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


In his day Skovoroda had very limited influence on the society around him. He was completely out of tune with his environment, and his ethical teachings may be seen as a reaction to it. Ukrainian society was in a state of transition in the 18th century from the relatively democratic Cossack republic to a rigid and sharply differentiated society. As Russia's political control over Ukraine increased, the leading Cossack classes began increasingly to emulate Russian aristocracy in a frenzied pursuit of wealth and honors at the expense of the lower classes. The once free peasants, poor Cossacks and small landowners were being forced into serfdom. The injustices and suffering involved in this transition was compounded by the introduction of capitalism. The exploitation of natural and human resources was fierce. Peasant revolts and violence were common. At such a time Skovoroda's message of human equality and of social harmony fell on deaf ears for the most part. Of the educated and ruling class he reached only those few who were his personal friends. They read his philosophical manuscripts and made copies of them by hand. Thus, Skovoroda's philosophical works reached a very limited though select audience. In the masses Skovoroda found  a greater audience. Though the common people admired him greatly, they certainly could [121] not appreciate his philosophical thought. They loved him for the exemplary life he led, for his protests against abuses by the higher classes, and also for the songs and fables that he composed. Some of these literary works were incorporated into the folklore and were preserved by word of mouth through the 19th century. In the 1860s G. P. Danilevskii wrote that "It is a rare corner of the country that does not remember Skovoroda with emotion to the present day."1

     It is an interesting question why Skovoroda's works remained unpublished during his lifetime. One possible reason may be that he had no funds to publish them at his own expense and that all institutions of learning which might have underwritten the publication of his works were in the hands of the Orthodox clergy whom Skovoroda criticized sharply. But Skovoroda had rich friends who could have helped financially. My guess is that Skovoroda thought his mission to renew the hearts of those around him could be accomplished only through personal contact. I think it is clear from his works that he saw the end of his work as nothing less:

If your heart has been warmed in you, it is your duty to fan the eternalizing spark of the resurrection with your teaching.2
Might he not have believed, with the example of Socrates and Christ before him, that personal contact with the learner was essential? He certainly was an admirer of Socrates [122] and his pedagogical methods.3 Khizhdeu grasps the essence of Skovoroda's purpose in attributing the following prayer to him:
Our Father who art in heaven! Send us a Socrates soon who will teach us first to know ourselves. Then, having discovered ourselves, we shall be able to develop our natural wisdom.…Thy will be done in all my paths and endeavors for I think that wisdom should not be limited to the priests who gorge and surfeit themselves on it, but should be spread among all the people and should penetrate into their hearts.4
It is evident from Skovoroda's works and correspondence that he saw his vocation in helping others to know themselves and to be happy. For this reason Skovoroda traveled widely, stopping along the way to converse with anyone eager to listen and learn regardless of his rank, or education. If he put his teachings on paper it was for the edification of friends to whom he dedicated these works. These people knew him personally and would read his works in an entirely different spirit from the general public. It seems to me that had he desired to publish them, he would have done so. If his works were not published, it is most likely that he considered publication inconsequential. [123]

     Skovoroda's philosophy also remained hardly known in the 18th century. The first publication of any part of his work occurred in 1798 when only one dialogue, Narkiss (Narcissus) appeared in print. A scanty selection of his works was published in 1861 by I. T. Lisenkov, and then a fuller edition came out in 1894, the centennial of his death, under the editorship of D. I. Bahalii. Yet, even this edition failed to include many of his important dialogues. A two-volume edition by V. D. Bonch-Bruevich was planned but only the first volume was published in 1912. Almost all of Skovoroda's correspondence, translations and purely literary works that were to form the second volume remained unpublished. The first authoritative and full collection of Skovoroda's works came out only in 1961 under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences of Soviet Ukraine.5 This short resume of the fortunes of Skovoroda's works provides a reason why Skovoroda's influence on Ukrainian thought in the 19th century could not possibly have been substantial.

