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Hryhoriy Skovoroda 1722-1794

Ukrainian philosopher and poet

Skovoroda portrait.jpg


by Valery Shevchuk


To comprehend the phenomenon of Hryhory Skovoroda,

one must characterize his life and his philosophical views

both individually as well as in their interrelatedness, that

is, in the central ideas that he worked out in his dialogues

and treatises, as well as his literary activity. All these

things comprise a single constellation, a single lesson,

produced in various forms. Skovoroda lived as he taught.

He taught through wisdom and, eventually, created his

own teachings in images, with the aid of the art of the

word, of music, of painting.

     The life of Skovoroda now amazes us, because a

roofless existence for the contemporary intellect is, in

fact, unimaginable. Even in his time this impressed his

contemporaries, in fact astonished them. Nevertheless it

was the original mark of a special sphere of Ukrainian

society called “wandering deacons, “scholastics’—a unique variety

of European vagantes. Wandering deacons and scholastics

of the 17th and 18th centuries took education to the people. As a rule

they were teachers in primary schools—these were people with

an aesthetics and sensitivity transmitted from the Kyiv

Mohyla Academy. They not only taught children in

schools, moving from one town to another, but they also

cherished poetry. They were transcribers and creators

of manuscript books—they created the special province

of so-called “deacon’s poetry,’ wrote spiritual cantos and

secular works—with a libertine and sometimes even

with obscene content. They did not spurn love and

meditative poetry. They wrote epitaphs and epigraphs

by request, poems in honor of this or that person, and

they especially loved to write humoristic and satiric

verses. They just never stayed in one place, and similar

to the vagantes, wandered about Ukraine, stopping over

at schools. They were in close contact with musicians of

their era (the lofts where the blind minstrels lived were

most often in the same building where the school was).

These people were quite useful to society and sensed the

significance of their mission, which one of the best such

poets of the 19th century, Petro Popovych-Huchensky,



Since you've forgotten, ladies and gentlemen,

                                 about us and God,

We will leave you, to take a different road.

And with what will the Lord’s church be decorated,

What, mankind, will your soul exalt?

The Lord’s church shines from hymns read aloud,

And the reading-singing flourishes in gems ...


     Thus, by his way of life, Hryhory Skovoroda reminds us

of that very cultural stratum of the society of the time: only

he, Skovoroda, stood as though on a higher echelon: where

the itinerant deacons and scholastics were instructors of

the lower school, Skovoroda instructed the higher; where

the former were silly and frolicsome, Skovoroda, perhaps,

was too dignified and even austere. In this he reminds us

of his distant predecessor—the Ukrainian polemicist of the

end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries—Ivan

Vyshensky, but without the latter’s intolerance, because

all of Skovoroda’s creativity and system of thinking were

humanized, and he didn’t scorn or curse the culture

and literature of antiquity like Vyshensky, but knew it

profoundly and made use of it enthusiastically. In the times

when Skovoroda lived, the itinerant deacons had left or

were leaving the stage of life—by edict of the conventionally

Ukrainophobic Russian tsarina Catherine II, who had

banned them from traveling. Steadily they were mutated

into half literate and half-drunken stammerers, whom

Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovnianenko and Nikolai Gogol later

ridiculedkepkuvaly. Skovoroda himself was like the loving

embodiment of the tradition and old culture that in his

time had already begun to be reborn; fate allowed it, just

as it did to the founder of the modern Ukrainian literary

language Ivan Kotlyarevsky, the author of the mock-epic

Eneida in vernacular Ukrainian, to actualize in Ukrainian

culture its entire great period, which we call the literature

of the Ukrainian Baroque, and to consummate it with a

mighty flash, which in its own way ignited new generations.

     Now a brief outline of the life of Skovoroda. Born of a

simple Kozak’ family, from his early childhood years he

exhibited extraordinary gifts. Fortunately, the Kyiv Mohyla

Academy opened its doors to all gifted children, regardless

of the property standing of the parents. There both poor

and rich studied. Also, a student was allowed once he

entered, to terminate his studies without completing them.

