Taras Zakydalsky, The Theory of Man in the Philosophy of Skovoroda, 1965.


      The metaphysical principles in a system of philosophy constitute the ground plan of the philosophy, a plan which other sections must presuppose and on which they must built. The theory of man deals with a particular type of being and, therefore, must incorporate in itself the metaphysical principles that apply to all being, supplementing them with prin­ciples that are specific to man and differentiate him from other beings. For this reason it is necessary to deal with Skovoroda's metaphysics, at least briefly, before considering his theory of man. A clear outline of his basic metaphysical positions will serve as a guide to an adequate interpretation of his views on man.

      Skovoroda recognizes the existence of three worlds:

There are three worlds. The first is the universal and inhabited world where every creature dwells. It consists of countless little worlds.… The other two are partial and little worlds. The first microcosm or little world is man. The second is the symbolic world, that is, the Bible.1
All three worlds have a parallel structure, a dualism of appearance and reality, outer surface and inner core, inessential and essential, Thus, by studying one of the worlds, we at same time gain insight into the other worlds. Here, by studying the macrocosm I hope to learn something of the microcosm -- man. [38]

     Skovoroda's metaphysics is developed only in outline. He does not pause to consider various fine points. Even on cardinal issues he leaves us with only a few inadequate hints as to his solutions. The interpreter often finds himself on insecure ground with some evidence urging him towards one interpretation, and some towards another. Nevertheless, Skovoroda's metaphysical position can be systematized without doing violence to his thought. The most illuminating general characterization of his metaphysics is found in Chyzhevskyi: "The metaphysical principles of Skovoroda are united by one basic viewpoint: a 'monodualism.'"2

     The essence of this position consists, first, in sharply distinguishing between two contradictory natures that constitute reality and, secondly, in mediating this dichotomy by holding one of the natures completely dependent on the other for its being and value. Thus, the radical dualism first formulated is modified towards monism without destroying the real distinction between the two natures. The balance between dualism and monism is very fine and therefore difficult to maintain. Yet, it is basic to the tradition of religious and mystical philosophies to which Skovoroda's thought belongs.

1. The Rejection of the Pantheistic Interpretation

      In order to grasp a complex truth it is often easier to approach it indirectly, that is, through error. To understand Skovoroda's "monodualism" I shall begin with a [39] false interpretation that sees in his metaphysics only monism or pantheism.

      All Soviet scholars, with remarkable unanimity declare Skovoroda to be a pantheist. "He pantheistically absorbed God into nature because to him God was nothing but 'nature.'"3 And from there they go on to argue that by identifying God with nature he was not spiritualizing nature but materializing God. The proof lies in his doctrine of the eternity and limitlessness of matter. Thus, Skovoroda's teaching on the two worlds … in the last analysis has its foundation in materialism."4 After stating this position the interpreter will usually modify it by admitting that Skovoroda failed to work out this doctrine consistently and that spiritualistic, idealistic, theistic elements, unfortunately, contaminated his philosophy, but these should be seen as consequences of the historical limitations placed on him by the culture in which he lived and should be forgiven. At heart and in intention he was a materialist. Although this interpretation sounds fantastic, it becomes almost plausible it we accept the first step. If Skovoroda is a pantheist; that is, if he identifies God with nature, then it becomes an easy task to show that nature is material and, therefore, that God is matter. Skovoroda becomes a materialist very similar to the Stoics. It must be granted that there are some parts of Skovoroda's works that have a very pantheistic sound. The best one of them is the following passage: [40]

