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


      For any reader a first encounter with Skovoroda is like an accidental ice-cold shower. He is shocked, bewildered and confused. He seems to be swamped with apparent contradictions, with images, symbols, similes, Biblical quotations, proverbs, and stories. He does not know what to make of all this. Fragments of philosophical doctrine appear here and there but are not harmonized or organized into a systematic account. If he stoically endures this discomfort and persists in his search for intelligibility, he will become gradually aware of emerging patterns of symbols, of restated and expanded philosophical themes, and of a certain unity among them. The process admittedly is slow and demanding, but challenging. The reward is proportional to the effort. At last a coherent, intricately structured system of thought can be discerned. The intellectual satisfaction which crowns this accomplishment is not the only reward that Skovoroda offers his reader.

      Skovoroda offers a special type of philosophy, a philosophy that is not only intellectually stimulating, but also spiritually and morally enlightening. He speaks in a very personal and intimate voice to the reader whom he accepts as a living puzzled human being concerned for his [2] ultimate fate, frightened by the inevitability of death, hoping for happiness and fulfilment in life, and worried about trifling everyday problems. Skovoroda speaks as a wise friend who has solved for himself the great and the small riddles of life and has tested his solutions in practice. His wisdom is a dialectical interplay of thought with experience and may be described best as a personal faith. He does not try to dictate or impose his truth on us, but on the contrary. The sketchy nature of his doctrine gives the impression that its purpose is to raise questions and to stimulate the reader's own thought, rather than to dispense easy solutions. Skovoroda expresses clearly and concisely the cardinal elements of a faith that is sturdy enough to meet the test of daily life, and does his best to help us to see their value. He knows, however, that faith can only come from within the individual. His aim is Socratic -- to kindle in us a desire and thirst for the truth by turning our attention upon ourselves. Such a desire would contain a premonition of the truth. It would be the first, the most difficult and most essential step on our road to faith and happiness. In this lies his humility. In this also lies his ambitiousness.

      But besides his intellectual and spiritual qualities, Skovoroda's philosophical dialogues also have outstanding aesthetic value. Their aesthetic quality, in fact, is so obvious that these works must prove to be more attractive at first to the reader who is seeking merely enjoyment, than to [3] one who is in search of speculative knowledge or spiritual enlightenment. Skovoroda's style is colorful, picturesque and vivid. The rhythms of speech are natural, relaxed, leisurely, yet lively. Witty comparisons, unobtrusive puns and pithy aphorisms contribute to the humor and playfulness of the conversations. Sometimes a whole anecdote or story is inserted to illustrate a point. But below this light, shimmering surface lies a deep pathos, a sharp awareness of the misery and evil in the world, and of the frustration that inevitably accompanies the search for happiness in worldly goods. This pessimism is transcended, however, by a faith not imposed by sheer will power or by a deliberate blindness to reality, but by a discovery in this pessimism itself, of the key to a deeper happier truth. Skovoroda's playful style, then, is based on his philosophical insight into reality. His style should not, but can be separated from his philosophy and enjoyed for itself. In fact, since it takes patience and effort to get a coherent grasp of his philosophy, it is inevitable that his works, once they are translated from his rather archaic 18th-century Russian into modern languages and become available not only to scholars but also to the general public, be read for sheer enjoyment rather than for their philosophical content. It is legitimate to ask why it is so difficult to extract his philosophical teachings from his writings. I think that the answer lies in at least three basic qualities of Skovoroda's style.

      The first reason is both a matter of style and of [4] fundamental philosophical conviction; namely, symbolism. The sensible image which points to a deeper, hidden meaning is the fundamental device of expression in Skovoroda' s works.

His philosophy to a considerable degree is a philosophy of images. His concepts almost never are separated from sensible presentations. He understood, it seems that the imagination is one of the refreshing elements that gives flesh and blood to thought.l

      Skovoroda seems to limit intentionally the statement of his thought in abstract concepts, although it is impossible to avoid this altogether. Nevertheless, while most philosophers omit imagery or use it merely for stylistic reasons and rely on well-established concepts to convey their thought, Skovoroda usually states a thought in philosophical concepts as briefly as possible and then restates it and develops it at length by means of various symbols.

