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The world tried to catch him but failed — Hryhoriy Skovoroda, the 18th-century Ukrainian philosopher


Once upon a time there lived a philosopher who kept moving from one place in this world to another, never staying anywhere for long. In his wayfaring he passed through many places of the most scenic kind, but the beauty of nature did not seem to give joy to his heart — he found that so many of the people he met were devious and sly, thinking only about their own petty gain, bodily enjoyment and lust for power, which, in its turn, would give further chances for more gain and more revelry. Everyone regularly went to church, but only a few lived their lives in search of the Kingdom of God. “How many pious words have been thrown into us? But what’s the good of them? Only confusion,” mused the philosopher. “We give so much thought to everyday things and worries, without caring for our soul, forgetting that it is from the soul that every word and every deed of ours come,” he preached. “Take care, first, of your soul — it’s so much more important what’s inside you rather than what’s on the outside”; “Look for a true home to go to”; “The Kingdom of God is inside you” — were the itinerant photosphere’s typical words of wisdom given to the people he met during his wanderings. His name was Hryhoriy Skovoroda.


Hryhoriy Skovoroda lived his life on earth in the eighteenth century — he was born into the family of a poor Cossack in 1722. He was a precocious child and showed an aptitude as well as a burning desire for learning at an early age. After a village school, he went to study at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, then the leading higher educational establishment in all of Eastern Europe. Upon graduation, he began his travels which took him to St Petersburg in Russia (where he spent two years singing in a court choir), then to Austria, Bohemia, Poland, Italy and Germany. Having spent three years on the road, he returned to Ukraine where he taught at schools in Pereyaslav and Kharkiv, worked as a tutor at a private household. In 1769, Skovoroda stopped teaching, never to pick it up again, and until his death spent the next twenty five years of his life wayfaring. He walked through muck of eastern Ukraine, went all the way to the Azov Sea, and then to the lands of Voronizhchyna and Kurshchyna. He never stopped writing and reading, and he kept giving his philosophical essays and dialogues to friends as gifts. In his philosophical dialogues, the people he knew in real life as Mykhaylo, Panas or Ivan, acquired the names of Cleop, Filon or Quadrat with whom he raised the most profound issues of human existence, morals and God. His talks with ordinary people and his desire to express the abstract and complex notions and ideas in comprehensible terms sharpened his writing talent and his own philosophical perceptions. His works were copied and sent all around the country but not a single page of his writings was published during his lifetime. In fact, it was the philosopher himself who prevented his works from being published. He regarded them as his family, his “sons” and “daughters;” he gave them names as to living beings, and either kept with him or, if he sent them to friends, issued warnings: “I’m sending You a daughter of mine… but only on condition that You keep her [the manuscript, that is — tr.] always at your side and never let her out of your house. In addition to philosophical writings, Skovoroda wrote poetry (Sahd Bozhestvennykh Pisen — “The Garden of Divine Songs” collection) and fables (Bayky Kharkivski — (“Fables from Kharkiv”)), in which he fused the Aesopian genre with folk humour. The philosopher died in 1794 in the village of Ivanivka (now Skovorodynivka) in the land of Kharkivshchyna.

The essence of Skovoroda’s spiritual life can be described in a few words: he spent his life on the road in search of truth and wisdom. “Everyone born in this world is a wayfarer — some are blind, and others are enlightened,” he wrote. “I gave so much time to learning before I began teaching others.” It was not bookish knowledge that he sought. A keen intellectual, a man of encyclopedic knowledge, an admirer of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Seneca, an avid reader of the works of Spinoza and Descartes, a contemporary of Kant, he did not seek to turn his brain into a receptacle for storing the wisdom of the ancients and of contemporaries. “Wisdom does not come from books — books result from wisdom. All the sciences and arts produce the fruit of correct practical behaviour. And, preaching the word of God’s truth, affirm this truth by the miracles of sinless life,” he preached — and practised what he preached, never wavering. “He’s always cheerful, peppy, vivacious, buoyant and at the same time reserved, chaste, pure, content, good natured, silver-tongued; he could draw a moral from anything. He was compassionate and caring, he tended the sick, soothed the despairing, shared what little he had with the dispossessed; he appreciated friends for their kind hearts; he was pious without being sanctimonious; he was learned without being conceited; he was courteous without being obsequious” — thusly wrote about Skovoroda his friend and pupil Mykhaylo Kovalynsky, the philosopher’s first biographer.