Why not call Him in whom the whole world with its fruits is hidden like a blooming tree in its seed and from whom it appears by the name designating all creatures, that is, Nature.… [He] is called Nature because every external event is born from [his] secret unlimited interior as from a universal mother's womb, and hence gets its temporal beginning. And since this birth-giving mother does not receive anything, but gives birth of itself, she is called both father and beginning with­out beginning or end, and it is limited neither by place nor time.5
Even this passage does not require necessarily a pantheistic interpretation. Other passages frequently quoted to support a pantheistic interpretation are not even as strong as this one, as for example:
 Is he not the being of everything? He is the true tree in the tree, the true grass in the grass, the true music in music.… He is anything in everything because truth is God's.6
Here a distinction should be made between the true and the whole tree, grass, or music, and it can be argued that not God but his "truth" or his thought is in things. In fact, this interpretation will turn out to be the best one. The pantheistic interpretation based on such limited evidence cannot be accepted. Skovoroda refutes it in his own words in various passages: "Everything is similar to You [God] and You to everything but nothing is You, nor are You anything but Yourself. Nothing is like You."7 To confuse God with his creatures is blasphemy.8 Moreover, Skovoroda's doctrine of dualism, which is developed extensively, cannot be rejected nor reinterpreted so as to fit into a pantheistic metaphysics. As we shall see his position is rather panentheistic. [41]

2. The Dualism of God and the World

      Just as sometimes he sounds more like a monist than he actually is, so also Skovoroda sometimes exaggerates his dualism: "Sooner will two cats in a sack be reconciled than the two principles in the world."9 But in other passages he is less vehement:

The universe consists of two natures: one visible, the other invisible. The invisible is called God. This invisible nature or God penetrates and sustains all creation and is and will be present everywhere and at all times.10
The same contrast is drawn effectively in images:
This one is the chasuble, that one the body, this -- the shadow, that -- the tree, this -- matter and that -- the substance; that is the foundation sustaining the material mud just as the picture sustains its paint.11
The dualism is clearly drawn. On one side we have God, the eternal, stable oneness that is the source and end of all appearances. "The beginning and end are the same as God or eternity. Nothing is before or after it. It contains everything in its unlimited interior."12 For this reason God is not a part, nor is he made up of parts. On the other side we have the realm of appearances or shadows. These are unceasingly changing, emerging in birth and disappearing in death. The world of shadows consists a multiplicity of various forms like "grains of sand"13 and derives its unity only from God just as variously shaped shadows are one in virtue of the singleness of the object of which they are shadows.

     The precise relation between the two natures remains to be settled and this is a difficult problem which Skovoroda [42] treats not systematically but in numerous fragments scattered through the dialogues. So far it is evident that God sustains the world in being, but how does he accomplish this? In some sense he is in things. Is he immanent in things? Some interpreters take God to be completely immanent in material things,14 and there are undoubtedly many passages in Skovoroda that state exactly this. I am convinced, however, that this interpretation is false, that God is transcendent though not completely separated from the world. He is present in things but not directly, only through his ideas.

     Often, instead of speaking of God, Skovoroda speaks of the "eternal plan," "law," "thought,'' or "truth"15 as the support and ruler of all things. This reminds us of Plato's ideas. Sometimes Skovoroda equates this law or truth with God: "And what is God if not the eternal head and secret law in creatures?"16 Therefore, we may safely assume that whenever he speaks of God as being in a thing, he is rather referring to God's idea in it. Sometimes we find passages with a strong suggestion of the transcendence of God, such as this one: "all this garbage breathes (dyshet) God and eternity and God's spirit passes above this puddle and deception."17 God transcends his creatures and yet He is also in them by means of his ideas. This interpretation is confirmed by Skovoroda's doctrine of the dualistic structure of things.

3. The Dualism of Idea and Matter

     God is transcendent, and thus there arises a first dichotomy between God and the world. God is also immanent [43] in some way and therefore we find a second dichotomy of matter and idea,18 or matter and spirit in things. Skovoroda's discussion of the ontological structure of things expresses a dualism that is reminiscent of Plato:

All three worlds consist of two natures in one, named matter and form. In Plato these forms are named idea, that is, presentations (videniia), appearances (vidy), images (obrazy).19 These forms are the original worlds, the underived secret threads penetrating and sustaining matter or shadows. In the great and small worlds the material appearance indicates a form or an eternal image hidden under it.20
The dualism of matter and idea is not exactly a replica of Plato's doctrine because Skovoroda has an entirely different conception of both matter and idea. This passage shows definitely that Skovoroda wants to maintain a dual structure in things. For a clearer and fuller statement of the composition of creatures and their relation to God is found in the doctrine of creation.