Sava Skovoroda sent his son to Kyiv because everyone

was drawn there who had the unrestrained gravitation to

knowledge and scholarly pursuits. Hryhory—a child with

an extraordinary memory—was drawn to poetry, music,

singing, painting—all subjects taught at the Academy. Of

course the choir director received him into the academic

choir: We have no doubts that Skovoroda took an active

part in theatrical performances that were organized there,

because where else would he acquire so many aphoristic

locutions about the theater; that he took an active part

in the re-creations—artistically performed graduation

ceremonies at the end of the second year. At that time in

poetics class the young Skovoroda acquired knowledge of

the theory of poetry and practical conventions in metrics

and there he also studied ancient Hebrew, Greek, and first

and foremost Latin, immersing himself in philosophy. He

read his favorites: Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, Philo, Cicero,

Lucian, Origen, and Erasmus of Rotterdam—all this

opened up a wide world for the youth. Finally, for him, like

many of his contemporaries, the Kyivan schooling turned

out to be too limited and he decided to travel to Western

Europe. But before he left he sang for a time in the tsar’s a

cappella choir in Petersburg, from which he escaped the first

chance he had, because the courtly life for his free-spirited

soul was reprehensible; a recollection of that life became

his phantasmagoric “Dream”: “I can’t take this stench and

awful savagery and with horror, turning away my eyes, I left”.

He had no wish to stroke the nobleman and tsarist

leaders. Thus he travelled to a distant world, to Hungary and

to other European lands where he studied (particularly in

the University in Halle, Germany), afterward he returned

to Ukraine, and when from the distance he saw the wooden

church bell tower in his native village, he sensed his heart

nearly stop in his chest.

     Chronologically the events of his life occurred as

follows: he was born in 1722; 1734-1753 with interruptions,

he studied at the Kyiv- ‘Mohyla Academy; a singer in the

court a cappella choir in Petersburg 1741-1744; in 1745 he

returned to the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, that same year he

travelled to Hungary (1745-1750). Finally, after returning

in 1750-1751, he taught poetics in the Pereyaslav Collegium.

The storyistorija, the way it was played out at the

Collegium, had primary meaning for the further fate of

Hryhory Skovoroda. At that time he was 29, taught poetics,

and, as was customary, was supposed to prepare his course

on this subject, but the Bishop of Pereyaslav Nikodym

Srebnytsky, also a student of the Kyiv Academy, for some

reason sharply criticized his poetics for its innovations

in syllabic versification. Many scholars have noted this

incident, but few have noticed that Skovoroda recalls

these events in a letter to his pupil Mykhailo Kovalynsky

(written in the first half of 1764): “I immediately began to

think in this way: the Pereyaslav mice were the reason that

they expelled me from the seminary with great unpleasantries.”

One might ask, what kind of mice? Why were

they the cause of his being expelled? Just one conclusion

is possible with a single answer: obviously the mice

chewed up the prepared poetics course, and Skovoroda,

without having time to prepare a new one, began to teach

poetics without a textbook, which, in practical terms

certainly could not have been appreciated by the bishop,

a student of the Academy who justifiably demanded that

they teach the subject in the way that was customary. In

general, this question deserves a more in-depth analysis,

for the unlocking, in my opinion, of one of the keys to

understanding the phenomenon of Skovoroda. The poetics

written by Hryhory Skovoroda, thus, is considered not to

be extant. His biographer Kovalynsky announced that

Skovoroda put together “a primer on poetry and a practical

guide to the art of poetics” in such an innovative way that

the bishop considered it strange and inappropriate in

relation to what had been the previous custom. The riddle

has attracted scholars, afterward a number of hypotheses

were posited, at times, utterly fantastic, as, for example,

the idea that Skovoroda slavishly copied the system of the

Russian versifier Mikhail Lomonosov, despite the fact that

there are no traces of the use of Lomonosoy’s system on

the poetic practice of the thinker. Regarding Skovoroda’s

“primer on poetry and practical guide to its art,” we have

only a single reliable source noted by Kovalynsky: they

were from the traditionally used ones—“the simplest and

best understood ones for students and gave a completely

new and accurate understanding of it”. The first

thing that strikes you on reading this announcement is that

the biographer clearly differentiates between the “primer

on poetry” and “practical guide.” The “primer” has surely

been lost—there was, from all evidence, a theoretical part

of the course from which the thinker lectured; perhaps

the above-mentioned mice ate not the poetics but rather

the “primer,” and here I should say more about it. On the

other hand, the “practical guide to the art of poetry,” in my

opinion, is extant—this was nothing other than the versified

examples of the art of poetry with which Skovoroda in

practical terms pointed out possible poetic meters that

had been cultivated in Ukrainian poetry over the course

of the century. I will be so bold as to articulate that these

poems were extant and entered his poetic collection

Garden of Divine Songs. The entire collection at that time

was still not complete; the poet was perfecting it while he

was already working at the Kharkiv Collegium (from 1759)

