history requires "substantial universal objects" and their instantiation in the State (this, Hegel notes, is the nature of freedom itself). History begins when history begins to be recorded as history, and this cannot happen without the concepts available through the State (namely, the idea of law or a "universally binding directive," which makes individual actions count on a universal scale in order to serve the State).
The State also brings about history partly because it needs history in order to understand itself, to give itself an "integrated understanding of itself." Hegel uses the advanced social hierarchy of ancient India (which nevertheless had no real recorded history) in contrast to the idea of State-enabled history. Ancient India may have had a complex social system, but this was more of a set of taboos than a universal ethical system. In order to enable history, it would have needed a purpose "that relates both to the actual world and to substantial freedom." Such a purpose, Hegel argues, is the precondition of history.
Ancient languages are similarly deficient with regard to the historical progress of Spirit. Although often complex and deep, they have nothing to do with "a will becoming self-conscious, nor [with] a freedom that is expressing itself in ... a genuinely external activity." No matter how advanced ancient language and culture is, it is external to history until it begins to actualize the idea of freedom via a State.
Hegel's basic distinction in this section is between "nature," with its ultimately stable, cyclical essence, and the properly historical "State," which involves upheaval and "development." This is also a distinction between human events in general (some of which precede systematic history) and historical events. Finally, the same distinction applies to Hegel's own "philosophic" method in contrast to a swarm of other historical projects and theories concerning the ultimate goal of the study of history.
Nature, Hegel argues, is cyclical—it never introduces something totally new (though it does bring forth new forms of itself)—and therefore does not progress in the sense that history does. Some political and social theorists (Schlegel in particular) postulate a prehistoric human state very close to this perfect, essentially unchanging state of nature, and Hegel is careful to distinguish his subject of study from this idea as well. Both nature and any "natural" human state are foreign to true history. In fact, true history does not begin until the emergence of the State, or something close to it.
This argument that the State founds history is essential to Hegel's idea of what governs history (namely, rational Spirit). If we call ancient societies "historical" or give any historical credence to the "state of nature" idea, we cannot accept Hegel's view that history consists solely of the rational process of Spirit realizing itself in the world. The two views are incompatible because Spirit for Hegel is not some unknowable God that guides both natural and human events, but is instead intimately involved with human actions in establishing broad social and legal collectives—States. Human self-awareness, in the form of the applied universal concept of freedom, is prerequisite to any emergence of Spirit in history.
This union of an abstract, guiding Reason or Spirit with concrete events via humans is what makes Hegel's method of history unique, and he is here concerned with excluding from that method any material that wouldn't fit its basic theory. Thus: history depends on Spirit as realized in the State, and nothing that happened prior to the State can be called history. This move is almost too self-justifying, except that Hegel makes brief reference to an interesting idea about the relationship between law and history. Events and actions, he claims, are not made real enough for history without a universal, institutional set of laws. Otherwise, actions relate only to "subjective commands," and there is no larger framework in which those actions can be recorded. Similarly, ancient societies depend on family structure, and do not allow for any concept of individuality. That concept, and in particular the idea of being a free individual in the context of the larger, abstract "family" of the State, is also necessary to give actions and events the concrete framework that allows them to become historical.
Still, all this is sketched out only very briefly here, and again we must remind ourselves that this is an introduction—we cannot ask too much detail of Hegel in terms of a justification for his theory. Thus, these sharp limits to what Hegel considers history must stand largely on faith for now. It's crucial to keep in mind, however, that Hegel does not claim that the difference between history and human events in general is an easy one. In fact, he argues that the emergence of history from nature is a difficult, almost painful process. Spirit, in dissociating itself from the "natural" human state, must negate something within itself. Although its essential nature is the concept of freedom and its ultimate goal the clear recognition and institution of that concept, that concept is initially hidden from it. In fact, Hegel argues that this is a "self-estrangement," that Spirit simultaneously seeks itself and hides itself from itself. What the consideration of nature leads Hegel to argue is that history is not a quiet unfolding of the Spirit, but a rougher process in which Spirit finds itself, negates itself, and finds itself more completely. This process Hegel calls dialectic: progress, or "development" (an important word in this section), happens only because of this ongoing dialogue of Spirit with itself, this process of negation and improvement.