      Kovalinskii states that according to Skovoroda's teachings, God creates in the following manner: "These wishes of the eternal will dressed themselves in thoughts and thoughts in images and the images in material pictures."21 Skovoroda himself states that God creates by naming, because for God "the name and the being are one; to name is to give [44] being."22 God is then a mind (this is the best name for God)23 that is a transcendent source of ideas that give rise to appearances. The act of creation is not a more shaping or preexisting matter, but a thrusting forth of the whole composite thing, matter and form. The image of the shadow, which is central to Skovoroda's metaphysics, expresses this idea effectively. The thing comes into existence in the same way as the shadow, that is, all at once, with the form giving a certain shape to the "shadowy" material that arises simultaneously with it. Matter gains existence only through form:

When this invisible and unorganized matter emerges from its nothingness into its very source, then from nothingness it becomes something and ceases to be nothing.24
Just as the thing emerges into existence when God calls it forth by means of his thought, so too it disappears from the world when God retracts his idea and reabsorbs it, as it were, into Himself.

     This discussion casts some light on the curious nature of matter and the material world according to Skovoroda. The creature as idea remains eternally in God, only its appearing undergoes birth, change, and extinction:

The true images even before their appearance on the wall were always in the mind of the artist. They were not born nor will they die. The paints, however, by clinging to them present them in material appearance, and then by peeling away from them, carry their appearance from sight. But they do not take away their eternal being, just as the disappearing shadow does not alter the tree.25
Matter, then, adds nothing to the eternal thing but the quality of appearing. To be a material thing means only to be a visible idea, an eternal idea of God taking on appearance. [45] Skovoroda does not distinguish substance from accidents, matter from qualities. For him matter is not an invisible substratum that supports sense qualities. It is the whole sensible appearance, not subjective merely as in Berkeley, but objective. To be an appearance does not necessarily mean to be perceived. Appearance here is a subordinate mode of being, a mode dependent entirely upon the divine ideas and ultimately on God. This dependence is comparable to the dependence of quality on substance.

     The material aspect of a thing is the quality of manifestation of the internal, invisible aspect of the thing. This relation between the inner and outer aspects of a thing suggests some degree of correspondence in content between the two. Although the outer aspect is changing and mortal, it is an "image"26 of the inner aspect and adheres to it:

This slave by its externality as with paints casts a shadow over all holy things and by means of the shadow presents all the hidden treasure in the unattainable inwardness of the divine nature -- since the actual truth is invisible -- to our corrupt and infantile minds.27
Since there is not only the relation of ontological dependence between the appearance and the divine idea in it, but also one of correspondence, the material things can by taken as manifestations of God's ideas, which in turn are invisible manifestations of God and, therefore, indirectly, the world is a visible manifestation of God. Thus, Skovoroda speaks of  God's "footprints" on things, which lead to God as "by a path."28 This relation of the material world to God and the outer appearance of the thing to its inner nature, is [46] the essence of Skovoroda's symbolist ontology.

      Skovoroda's doctrine of creation is complicated by his doctrine of the eternity of the visible world. Although the particular material, object is born and dies, appears and disappears just as God wills, the world as a whole was never created and will never disappear. It is coeternal with God as his necessary visible manifestation:

For as long as there is an apple tree, there is also its shadow with it.… But the shadow of eternity is always green and is limited neither by time nor space. This world and all the countless worlds are the shadow of God. It partially disappears from sight, does not stay constant and takes on a multitude of appearances, but nevertheless it never separates from its living tree … materia aeterna -- "matter is eternally," that is, it fills all space and time.29
This doctrine, which echoes Aristotle, becomes clearer if we remember that whenever one thing disappears another appears in its place. There is a constant equilibrium between births and deaths in the material world. "Unius interitus est alterius generatio -- 'the destruction of one thing gives birth to another'"30 (Skovoroda's translation of the Latin). The world exists by a necessity that does not extend to the existence of its parts. The totality is necessary, while the particulars in it are contingent upon God's will. This does not mean, however, that the world's existence is in any way less dependent upon God and his sustaining function. Both the totality and the particulars are appearances.