      This style of expression is not accidental to Skovoroda's way of writing. It is founded on a fundamental philosophical conviction; namely, that the external or the sensible is not a thing in itself but a symbol of a deeper internal non-sensible reality. This dualism of the obvious and the hidden, the insubstantial and the substantial, is basic to Skovoroda's whole metaphysics,2 and to his style of thinking and writing. Ern was one of the first to notice the significance of the symbol in Skovoroda: [5]

The whole remarkable and revolutionary innovation of Skovoroda can be described in one sentence: he consciously reinstated the serious meaning of the symbol and made the symbol one of the central categories of his philosophy.3

      The symbol as a vehicle of philosophical thought has the advantage of bringing color, concreteness, feeling, and life to philosophy. Its disadvantages, however, outweigh this advantage. The symbol makes precision impossible. It invests the thought with ambiguities and reverberating nuances which may be exciting to the literary artist but are baffling to the student of Skovoroda's philosophy. Each symbol can be taken to mean more than one thing, thus making it difficult and sometimes impossible to say categorically what Skovoroda means. Certainly, this style is the very opposite of the rationalistic ideal in style that is aimed at by a Plato, Descartes, or Spinoza. Skovoroda's style is much closer to the style of his favorite book, the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, and the Christian mystics. One thing may be said for the ambiguity of such a style, and that is, that it challenges the student to participate in the creative process, to bring to bear on his interpretation his own experience and his imaginative powers.

      A second difficulty is presented by the frequent contradictions and paradoxes we find in his statements. These contradictions can be classified in two ways. The first category includes contradictions that appear in the same statement or between two adjacent statements. These are obviously intentional contradictions and they are essential [6] to Skovoroda's dualistic interpretation of reality. He sees two antithetical principles in all being and tries to harmonize them in a higher unity that would demonstrate how they are related and how they are necessary to the whole.4 Too frequently, however, his contradictions are merely stated and abandoned without any reconciliation between them. This type of dialectical thought has a long established tradition in philosophy, from the Greeks, to the Fathers of the Church and the medieval scholastics, so that it can be easily accepted and interpreted. The more difficult type of contradictions falls into the second category. These appear not to be intentional. They occur between widely separated statements that deal with precisely the same problem in a completely different way. Sometimes the two positions disagree but can be reconciled. Sometimes, though rarely, they are flatly contradictory. In such a case the doctrine that does not accord with Skovoroda's thought as a whole must be rejected. Such difficulties are understandable if one bears in mind that Skovoroda wrote his dialogues through a span of about twenty years.

      A third shortcoming of Skovoroda's exposition of his philosophy lies in its fragmentary, unsystematized character. He deals with a problem here, and another problem there, but nowhere does he bring the various solutions to the questions he raises together and systematize them into one whole. Thus, though the previous two difficulties can be overcome, and Skovoroda's particular doctrines can be clearly and [7] precisely formulated by the interpreter, there still remains the problem of unifying all these doctrines, without arbitrarily rejecting any one of them. There is an amazing synthesis of Greek and Christian teachings in his writings, though it is not easy to discover it. It is to this lack of systematization by the philosopher himself, that the variety of greatly divergent interpretations of his philosophy as a whole can be attributed. Some of these interpretations obviously ignore various doctrines that are discordant with their point of view. But besides harmonizing all the doctrines, we are faced with another task -- that of assigning primacy to some one of them and organizing the whole system around it. On this score Skovoroda's unsystematic exposition leads also to various conflicting views. I now turn to a brief account of the various interpretations of Skovoroda's philosophy, their merits and deficiencies. [8]



1. F. Kudrinski, "Filosof bez sistemy" [Philosopher without a System], Kievskaia starina, 60 (Kiev, 1893), p. 271.

2. For this reason I shall sometimes refer to his metaphysics as a symbolist ontology.

3. V. F. Ern, Grigorii Savvich Skovoroda: zhizn i ucheniye (Gregory Savich Skovoroda: Life and Teaching) (Moscow: Put, 1912), p, 223.

4. D. Chyzhevskyi, Filosofiya H. S. Skovorody (The Philosophy of G. S. Skovoroda) (Warsaw: Shevchenko Scientific Society, 1934), p. 9. [9]