Skovoroda’s contemporaries were very much impressed by his sharp mind and his sharp words but his moral message was appreciated by but a few. Still fewer were those who could grasp and support his choice of the life style. Here we come to something which is very important in our assessment of Skovoroda’s life and philosophy. The thing is that much of Ukraine at that time still smarted from the defeat Hetman Mazepa and the Swedish king Charles XII suffered at Poltava earlier in the eighteenth century; the defeat led to Russia’s growing dominance over Ukraine and swiftly diminishing Ukrainian autonomy (the most active anti-Russian Cossack leaders had either emigrated or were physically destroyed). Those who had stayed, betrayed their ideals of Cossack freedom and chose instead to seek wealth and power; they began looking for their imaginary (and in some cases quite real) Polish aristocratic roots and were in a hurry to fit into the top rungs of the then Russian Imperial social hierarchy. Looking at this eighteenth-century rat race, Skovoroda said, “To be truly happy, you don’t need any of this.” At the time when the whole world was convinced that happiness lay in having all one wanted to excess, Skovoroda preached “curbing of desires, getting rid of everything except for the most basic things; not succumbing to whims and caprices; diligence and good work; performing duties that God has given us to assume fully conscientiously, rather than for fear of punishment.”

Skovoroda’s natural inclination for asceticism had been enhanced by poverty that he had lived in since his childhood. “Destitution worked at his heart making it open and compassionate; it had sown the seeds of tolerance in him, and his life, graced with the fruit of this tolerance made him wise and happy,” wrote Skovoroda’s biographer Mykhaylo Kovalynsky. Most of those who had begun their life in poverty, when given a chance to make themselves rich, used all the methods available to them for getting from rags to riches as fast as possible, disregarding their convictions and moral precepts — and Skovoroda preached something entirely different. Those who did not understand or rejected his teachings accused him of all kinds of sins and heresies. Even his refusal to eat meat or drink wine were the cause for suspicions. He was accused of blasphemy because he called gold and valuables — created by God! — worthless and harmful. He was accused of being misanthropic because he shunned people and did not seek a secure place in society, preferring to live in the wild rather at “decent homes.” Kovalynsky who wrote a biography of Skovoroda, using Skovoroda’s own descriptions of his own attitudes to life and his own observations, probably came very close to describing what kind of a person Skovoroda was: “His destiny began preparing him for what awaited him in his later life steeling his heart against injustice that he was subjected to all his life long. While he was without a home to live in, without money to buy food, without clothes to keep him warm he was never without hope. His spirit kept him safely away from temptations and earthly desires, and making him a stranger, a wanderer and wayfarer, it gave him the heart of a Citizen of the World who, possessing no family, no estate, no roof above his head, yet possessed the ability to enjoy Nature, the natural things, to share the joys of the simple and carefree — the joys that come from the simple mind and carefree spirit engaged in the search of eternal treasures.”

How can a person whose goal in life is to seek the truth and shape his life in accordance with the moral precepts very much at variance with what is practised in the world around him, live without going into an open conflict with this world which is full of evil? How can he defend himself against it if he is learned, intellectual, sensitive but poor? Only with the help of sarcasm, irony and words of wisdom. The words used both for defence and attack. No wonder he was looked upon as a buffoon, merry-andrew — and it was behind the mask of buffoonery that free-thinkers used to hide for centuries. “If the heart can say secret things, then it can laugh secretly too,” said Skovoroda. Only a limited number of people knew Skovoroda as a distinguished philosopher, as a refined poet and as an accomplished musician but all across Ukraine he was known as a person of a sharp wit and caustic tongue that lashed at the hypocrites and abusers of power. He was widely known as “a Diogenes from Kharkiv.”

When Catherine II, the Russian Empress, this “northern Semiramis,” whom Voltaire, the smooth-tongued flatterer and slyboots and the eighteenth-century “god of philosophy,” called “the thinker on the throne,” to her face and behind her back referred to her as “Cateau” (“little Cathy”) learnt something of “the wise man from Ukraine,” she took an interest in him and sent him an invitation to come and live in St Petersburg, she received a rhyming reply from Skovoroda: “I care for the wild and the grasses’ down much more / Than for living in comfort close to the crown.”