and afterward he created his own highly original primer of

poetry, therefore his collection Garden Of Divine Songs

was conceived in universal terms. First of all, as it already

seemed, this was a universal, popularized expression of

the views of the thinker in poetic form, and secondly—this

is true, as an analysis of the works included attests. The

“practical guide to the art of poetry,” that is, these verses,

gives an understanding of all the possible meters and

strophic patterns of Ukrainian poetry of that time. And, in

fact, none of the 30 poems of the collection duplicate each

other rhythmically, and each is written not only differently,

but each clearly gives examples of the most multi-faceted

structure of the work. Moreover, the poet does not only in

practical terms fix existing poetic forms of the Ukrainian

Baroque, but also introduces in them an entire series of

innovations and propositions, pointing out that one can

vary the strophe, rhyme and alternate various types of

meters. From this perspective, the collection Garden of

Divine Songs is utterly unique. And I will now attempt

to prove this. The poet nowhere in his collection repeats

one and the same strophic structure, and this could not

have been a coincidence: we see here the author’s conscious

intent, and there could only be one reason for the author

to construct it this way: his Garden of Divine Songs must

have been a “practical guide to the art of poetry,” since in

a relatively small book of 30 poems, we clearly observe a

rather complex system of strophic structure, and only a

few of the songs are written simply in a traditional way. All

possible types of syllabic verse are used there—of 4, 5, 6, 8,

9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 syllables in length. The only one

absent is a purely Leonine line (5-5-6) with internal rhyme,

which was quite widespread in the poetry of the Ukrainian

Baroque, but the element of that line (especially internal

rhyme) is used quite often, also the Sapphic strophe is

used creatively, and in song #8, the same Sapphic strophe

(rhymed, it is understood, that is adapted to Slavic poetics).

Skovoroda to a great degree takes advantage of not only

the formal accomplishments of academic poetry that was

created according to traditional poetics, but most of all

the so-called “songs of the world,” that is, he borrows the

practice of poetry that comes from beyond the borders of

the rules of Kyivan poetics, and it developed independently;

true, not without the reckoning of Academic meter. This poetry

closely merged with native Ukrainian folk song.

One other interesting characteristic: the poet widely uses an

eight-line poem that was naturally tonic, the fact of which

makes his verse quite close to the syllabo-tonic, but this does

not mean that Skovoroda introduced the syllabo-tonic system.

The practice of rephrasing the songs of Skovoroda

by Vasily Kapnist can attest to the fact that in the second

half of the 18th century the syllabic system of poetics no

longer satisfied the reading public, nor did the bookish

form of the Ukrainian language, which Skovoroda used

in his poetry. Therefore Kapnist decided to interpret the

verse of Skovoroda according to the precepts of Mikhail

Lomonosov, and to make the language of the songs closer

to Russian—a tendency rather widespread at that time: in

fact, we also find it in the philosophical work of Skovoroda


     The poet introduces anew into poetic practice a series of

innovative alternating rhymes, the alternation of male and

female rhymes, and in a considerably more far-reaching way

than his predecessors, he makes use of internal rhyme. We

can with complete assuredness say that not in a single poet

of the Ukrainian Baroque, even such masterful versifiers as

Ivan Ornovsky and Pylyp Orlyk, do we find such rhythmic

or strophic variety as in Skovoroda. Therefore, before us

is a truly original poetics in examples, an anthology of

the verse meters known to Ukrainian literature of the

baroque, which Hryhory Skovoroda, as a pedagogue by

calling, could use to aid in the teaching of the art (nauka)

of poetry to young people. One other thing is important.

The collection Garden of Divine Songs, as scholars assert,

was assembled from the 1750s through 1785, although the

greater part of the poems was written in the 1760s.

When we recall that Skovoroda taught poetics in Pereyaslav in

1751, and from 1759 was a teacher of versification in the

Kharkiv Collegium, we have the basis to prove that “the

practical guide to the art of poetry” created in Pereyaslav

was only the embryo of a completely worked out system,

that is fixed in this collection, therefore during the time

of his teaching at the Kharkiv Gymnasium, this system of

versification was nearly formed, and in later years, while

conducting a wandering life, but dreaming of returning

to his beloved teaching, the thinker perfected it, and the

year 1785 can serve as the end of this work. On the other

hand, this collection was, as we have said above, a Poetic

compendium of Skovoroda's philosophical ideas, just ag

his Kharkiv Tales are a collection of these ideas in parable

form, and this dualism is not mutually contradictory. Recall

his words from “Conversations with Five Travelers about

True Happiness in Life”: “There are two small loaves, two

buildings and two pairs of clothing: two kinds of everything

in pairs”. Thus Garden of Divine Songs is as though

it were two buildings: one—the exposition of thoughts, the

other “a practical guide to the art of poetry.”

