In his lectures on the philosophy of history Hegel passes this famous judgement on the French Revolution. “Anaxagoras had been the first to say that nous governs the world; but only now did humanity come to recognize that thought should rule spiritual actuality. This was thus a magnificent dawn”. What first gave rise to discontent in France, in Hegel's view, were the heavy burdens that pressed upon the people and the government's inability to procure for the Court the means of supporting its luxury and extravagance. But soon the new spirit of freedom and enlightenment began to stir in men's minds and carry them forward to revolution. “One should not, therefore, declare oneself against the assertion”, Hegel concludes, “that the Revolution received its first impulse from Philosophy” (VPW, p 924).
However, Hegel points out that the legacy of the revolution is actually an ambiguous one. For, although the principles which guided the revolution were those of reason and were indeed magnificent – namely, that humanity is born to freedom and self-determination – they were held fast in their abstraction and turned “polemically”, and at times terribly, against the existing order (VPW, p 925). What ultimately triumphed in the revolution was thus not concrete reason itself, but abstract reason or understanding (VPW, p 923). In Hegel's view, the enduring legacy of such revolutionary understanding was, not so much the Terror, but the principle that “the subjective wills of the many should hold sway” (VPW, p 932). This principle, which Hegel calls the principle of “liberalism” and which we would call the principle of majority rule, has since spread from France to become one of the governing principles of modern stat. It has been used to justify granting universal suffrage, to justify depriving corporations and the nobility of the right to sit in the legislature, and in some cases to justify abolishing the monarchy. What is of crucial importance for Hegel, however, is that such measures have not rendered the state more modern and rational, but have in fact distorted the modern state.