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


      Skovoroda's ethics is probably the most original, and certainly the most extensively and carefully worked out part of his thought. Through all his dialogues his concern for the happy Christian life and peace of soul is easily discernable. My purpose in devoting a chapter to ethics in what is primarily an investigation of Skovoroda's speculative philosophy centered upon the theory of man, is to bring to light how his basic ethical doctrines are based upon the preceding doctrines. In this way I hope to find both a further confirmation for my interpretations of his speculative doctrines and a fuller comprehension of these doctrines in the light of their ethical consequences. In purposely making this chapter as brief as possible, I am aware that I am not doing full justice to Skovoroda's ethics.

1. The Concept of Happiness

      Skovoroda's ethics may be called a Christian eudaemonism, for it is centered on man's happiness in this life. Unlike most Christian philosophers Skovoroda does not view man's temporal life as a preparation for the eternal life. He seems to have thought that the eternal life will take care of itself and that the problem lay in making of this life a blessing to oneself and a testimony to God's [105] goodness. All creatures are created by God to be happy. "Absolutely everything was born for a good end and the good end is happiness."1 Skovoroda agrees with Epicurus that "life depends upon sweetness and that the gladness of heart is the life of man."2 Not only does God intend every creature to be happy, but He also provides everything that is necessary for its happiness and who can know better than God what is necessary? Skovoroda's God certainly is not deistic: "Our mother Nature knows better than we do what is useful for us,"3 and

She is good to every living thing … in her zealous foresight she has prepared everything without which even the most insignificant worm's happiness cannot be fulfilled. If something is lacking then of course it is unnecessary.4

      From the fact that happiness is the necessary end of life, two consequences follow: first, that happiness is universal and available to every creature and, secondly, that happiness is in some sense the easiest thing to achieve. Now, if no man is excluded by God from the happy life then happiness must lie in a good that can be possessed by all men in all places and at all times.5 It cannot lie in goods that are limited to some men only, such as noble birth, nationality, abilities and talents, health and comeliness, or wealth. If any man in possession of such goods is happy, it is not because of them, but because of something else that he is happy.6 Happiness lies in a good that is available equally to all men. Secondly, since God wants all creatures to be happy, He has made the road to [106] true happiness easier to follow than any other road. "O depth of blessed Wisdom that makes the necessary easy and the difficult unnecessary."7

      What is this source of happiness that is available to all and easy to find? That source is gratitude to God:

Gratitude is the stability and health of the heart accepting everything as a blessing.…  The fruits of the happy life are joy, gladness and satisfaction; their root and fruit-laden tree is the heart's peace, and the seed of this root is gratitude. It is the pure spirit, peaceful, good humored, fragrant.8
The only condition for this good is faith, for "gratitude is the daughter of the spirit of faith,"9 but it must be remembered that this faith includes the subordination of one's will to God's will. Gratitude depends upon seeing Clod's will and accepting it joyfully. Once man has recognized God as the benevolent Father, he accepts all things that befall him, not merely as good, but as best for him, and is grateful far them.
Trust him and make his holy will your will. If you accept it then it becomes yours.… In this moment everything shall happen according to your, yes, your wise will. And this is to be contented with everything.10
Now gratitude is equally possible to all men, because faith and resignation before God depend only on our will. Faith and wisdom for Skovoroda are universally available. Pagans, for example the Greek philosophers, can know God if they desire to know the truth. God has made the truth essential for a happy life available to all men. Its appropriation and application to life depend solely on the individual. This [107] is also the easiest task for man. "What is easier than to love God?"11 What is harder, on the other hand, than to love and pursue worldly goods? This is as hard as to "catch and hand over a shadow."12

      An obvious objection is raised in one of the dialogues: if happiness is so easy to achieve why are so many people miserable?13 The reason for this lies in the evil will that prefers itself to God. But then is not submission to God difficult to achieve? Skovoroda admits that this is the case, that only through great effort can the stage be reached where submission becomes easy. 14 The ascent to the mountaintop of true peace is arduous and only gradual. Yet, Skovoroda is certain that this path is easier than any other because every other search for happiness is doomed to failure and brings only continuous misery and disquiet. The true path, on the other hand, brings positive results, which encourage the traveler and make the journey easy. To set out on the right way to happiness is already to taste happiness, also as one rises by degrees toward perfect happiness, one's actual happiness increases. "The more one is in harmony with God, the more one is happy and at peace.15 For these reasons it is a thousand times easier to be virtuous and submissive to God than the opposite.16 It must be pointed out how close Skovoroda's conception of happiness is to the Stoic conception and yet how far from it. Both Skovoroda and the Stoics see happiness as dependent upon the individual's will and therefore equally possible for all men. The Stoic advocates [108] resignation to all events outside his own control, a resignation that reaches its perfection in complete indifference and apathy. This is an ideal that Skovoroda cannot accept:

Not to concern oneself with anything, not to be perturbed means not to live, to be dead, for concern is the movement of the soul and life is movement … when there is concern there are difficulties, but also joy.17
Gratitude, which is the basis of happiness, is not merely a submission or resignation: it is a joyful acceptance, a kind of resignation that does not oppress the individual but fulfils him. While Stoicism despairs of real happiness and therefore settles for the lowest level of happiness, Skovoroda demands nothing but the fullest happiness for all men. Unlike Aristotle, he assures us that this type of happiness is open to all men. Skovoroda's optimism can be understood only if it is related to the basic doctrines of his faith.

      The true man, the inner heart, is the particular essence of every man, and in creating it, God writes upon this essence all the laws and purposes that should be actualized by the individual in his life. To follow God's will, then, means to actualize one's own true nature.  This is why self-knowledge must precede the happy life. If submission to God is equivalent to fulfilment of one's true nature, then it is apparent why there is no sense of self-repression in Skovoroda as there is in the Stoics. Furthermore, since all events outside the individual's control are within God's control and faith tells the individual that God arranges [109] things for the individual's greatest benefit, one is positively thankful for whatever happens and completely at ease about the future. In matters that are within man's control he must act so as to fulfil his true nature and God's will, and in all other matters he is to trust in God's action -- this is the formula for peace of soul and real happiness. It is the act of faith, the understanding of God and one's own nature that transforms Stoic resignation into gratitude and joy.

      Skovoroda's ontology also casts light on another principle essential to his ethics -- that good is its own reward, and evil is its own punishment:

many minds seek a balance of rewards and punishments, trusting in their worldly scales, the number of their good deeds, and in God's judgment. My friend! The greatest punishment for evil is to have done evil, just as the greatest reward for good is to have done good.18
Virtuous actions automatically result in happiness and self-­fulfilment. Evil actions subvert both God's order and the agent's fundamental nature and thus must lead to misery. All rewards and punishments are dispensed in this life, immediately upon good or evil action. There is no need of heaven and hell to lure or frighten people into being virtuous. Skovoroda's ontology leads him to an ethics focused exclusively upon happiness in this life.

2. The Ways of Self-fulfilment

(a) Personal Vocation

      Skovoroda's doctrine of individual vocation in life is based on his ontological doctrine of the particular inner [110] heart in each man, and thus serves as a confirmation of my interpretation of the latter. God gives each man an individual nature, which determines his vocation in life. This vocation can be discovered by self-knowledge. Skovoroda states the essential points of this doctrine in this way:

Nature and inclination are the innate divine will and God's secret law that governs all creatures … God's kingdom and truth is within his creatures. He does not wrong anyone in distributing inclinations. One man is meant for one job, another for another … and though it may be a base calling, it is not dishonorable and will prove absorbing and useful, if the man directs himself according to God's will.19
Each man is endowed with different talents and inclinations or interests to fit him for a particular vocation. Since vocations are unequal, men must also be unequal in natural ability. And yet, all are equal for two reasons: first, because God, not men, chooses what they are to be, and therefore men's abilities are not properly theirs by desert and, secondly, because all men, whatever their vocation, by following it can be equally happy. This is Skovoroda's doctrine of "unequal equality."20 If we wish to be blessed we must first be grateful to God for making us what we are,21 and then we must pursue our vocation actively. Work in one's vocation is the principal source of self-fulfilment and happiness. The emphasis on action as the source of happiness is based on the concept of the inner essence or idea as a center of energy and force.