       To make my assertion more persuasive, allow me to

examine the basic motifs of Garden of Divine Songs. For

it is a cycle in which the main ideas, which later create the

basis of Skovoroda's philosophical treatises, have already

begun to be formulated, or, vice versa: the thoughts of the

philosophical treatises could have flowed into the poetry.

       The idea of the first song is that he who lives by evil

brings about a living death; a hunger burns the soul of such

a living man, and he who takes on the yoke of goodness—a

light burden—lives as a pure soul. In the second song the

poet calls to keep yourself above the vanity of insignificant

things, in order to renew joy like a swift flying eagle. In

the third song, he who overcomes sorrow and whose soul

becomes a garden that bears fruit is glorified. In the fourth

song it is stated that the spirit of freedom gives birth to

us ourselves. The fifth song declares that recognizing the

“heavenly mystery, a human being grows up into a perfect

person. In the sixth song, the theme is about the seed that

having rotted, gives buds and a hundred years of fruit, i.e.,

a human song creates a living action of the world through

unhappiness, undergoing even death. In the eighth song, an

African deer, wounded by poison, rushes in to the mountains

to find a healing spring to become whole again (one of

the favorite symbolic images of Skovoroda’s philosophy)

The ninth and tenth songs speak of human passion and

vain-thinking, which ruin a person, about the insatiable

accumulation of wealth—which forever provokes death.

Who withstands death? “He whose conscience is crystal

clear!” The poet answers.

     Even from an analysis of the first ten poems of Garden

of Divine Songs we may conclude that the poet places before

us a triangle: evil (a crooked path), which brings illusory

satisfaction, and then sadness, sorrow, dissatisfaction.

goodness (the narrow path), which is difficult to attain,

but which brings spiritual joy, peace and satisfaction; and

a person, who stands at the crossroads and has to choose

where to go.

     This question of where a person should go to become

purified, how he or she should acquire not rank, riches

or material wealth, but rather a spiritual peace, joy and

illumination, became one of the main ideas of not only the

poetry of Skovoroda, but also of his fables, and later all of

his philosophical treatises.

     The next ten songs continue to develop the philosophical

ideas of Skovoroda. In the 11th song he counterposes the

human (material) and the spiritual (ideal, God) and speaks

of the eternal competition between these two principles.

The 12th song professes the fact that human civilization

with its cities and riches is antithetical to nature and to

humankind in general, people must go “to live in the field,”

that is, to come closer to nature and therefore to God. Song

#13 continues this theme and is a panegyric to nature, while

cities with their artificial civilization are antithetical. Song

#14 teaches the ephemerality and illusoriness of the world,

of fame, and proclaims that it would be better to live in a


     In the 15th song the poet again returns to the theme

of death, but in an original way: death is the end of

earthly sagacity and the beginning of heavenly glory, and

afterward, just as if it were the continuation of this theme—

resurrection, the feeling of a pure sky (song 16). The next

poem is an escape from a sea of life that seethes like the

Red Sea, again into quietude, into peacefulness, into nature

(songs 17 and 18). However, “accursed boredom” comes to

the hero here, it is about the need to struggle with it with

God’s help (song 19). Song 19 is a hymn to spiritual and

heartfelt purity, immaculateness and innocence, and the

need to build a wondrous city in the soul. Here we have

a purely Baroque theme of the battle in an individual of

natural and unnatural sources, one that was rendered by a

number of poets of the time.

     And lastly, the third group of ten songs propounds a

series of new ideas. The first is the search for happiness

in the world (song 21), the next the need to seek eternal

values (song 22). Song 23 illuminates the attitude toward

time and its use, the next returns to the theme of spiritual

peace and the battle with sorrow (song 24). Three

panegyrics to spiritual individuals—N. Yakubovych, I.

Kozlovych, and I. Mytkevych—promote the ideas that

a worthy person in a worthy position is joy to the world

and the nation (songs 25-27). Song 28 has an authorial

explanatory note: “About the mysterious and eternal

joy inside of God-loving hearts,” and it witnesses that

happiness mostly depends on itself. And once again

Skovoroda repeats the idea of life being like a stormy sea,

and the desire of an individual to be saved (song 29). The

final summary song combines all the previous themes:

time, sorrow, goodness, a life in God, satisfaction through

small things and affirmation that death is not “loss,” but

peace, i.e., a return to the first theme—death.