      Chyzhevskyi interprets this doctrine in more traditional Christian terms. He takes the eternity of the world to consist in its presence in God's mind as idea from all eternity. [47] With the act of creation this world and time itself come into existence.31 This definitely is not Skovoroda's view of the matter. For him the world in its material manifestation exists from all time as the shadow of God. This original synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian doctrine worries Ern who sees in it an absolute dualism, an eternal existence of evil over which God is powerless.32 He dismisses this doctrine as being merely an accidental feature of Skovoroda's rationalism, a feature that Skovoroda simply discards when he turns to biblical monism. The mistake Ern makes lies in identifying the world with evil. God certainly is powerless in a way: he cannot cease manifesting himself, but this does not mean that there is an absolute gulf between him and his shadow, nor that evil is coeternal with God or a co-principle of God. This is an important point.

     Although Skovoroda consistently speaks of the material world in negative terms as shadow, dust, corruption, and nothingness, it is a mistake to identify the world with evil. Some of the terms he uses for matter -- "the enemy of the spirit," a "cunning" nature, a "lie"33 are almost equivalent to the term "evil," and yet Skovoroda never applies this term itself to matter. These expressions should not be taken too literally. What Skovoroda has in mind is that matter or sense appearances like any symbol hide as much as they reveal. They may easily mislead the unwary reader who accepts the obvious, the literal for the true. But matter itself is not to be blamed for man's [48] mistakes.34 Man must bear full responsibility for his blindness to truth. The Bible is a book of symbols and may mislead. For this reason Skovoroda calls it, his favorite book, a lie.35 Moreover Skovoroda states explicitly in many passages that all being is good. "Through [God's] holiness, does (his) shadow become holy too."36 It is for this reason that Skovoroda rejects the possibility of miracles. He cannot see what possible purpose they might serve, since everything created by God is as it should be:

Everything that is unnecessary is unimportant and everything unnecessary is what is not possible at all times and all places.37 The possible and the necessary, the necessary and the useful are the same and in opposition to this. What glory and merit is there in doing the impossible?38
The miracles mentioned in the Bible must be understood as symbols not as facts.39 We are living in the best possible world.40 Thus there is no unbridgeable gulf between God and the world. Ern's fears that man might not be able to cross this gulf41 and become the child of God are unfounded.

4. The Individuality of Things

      The last problem I wish to raise is the problem of the ontological status of the individuality of material being. Is the individuality of a thing simply the consequence of its appearing, is it based on its material constituent, or is the divine idea, embodied in the thing, the true basis of its individuality? For Skovoroda God is in everything, as [49] the same tree is in all its shadows, the same substance in all its mirrored images. But as I have shown these words are not to be taken literally. Although he sometimes uses the relation of the word to its meaning as an illustration for the relation of the thing to its idea,42 the stress here lies on the manifesting function of the word, not on its individualizing function. Skovoroda omits any discussion of the universal and the particular, but I am convinced that he means to say that the divine idea in each thing is individuated rather than a universal idea. Skovoroda very often uses the terms "image" (obraz) "presentation" (vid) for the idea, thus implying that the divine essence in things is particular. Kovalinskii's account of creation43 supports my point affectively. But I am wary of basing my argument on terminology alone; therefore, I must mention two doctrines that support this interpretation of the nature and origin of individuation.

      The first doctrine is that the eternal idea in a thing is the source of the thing's activities. The divine word in the creature is not merely a stable idea that gives form and structure to the composite as in Plato. The idea is also a principle of activity, a spirit, force, tendency, love. "Indeed, in this world there is matter and form, that is, flesh and spirit."44 This force acts like a spring in a clock, giving motion and life to the thing.45 The spirit is not only the source of power but also the source of direction, it is an "aspiration … a divine prompting that [50] moves each creature by its own path to its place."46 This form in things cannot be a universal. It must be a particular entity, although the end to which it moves creatures may be common, and the activities of individuals in each species may be similar.