      Skovoroda's doctrine of work anticipates the emphasis on work and action that we find Marx and philosophers after Marx. [111] For Skovoroda work must flow from man's inclination if it is to be of benefit to him and to his society. Inclination "seeks work and rejoices in it as in its son."22 The happiness one derives from his work comes from the activity itself rather than from the product. "The hunt and the labor in themselves bring greater joy to the natural hunter than the roasted hare on the table."23 This is an echo of the doctrine that virtue is its own reward. Skovoroda realizes that sometimes the joy that comes from following one's vocation is disturbed by hardships, but these are no obstacles but rather a test of one's devotion to one's vocation:

And this is the truly faithful friend of his vocation -- he whose love cannot be extinguished by any decrease in income, by poverty, detraction, nor persecution.24

     Unnatural work is abhorrent to Skovoroda, for it sub­verts one's own nature and rejects God's intentions. Such work is a sin and must be expiated.25 People who take up unnatural work do so not out of inclination or interest in the work itself, but out of a desire for some rewards accruing to it. Though they may gain these rewards, their work must be a "deathly torture"26 to them, and furthermore must poison their whole lives:

Then [the soul] is not satisfied with anything, loathes both its position and society. Its neighbors seem vile, its amusements unsavory, its discussions vain, … its whole family hateful, its nights boring, its days vexing … it degrades its country and customs, defames nature, grumbles against God and is angry with itself … it cannot live and does not wish to die.27

      It should be noted in connection with the doctrine of vocation that, unlike Aristotle, Skovoroda does not consider [112] the philosopher to be the only truly happy man. Though the calling of the "apostles, prophets, wise and saintly missionaries and enlightened Christian teachers"28 is the noblest since they are charged with teaching others the truth about God and human happiness, yet all men who accept their own calling and pursue it earnestly are equally happy. All men must be wise to the extent of knowing where and how to seek happiness, but this does not mean that they must be philosophers by profession.

(b) Relation to Society

      Man is by nature a social creature. The principal way in which he relates himself to others is through his work. The personal vocation has not only immense significance for the individual, but for society as a whole. It is God's way of founding and structuring society. The ideal society is a hierarchical one in which each function would be performed by the man chosen by God and naturally suited to perform it. Society is like a clock in which each part has its unique function assigned by the clockmaker. By performing its work properly the part contributes to the harmony and well being of the whole and to its own happiness.29 The individual who occupies a post in society unsuited for him harms not only himself but also society:

How is he not to lose happiness if instead of service he brings harm to his friends, close and remote kinsmen of his own and other nations? How is he to avoid hurting them when he brings injury to society? How is he to avoid this injury, if he fulfils his role badly?30
Skovoroda's emphasis on social duty and work for the common [113] good of society reminds one of the Stoics, but here again a difference is clearly discernable. In Stoic philosophy there is no persuasive argument for action in the interest of society. The communality of reason in men serves at best as a weak foundation for social duty. In Skovoroda service to society is based on man's true nature and is tied to his self-fulfilment and personal happiness. It is therefore soundly grounded.

     Besides serving others through his vocation, each man fulfils his nature by observing the laws of justice, friendship and love, which are ingrained, in man's true nature:

It [wisdom] is the most beautiful divine face, which He with time impresses on our souls and thus makes us, wild and ugly monsters and freaks that we are, into men, that is, animals capable of cooperation … communal life, benevolence, temperance, generosity, and justice.31
Skovoroda also stresses the obedience men owe to their parents, teachers, priests, and political authorities.32 The performance of these duties is easy if men only remember that what benefits society ultimately benefits them, and what truly benefits them must also benefit society, for it is God's wisdom that sustains both individuals and society in existence. Society is founded on God's will which "secretly supports all the limbs of the political body, consisting of men not stones, and makes it stable, peaceful, and prosperous."33

(c) Relation to the Body and the Sensible World

     Men are not to concern themselves with material goods or such trifles as social rank, intelligence, and comeliness [114] because these are not essential to happiness. Yet, a minimum of material goods is necessary in order to live and to maintain the health of the body. Skovoroda feels that God will supply this minimum and that men should not to worry about such things:

No one lacks what is necessary, you see. Why do you blaspheme against the universal Lord as if He ever starved his household? Every creature receives its daily food from the heavenly Father.34
To be happy one must trust in God, but also establish control over one's appetite. One must learn to simplify and minimize one's bodily needs, but not to the extent that would harm the body's health. A healthy body is requisite to various activities of the soul; for instance, good eyesight is requisite for reading.
One must submit to the body to the extent that it is necessary, but not to the extent that appetite, the servant of the flesh, desires it. If instead of submitting only to the unavoidable demands of the flesh, you pander to all its desires, then you will never live joyfully. Why? Because by giving way to superfluous whims of the flesh you belittle its master. Then your brother, the master of the body is angry with you. Who in he? The spirit.35
Obviously, Skovoroda is no ascetic in the negative sense. The body is good and must be cared for, but it must be kept in its place. Bodily desires must not usurp the place of love for God or of the concern to fulfil one's true nature.