     The discussion here cannot lead to the conclusion that

since Skovoroda was traditional in his system of poetics,

that he likewise traditionally selected themes. Baroque

Ukrainian poetry cultivated all the above-listed themes

and motifs in different ways and at different times. The poet

does not emerge from beyond his thematic circle even in

other poems that were not included in the collection. The

difference and even the originality of Skovoroda is in the

fact that he often combined known motifs, borrowed from

literary sources, especially works of antiquity, from the

Bible, from distant Ukrainian poetic works, into his own

system of thinking. That is, he gave his poetry the power of

a universal vision of the world and humankind, touching

on the most cardinal problems of human existence and the

make-up of the world. This kind of thematic borrowing is

one of the most characteristic features of Baroque poetics.

When you summarize it all, Skovoroda makes two main

pronouncements: one about the art of living in this world

to remain spiritually pure in it, and another about the

art of dying. These, of course, were not Skovoroda’s own

ideas. Christianity propounded them as well as all of the

world’s Baroque literature. It is as though Skovoroda is

recapitulating the experience of the design of the world that

existed before him, and applies this experience concretely to

his personal “I,” i.e., he drew this experience close, directly

to the existence of a person, and on this basis formulated

his ethical and moral teachings, the science of living in

a difficult and complex world. He not only thought and

tried to understand the world, he wanted to maintain the

purity of his personal “I” in it, and at the same time to help

others accomplish this. To this end recall his wonderful

aphorism: “Unearth in yourself a well for the water that

wets your homestead and your neighbor’s.”

     Skovoroda’s Kharkiv Fables, just as the Garden of

Divine Songs, comprise 30 individual works, They were

written in the 1760s-1770s. The first 15 were written around

1769, the remainder completed in the village of Babai. At that

time the poet philosopher has already left his pedagogical

activities, and already has written a series of philosophical

dialogues: “Narcissus, Know Thyself,” “Askhan, a Book

about Knowing Thyself,” “Two Conversations, Spoken by

Zion,” “A Dialogue or Conversation about the Ancient

World,” “A Conversation of Five Travelers about True

Happiness in Life.” In these, in fact, Skovoroda had

formulated his circle of thought. That is why it was possible

for him to write a book of fables, for the thinker in this way

popularized and translated into the language of parables

his thoughts and views on the world. As in the Garden of

Divine Songs, Skovoroda in his fables fixes a triangle for

his readers: evil, good, and a person at a crossroads, in the

fables most often in a beast’s mask, and that person must

choose the straight or crooked path. In the fables we see

nearly all the ideas that he worked out in his philosophical


     Legends and anecdotes have been composed about

Skovoroda, but all those who met him laud that meeting.

With a staff in his hand, with a flute and a bag of books, he

walked the roads of Ukraine, and the power of his spirit and

his personal example was such that people could not help

but feel that this man, though, perhaps, a bit strange in their

eyes, with his chimerical stoicism, with his refusal to eat meat

or fish, was a special person. It was not for nothing that he

decreed that on his grave the following epitaph should be

inscribed: “The world tried to catch him, but never did.” In

fact the world really did try to catch him. According to the

requirements of the time, instructors of the collegia and

academies had to be monks. When Skovoroda entered the

pedagogy department of the Kharkiv Collegium, Bishop I.

Mytkevych, by and large well disposed to Skovoroda, ordered

abbot H. Yakubovych to convince the thinker to enter the

monastic order. But in being a monk, would he be able to

live and think freely? He would then be forced to become a

wheel in the spiritual mechanism, which by his reckoning,

bode no future for him. His mission was to become a small

cog that works for the great universal concern. He spoke of

this in his fable: “The Wheels of the Clock”: |

     “Tell me,” one wheel of the clock machinery asked of

another, “Why aren't you turning in the opposite direction

from us?”

     The other answered: “That’s how my master made me,

so I don’t just get in the way, but even help, so that your

clock should have a single path along the circle of the sun.”

     And he completed the fable about himself with

the following moral of the tale: “People with various

inclinations have different life paths. However,all of them

have a single goal: honesty, harmony, love,”

     So, Skovoroda could not enjoy the pleasures in this

world that demanded that all the wheels turn only in one

direction. This not only contradicted his views but also

failed to give him the opportunity to actualize one of the

most basic ideas of his own life: to live the way he taught.

He wanted to live this way, so that these three eternal truths

would prevail: honesty, harmony and love.