      The second doctrine that supports this interpretation is the doctrine of immortality of all things. Death does not destroy anything, but simply cancels its appearing. The particular continues to exist in an invisible and eternal form: "how could you be so impudent as to say that with the breaking of the pot the vessel is destroyed?"47 The appearance is a manifestation of the hidden truth in it and corresponds in content to the ideal. There is no doctrine of participation or any preexistent matter as there is in Plato that would somehow unite the universal forms and individuate the composite. The visible image is an invisible image revealed or manifested, and while the former may disappear, the latter is eternal in God's mind. Thus, the multiplicity in the world is finally drawn into God's mind and in this way receives its unity.

      The cardinal principles of Skovoroda's metaphysics have been outlined: reality consists of two natures, God and the material world. The former is the source and the support of the latter, hence the latter though inferior is good. All creatures are distinct but inseparable from God. They are visible manifestations or symbols of God. Each thing is a composite of matter and divine idea; and while its appearing [51] is temporal, its true being in God's mind is eternal. With these principles in mind, we turn now to the study of man. [52]



1. I, 536.

2. D. Chyzhevskyi, Filosofiya H. S. Skovorody (The Philosophy of H. S, Skovoroda) (Warsaw: Shevchenko Scientific Society, 1934), p. 60.

3. "Vydatnyi  ukrainskyi filosof i pysmennyk" (A Noted Ukrainian Philosopher and Writer), printed as an introduction to Hryhorii Skovoroda: tvory v dvokh tomakh (Gregory Skovoroda: Works in Two Volumes), I, p. XV. See also P. S. Shkurinov, Mirovozzrenie G. S. Skovorody (The World Outlook of G. S. Skovoroda) (Moscow: Moscow Univ. Press, 1962), p. 29.

4. Shkurinov, op. cit., p. 31. See also Tvory, I, p. XIV, and T. A. Bilych, Svitohliad H. S. Skovorody (Skovoroda's Worldview) (Kiev: Kiev Univ. Press, 1957), p. 66.

5. I, 213–14.

6. I, 40.

7. I, 179, also pp. 53, 197.

8. I, 107, 244.

9. II, 433.

10. I, 57.

11. I, 382.

12. I, 379.

13. I, 192.

14. M. I. Hordiyevskyi, "Teoretychna filosofiya H. S. Skovorody" (The Theoretical Philosophy of G. S. Skovoroda), Pamiati Skovorody: Zbirka stattiv (In Memory of Skovoroda: A Col­lection of Articles). Odesa: Yuvileina komisiya, 1923. Pp. 3–36.

15. I, 42, 318, 18, 16.

16. I, 318.

17. I, 377.

18. The idea is identified with the center of motion and energy in things and can be called also force or spirit. I shall discuss this in detail later.

19. Skovoroda's curious interpretation of Plato reveals his own position. For Skovoroda the invisible, intelligible form in things is not a universal but a particular, as I shall show further on.

20. I, 539.

21. "Zhizn Grigoriya Skovorody" (The Life of Gregory Skovoroda), Tvory, II, p. 503.

22. I, 357.

23. I, 16.

24. I, 284.

25. I, 537.

26. I, 192.

27. I, 193.

28. I, 193.

29. I, 551–2.

30. I, 381.

31. Chyzhevskyi, op. cit., p. 66.

32. V. F. Ern, "Ocherk teoreticheskoi filosofii G. S. Skovorody" (An Outline of G.S. Skovoroda's Theoretical Philosophy), Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii, 107 (1911), p. 677.

33. I, 548, 387, 382.

34. I, 375.

35. I, 375.

36. II, 89.

37. I, 374.

38. I, 388.

39. From Epicurus, see The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. W. J. Oates (New York: Random House, 1940), p. 50.

40. I, 138.

41. Ern (?).

42. I (?)

43. See quote on p. 43.

44. I, 539.

45. I, 17, 331.

46. I, 368.

47. I, 44. [55]