     In spite of the lack of influence, Skovoroda has great historical interest for the student of Russian philosophy and Ukrainian culture. For Ern the appearance of Skovoroda is the "birth of philosophy in Russia."6 Ern sees the mainstream of Russian philosophy as flowing from the Fathers of the Eastern Church, not from European rationalism or empiricism. By the time Western philosophical influences [124] came to be felt, Russia already had a well-defined, original philosophical tradition which he calls "Logism" and Skovoroda is one of its authors. The main characteristics of this tradition are, first, its hostility to pure speculation, to "armchair philosophy."7 Secondly, the central interest of Logism lies in man, in the whole man, not in an abstraction. Thirdly, man is viewed in close relation to God. Fourthly, metaphorical language is used extensively to express the secret inner wellsprings of man's life. These characteristics are prominent in Dostoevsky, Solovev, and Tolstoy. The stress on natural inclination or personal vocation is central to the Slavophils who apply this concept to the whole Russian nation. For this reason Ern calls Skovoroda the "secret father of Slavophilism."8 I am not prepared to dispute Ern's evaluation of Skovoroda's significance for Russian philosophy. Certainly, Skovoroda belongs to the philosophical tradition of the Eastern Fathers and his philosophy is in many ways similar to that of some 19th-century Russian philosophers. The contention that these constitute the mainstream of Russian philosophy could be questioned. Zenkovsky sees Skovoroda's importance in the fact that he is the first representative of Russian religious philosophy outside the confines of the Church.9 He is among the first instances of the secularization of Russian philosophy.

     Any student of Ukrainian culture, especially literature, [125] cannot ignore Skovoroda. He stands at the concluding part of the Baroque period of Ukrainian culture,10 a period which produced a new synthesis of classical and Christian thought and a rich literature. He stands also at the threshold of a new period, the Romantic period, in which the language of the people gained access to literature and replaced the Church-Slavonic of the Baroque period. The Romantic age marks the emergence of a definite national consciousness in Ukraine, an awareness among Ukrainians of their distinctiveness from the Russian nation. In Skovoroda there is only an awareness of an ethnic distinction between the two peoples. It cannot be said that Skovoroda had any significant influence on 19th-century Ukrainian literature. His name is mentioned by such important writers as T. Shevchenko, P. Kulish, and I. Franko11 but it is doubtful that they had any real understanding of his thought. Skovoroda's importance, then, lies in his position between two great cultural eras in Ukrainian history.

     Interest in Skovoroda's philosophy has been a phenomenon of this century. The publication of his works at the end of the 19th century has made some scholarly investigation of his thought possible, especially those of Ern and Chyzhevskyi. It is doubtful, however, that Skovoroda will ever have any influence on academic philosophy, for his thought is hostile to purely theoretical [126] speculation. It is more likely that his writings have had and will continue to have an inconspicuous influence -- an influence on the moral, subjective lives of their readers. Skovoroda's writings will turn the reader's thoughts inward upon himself, and stimulate him to examine himself and to know himself. Thus, they may pave the way for him to a better, happier life. I think that Skovoroda desired to accomplish no more than this by his living example and by his writings:

And as the seed, the secret source of the fruit-bearing divine spirit is small and contemptible in its external appearance but contains a thousand orchards, so too the word by its vibration of the air and its written appearance is nothing, but by the power of the hidden inner spirit when sown on the heart, it brings forth new creatures and new actions and is, therefore, important.12  [127]



1 Ukrainskaya starina: materialy dlya istorii ukrainskoi literatury (Ukraine's Past: Materials for the History of Ukrainian Literature) (Kharkiv: Zelenskii and Lyubarskii Press, 1866), p. 2.

2 I, 70.

3  Skovoroda has a well-defined [pedagogical theory, which I have omitted in this discussion. Its basic doctrine is that the teacher's function is to clear away the obstacles to the fullest expression of the pupil's own nature.

4 Grigorii Savvich Skovoroda: Zhizn i uchenie (Gregory Savvich Skovoroda: His Life and Teaching) (Moscow: Put, 1912), 333.

5 It is regrettable that in this scholarly work, which goes to great lengths to preserve Skovoroda's spelling and syntax, all names for God are printed in lower case.

6 Ern, Grigorii Savvich Skovoroda, p. 332.

7 Ibid., p. 340.

8 Ibid., p. 339.

9 Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, trans. G. L. Kline (New York: Columbia Univ. Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), I, p. 69.

10 D. Chyzhevskyi, Istoriya ukrainskoi literatury (A History of Ukrainian Literature) (New York: Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the U.S.A., 1956), p. 253.

11 See P. M. Popov, Hryhorii Skovoroda: Zhyttya i tvorchist (Gregory Skovoroda: His Life and Works) (Kiev: State Literary Publ., 1960), pp. 133–68.

12 II, 426. [128]