      One cannot say that contemporaries approached

Skovoroda negatively. In looking over the facts of his

life, it is not difficult to note that people wanted to take

care of him in many places. The landowner Tomara took

him to his own home where he taught almost by being

compelled. They suggest that he take the ordinary path—to

acquire rank and merit, and they acted this way not out

of bad intentions, but rather naively believed that this

person with his intelligence and talents would find it easy

to achieve the highest echelons of the church hierarchy, In

fact, the thinker’s life turned out just as he wished: it had

much bitterness and many unpleasantries, poverty and

difficulties, but, as he himself said: “The nature of beauty is

such that the more stumbling blocks you come across on

your path, the more it allures, to the example of that most

noble and hardest of metals, which, the more it’s polished,

the more beautifully it shines.”

     He lived as he knew how. Independent, selfish,

even proud, a bit strange, wretchedly, but wisely. He

aroused conscience in others and taught. “What 1s

life?” He asked. “It is wandering. I lay out the road for

me, without knowing where to go, or why. And always

I wander between the unhappy steppes, prickly bushes,

mountainous crevasses_— and there’s a storm over your

head with nowhere to hide from it. But, finishing this

somewhat unhappy tirade, he says “take courage!” Thus

he walked the roads of Ukraine, carrying the tested purity

of his own thoughts, his intelligence and restlessness, his

lesson of goodness.

     In the 1770s and 1780s he wrote the remainder of

his philosophical works: “The Alphabet of the World,

or a Friendly Conversation about the Spiritual World,”

“The Alcibiadiaisian Icon,” “Lot’s Wife,” “The Struggle of

Archangel Michael with Satan,” “The Altercation of the

Demon with Varsava,” two parables, “Grateful Herodias”

and “The Lowly Skylark,” and “The Serpent’s Flood.”

Thus he was 50-60 years old when his main philosophical

works were written.

     His first worry was to erect his house not on sand,

but on stone. Therefore, the philosophical heritage of not

only the ancient world and western European thinkers,

but even of his native Ukrainian people, became his

rock. This is not a gratuitous thesis: the first Ukrainian

thinker from the time of Kyivan Rus appropriated the

traditions of Neo-Platonism, which favored affirmation

of the pantheistic imagination, when God and nature

were considered identical concepts. This supported the

fact that the ancestors of Ukrainians at that time still

had not abandoned their naturistic pantheism that they

professed, since they were pagans. But on the Ukrainian

land Christianity took root, entering into a compromise

with a pagan worldview for the real masses of people. This

pre-humanistic worldview created the preconditions for

the appropriation of Renaissance ideas in 16th century

Ukraine, therefore Latin Renaissance poetry flowered.

It is interesting that we find the bases for Skovoroda’s

thinking, as scholars have noted, in the abovementioned

Ivan Vysensky, and especially in one of the most ancient

Ukrainian philosophers from the first half of the 17th

century—Kyrylo Trankvilion-Stavrovetsky, the author of the

The Mirror of Theology (1618) and The Teaching Gospel

(1619). He also led a wandering life and was a poet (The

Pearl of Great Value), and in the same way as Skovoroda,

promoted the cult of reason, writing a poetic hymn to it

On Supreme Wisdom.” But with his philosophical works

he transgressed the boundaries of Christian dogma, thereby

provoking condemnations, which led to the burning of

his books. Skovoroda’s teachers—Mytrofan Dovhalevsky

(“The main thing in life is reason, and all the rest perishes

without trace”) and Georgy Konysky (“In praise of logic”)—

also penned hymns to reason. Therefore, for Skovoroda,

God is universal reason, eternity, fate, that power that sets

the entire universe into motion, like a clock mechanism,

the creator of harmony in the world, the mechanism of

being. God and nature are precisely one and the same.

This universal reason created the world, which is divided

from one perspective into matter and form, and from

another into the macrocosm (the great world) and the

microcosm (the small world). The macrocosm is nature,

the cosmos, that also is composed of form and matter, and

the microcosm—an individual and the world of symbols

(the Bible) that is the shadow of universal reason. A person,

as an element of the microcosm, has in himself the flesh

and spirit. The flesh is visible, mutable, the sins and

passions, the feral in us, while the spirit is the invisible, the

immutable that brings an individual peace, eternal freedom

and thought. Upon death, the individual enters his origin-

nothingness, that is, the origin and end are one and the

same. To this point recall that the Garden of Divine Songs

begins and ends with the thought of death.