3. The Problem of Evil

      Skovoroda does not accept the doctrine of original sin nor the contention that man must irrevocably remain evil. Although man must live continuous watchfulness against [115] the encroachments of the outer heart, of bodily desires, he can achieve sufficient control over his lower nature to live happily and at peace with himself. Evil exists in the world only because of man's misuse of his freedom, his disobedience of God and his subversion of his own nature:

Who does not proclaim: live according to nature? But this mistaken path is one's ruin if one confuses subservient and ruling nature … and instead of wise and divine nature chooses animal nature as a guide for himself. This is the real unhappiness -- not seeing God.36
Refusing to believe in God and to leave all concern for bodily well being to Him, man devotes his entire life and all his energies to hoarding earthly goods. Thus, he reverses the hierarchy of his proper interests and replaces in his thoughts his higher nature by his lower nature. The outer heart monopolizes one's thoughts leaving no room for thoughts about God, about one's real nature and about one's true purpose in life. The  love of material goods in usurping the place of the love of God destroys the heart's peace and produces "its own hell and punishment that tortures like a thousand hells."37 This false faith and love is the source of all evil in the world:
Who does not desire honor, silver, and lands? Here is your source of murmur, complaint, sorrow, hostility, litigation, robbery, theft.… Out of this spring arise treason, rebellion in usurpation … the fall of states and the whole abyss of misfortunes.38
Man and only man is responsible for all evil by refusing to  believe in God and to obey Him. Evil, then, is the shadow of a shadow, the creation of man who is the shadow and creature of God. Evil can be vanquished, and here lies Skovoroda's [116] basic optimism. But evil can be overcome only if each and every man becomes the obedient child of God. Here lies Skovoroda's strong strain of pessimism. His optimism has nothing in common with the  naive optimism of eighteenth-century humanism. Progress towards the golden age is not automatic but depends on the transformation of every individual. Nor is mere brotherhood and benevolence enough. There must be knowledge of oneself, and faith and obedience to God if the happiness of all is to be brought about. For Skovoroda's emphasis on self-knowledge, individual responsibility, and faith is a timely warning to our age not to place too much hope in science, technology and social measures as means to a better future. Soviet scholars who disparage Skovoroda for his naiveté in thinking that man could become better and happier without social reconstruction have mush to learn from him.

4. Conclusion

     It should be evident by now that Skovoroda's philosophy is a very carefully thought-out system. His principal interest is focused on man -- man's nature and happiness in this life. The ultimate ground for man's existence and fulfilment is God. The ultimate answer to every question is found only in God. If man cannot be separated from God, the reverse also holds true. God cannot be separated from man. Man exists coeternally with God as the temporal manifestation of His power and goodness. Man exists to be happy and by his [117] happiness to testify to God's goodness. Yet, man can frustrate God's purposes and stifle his own true nature thus bringing evil and misery into the world. Only faith and obedience to God, leading to work and action, not to quietism, bring peace to the soul and harmony to society. Man's happiness and gratitude for this temporal existence is the highest praise and worship of God. [118]



1. I, 212.

2. I, 371.

3. I, 209.

4. I, 216.

5. I, 227.

6. I, 219.

7. I, 177.

8. I, 498–9.

9. I, 506.

10. I, 231.

11. I, 177.

12. I, 179.

13. I, 482.

14. II, 92.

15. I, 273.

16. I, 242.

17. II, 218.

18. M. I. Kovalinskii, "Zhizn Grigoriya Skovorody" (The Life of Gregory Skovoroda), Tvory, II, 528.

19. I, 343.

20. I, 345.  [119]

21. I, 346.

22. I, 323.

23. I, 339.

24. I, 339.

25. I, 324.

26. I, 339.

27. I, 340.

28. I, 253.

29. I, 323.

30. I, 323.

31. I, 19–19.

32. I, 23.

33. I, 18.

34. I, 501.

35. II, 441–2.

36. I, 321.

37. I, 272.

38. I, 217. [120]