     The decisive aspect of Skovoroda's philosophy, as well as

his predecessors, is the  special attention he gives to the

individual as well as to the  living world. The individual, he

noted, is born as an animal, he has to be born a second time

spiritually. And everyone born in this world is a wanderer

(“Like I was born, even now I’m a traveler!”). An individual,

figuratively speaking, is a blind person, who must find his

pupils in order to recover his sight(Skovoroda's parable of the

blind and legless man). The beginning of that recovery of sight

is in reconciliation with one's spirit, and when

irreconcilability occurs, the individual then enters into an

incommensurable state, he takes on an uncomforting obligation,

and through this comes to understand sorrow, longing, and boredom

(the fable of the cats from “The Alphabet of the World”). From

here one of Skovoroda's great ideas flows: about the affinity for

work, that is this affinity entering into harmony with nature. Woe

to him, who, born for great deeds, is forced to amble about in

small circles, but it is society’s woe when someone born to live

in small circles, takes high positions. So that this should not

occur, one needs to know himself, to differentiate good from evil,

for good and evil live in the same individual. There is no hell or

heaven outside of an individual,they are within him, for in each

individual a merciless battle of the principles of darkness and

light is waged. Again, an individual, just like a traveler, has

several roads: real and false ones. On this basis the thinker

constructs his teachings about happiness. In chasing after it an

individual hurriedly traverses the earths sphere, seeking it beyond

the seas, in foreign lands, forgetting that you need to seek

happiness not outside of yourself, but within, in self- perfection,

in conscience, in good reason that will give the individual the

ability to become spiritual, and at the same time a chosen being of

a higher order. He teaches that one must, understand the world not

by the shell, but by the yolk. “Collect inside you these thoughts,”

he wrote, “inside yourself seek true blessings.” And further on:

“You must have time for everything, place and measure, for the next

cheerfully illuminated day is the fruit of yesterday.” From this one,

another Skovorodian idea emerges, which he took from Epicurus and

developed further: what is necessary is easy, and the unnecessary

difficult, that is, whatever you have a disposition toward, you

eagerly do with ease, but something to be done that is unseemly is

difficult and done unwillingly. An individual, divided by free will,

is capable of coming to the creation of a social formation the

unification of such enlightened people can occur in “the mountainous

republic.” However, Skovoroda does not differentiate between people

by their social status, origin, or place in society, or, figuratively

speaking, by their clothing, but by the measure of their spiritual

elevation, their closeness to the ideal of an individual. Such a

person is a chosen one and is counterposed to the throng and to

the person of the throng, who as one has not yet abandoned his feral

origin. The life of a person is a movement away from the feral (body)

to the spiritual; the traveling companion of such a person must be

poverty and simplicity.

     Thus all of Skovoroda’s works are a profoundly conceived whole.

The thinker, through his philosophical treatises on one level, through

his poems-songs on another, and through his fables and parables on a

third, along with the assistance of oral sermons, taught those who

wanted to learn, and was a teacher in the broad sense of the word. He

went where he was welcome, where his sagacious word was needed. “Love

emerges from love,” he wrote, “when I want to be loved, I first love.”

And he also wrote: “Everything passes, but love remains after everything.

     One other topic should be examined to comprehend the phenomenon of

Skovoroda adequately—that is the language of his writings, for he wrote

in a complicated, chimerical language, one even closer to Russian than

Ukrainian. This is a not particularly simple question and in order to

resolve it, one must take a brief historical excursion.

     The language of the Eastern or Byzantine Rite, before it was called

Orthodox, was invented by the Slavic enlighteners Cyril and Methodius in

the 9th century AD and called Old Church Slavic. That written and

primarily liturgical language, fusing with the local, i.e., Ukrainian,

became the literary language of Kyivan Rus. If you take the chronicle

Tale of Bygone Years or The Lay of Ihor’s Campaign, it is not difficult

to note that one finds many Ukrainian words and even verbal

constructions, but the basis for that language was Old Church Slavic.

Later in the Great Lithuanian Principality, one additional variant of

this language appeared, constructed on the basis of Old Church Slavic

with elements of the Ukrainian and the Belarusian languages. Later that

bookish language (this occurred in the i6th century) divided into bookish

Ukrainian and bookish Belarusian. Bookish Ukrainian had become formed

completely at the end of the 16th century and existed in Ukraine along

with other literary languages —Polish and Latin, however, it appropriated

elements of these other languages. Such a hybrid language was in use

approximately until the middle of the 18th century, after which in

Ukraine the Russian language was forcibly introduced in schools. At

that time Latin was still used, but the use of Polish in Eastern, Left

Bank Ukraine ended. We see this in Skovoroda’s writings. From the

beginning of the 18th century a different tendency can be noted: a

return to the Old Church Slavic language, which was replete to a certain

degree with Ukrainianisms, and called “Slavic.” Most dramatic works that

were staged at the Kyiv Academy were written in it, the chronicle of

Hryhory Hrabyanka, and a series of poems (Ivan Maksymovych wrote in

this language exclusively). Bookish Ukrainian existed parallel with

Slavic, with chronicles (Samiylo Velychko), poems, and other works

written in it. With the introduction of the foundations of the Russian

language forcibly introduced into schools, there was created a unique

bookish hybrid language that might be called “made close to Russian.”

That is, this was already the Russian language with a certain amount

of Ukrainianisms. A number of authors wrote in that language: Hnat

Maksymovych, the monk Yakiv, Semen Dilovych, the anonymous author

Of The History of the Rus People, Irynei Falkivsky, Hryhory

Skovoroda, and others. But Skovoroda’s language has unique properties:

one can differentiate various layers in it. The poetry, besides that

in Latin, is written in bookish Ukrainian, in Slavic, in a

Ukrainianized language, and in a Russianized language. The fables and

Philosophical works are written in a Russianized language. Why did

Skovoroda do this? Primarily, because this was the language of the

schools of his time, the language of educated society. The thinker

addressed that society in the language in which it was taught. But

the time-honored tradition of the bookish Ukrainian language did not

disappear, and his spoken Ukrainian influenced his written Russian,

just as many Ukrainian words, phraseology, sayings, proverbs, and

Church Slavonicisms entered into the written language of his

contemporaries. The thinker himself had a great aptitude for languages:

he knew ancient Greek and Latin, quotes entire sentences and words in

German, perhaps knew French, and certainly knew ancient Hebrew. At the

beginning of the parable “Grateful Herodias,” Skovoroda presents the

greeting by Pishek in an entire series of languages. This is a deeply

rooted Ukrainian tradition of literary multilinguality. It has always

been considered that the more languages an individual knows, the more

educated he is. By making use of various languages, he projects

greater scholarly erudition. The Ukrainian language and folk language

was that of song, of folk versification, of intermedia to dramas, that

is, folk scenarizations. Only from the activities of the Pochaiv

cultural circle in the West and Ivan Kotlyarevsky in Eastern Ukraine,

did language acquire the status of a viable literary language.

Thus Skovoroda in this plan linguistically was just a child of his

time. Skovoroda was not a national writer per se. He often spoke with

contempt of simpletons, of the throng, of a person of low development.

The thinker, thus, wrote for the educated stratum of his people and

Often expressed the elite nature of his thinking. The contradictions

Of wealth and the apologia for poverty did not mean that he looked

at the common people as though they were a carrier of higher wisdom.

The language Skovoroda used in his works is an incontrovertible fact

that proves the philosopher addressed his teachings not to the simple

people, but rather to the educated. It is quite another issue that

the common people appropriated his works, particularly his songs that

they sang. But it is quite interesting that folk singers

Ukrainianized the texts of the songs, that is, the songs were clothed

in the national vernacular Ukrainian language and continued to live

on while maintaining the name of Skovoroda’s psalms. In fact, the

late romantics Panteileimon Kulish and Taras Shevchenko reproached

Skovoroda most for his language, for they reasoned that Ukrainian

literature could not take that path. In the end, not long after

Skovoroda’s death in 1794, Ukrainians had to choose whether to take

the path of Russian (taken by Vasyl Kapnist, Nikolai Gogol (Mykola

Hohol in Ukrainian), Vasyl Narezhny, Orest Somov, and a whole

series of other writers), or both simultaneously (Kulish,

Mykola Kostomarov, Hryhory Kvitka- Osnovianenko, Evhen Hrebinka,

Marko Vovchok, Taras Schevchenko), or just the Ukrainian. But

Ukrainian literati began to write exclusively in Ukrainian only

in the second half of the 19th century (Ivan Nechui-Levytsky,

Panas Myrny). Even the great Ukrainian writer Ivan Franko used

Polish and German as his literary languages at the turn of the


     Regardless, Hryhory Skovoroda was a great teacher of his people.

The power of his reason has become more widespread over time, for he

could see through the world and a person. He spoke to his

contemporaries the honest, deliberate and sagacious word, and that

word was heard not only by his contemporaries, but also by many

generations to come.


-Valery Shevchuk, Kyiv, Ukraine

Translated from the Ukrainian

by Michael M. Naydan with minor

abridgments from the original


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