When once Skovoroda was spotted in a crowd by the governor of the land of Slobozhanshchyna General Shcherbinin who had heard many stories about the itinerant philosopher and wanted to make his acquaintance, a servant was sent to fetch Skovoroda and bring him face to face with the powerful, despotic official of a violent temper, — “His Excellency Governor Shcherbinin wants to see you!” — the philosopher refused to follow the servant saying that he did not have the honour of having met His Excellency the Governor. Surprisingly enough, the hot-tempered governor did not throw a tantrum and changed the phrasing of his request to “Yevdokym Shcherbinin, an amateur musician, will feel honoured if the philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda could find a minute to talk to him,” Skovoroda replied that he would gladly talk to Yevdokym who is reported to be not a bad man and quite a decent musician. There were many stories similar to these circulating in Ukraine and one cannot help wondering why in those cruel times Skovoroda did not get severely punished for his disregard of the authority. He was tolerated and allowed to say things nobody else would be allowed to utter. Was it because the eighteenth century was tolerant to those who were looked upon as extravagant characters? Or maybe because this modest man wearing the simplest of clothes had something in him that distinguished him as “ a man of God,” a sort of a Biblical prophet? Some of those who occupied high social positions appreciated Skovoroda so much that they became his friends and protectors. They appreciated Skovoroda as a person of exceptional mind and pure soul rather than just a sharp wit.

Skovoroda built his own philosophy on the basis of the ancient wisdom of Kyivan Rus, philosophical findings of the Renaissance, and shaped his philosophical dialogues on the pattern suggested by Plato. The central issue of Skovoroda’s philosophy was Man, his existence in this world, his happiness and looking for the ways that may lead him to happiness. Though Skovoroda used the Aristotelian kind of argumentation, his philosophy has borrowed more from the traditions of Ukrainian philosophical culture than from any other philosophical tradition. Skovoroda interprets existence as one’s destiny that has to be lived, and the philosophical conclusions are reached through the assessment and search of one’s own sense of life.

In the times of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine, a thinker was the one who sought the truth and then applied his knowledge of the truth, derived from various sources, books included, to his own life as the guideline. Such local and Byzantine thinkers and religious philosophers as Volodymyr Monomakh, Clement of Ochrida, John of Damascus put forward the moral aspects in their philosophy as guiding principles of life. For them the heart was the symbol of special importance, a point in which the light of God’s grace and the abysmal darkness of evil fought their battle. And for Skovoroda the heart was “the shrine of Supreme Grace.” “No one should expect happiness to come from high sciences, or from high posts or from high revenues… There is no happiness anywhere in the world except in the heart. Happiness comes from the heart, the heart comes from the world, the world comes from the calling, and the calling comes from God. God is the ultimate end, there is nowhere to go from Him. He is the source of all consolation and relief, and there will be no end to His Kingdom.” For Skovoroda it was always the Bible that was The Book of the books that could show the true way to God. When the governor of Kharkiv once asked Skovoroda what, in his opinion, was the main thing that the Bible taught, Skovoroda replied, “It teaches the true things about the heart. Cook books teach us how to satisfy the stomach; books on hunting teach us how to hunt beasts; books on fashion teach us how to look fashionable, and the Bible teaches us how to make our hearts noble.”

Skovoroda found his calling in trying to teach all those whom he met during his wanderings “the true things.” Among those he talked to were all kinds of people, many of them not at all “nice, good and pleasant to talk to,” but he always did his best “to inspire the love of truth, rejection of evil and love of honesty.” He was an enlightener and looked upon enlightening as his calling. His own needs he limited to “being left alone” and to “getting a piece of bread” and he never stopped thanking “merciful God for making the attainment of what is necessary easy, and for making everything that is hard to get unnecessary.” He carried what he needed with him; Nature was his home, and he could always find a quiet place to be alone and indulge in “thinking about God”.

Skovoroda was an accomplished musician. He could play the violin, bandura and gusli (ancient stringed instruments). He not only played music — he composed music. He wrote music for Psalms and his own poetry. Many of friends, academics, pupils, fathers superior and patrons urged him to settle down and devote himself to writing books and music, or spending his days in quiet prayers at a monastery. They tried to lure him into accepting their invitations by saying that he could become “the pillar of the church” or “of the community of learned people.” But Skovoroda invariably had the following answer to all the propositions: “I do not want to become another pillar, I don’t want to join the crowds of the likes of you, of whom there’s enough in the Temple of God. The world is trying to catch people with all kinds of nets, throwing riches, honours, fame, friendships, protections, gains, earthly joys and piousness over them — of these nets the most dangerous is the last one. Blessed is the one who covers his happiness with God’s will rather than with the chasuble.”

Skovoroda never succumbed to any pressure and remained free of vanity and worldly care to his dying day which came on October 29 1794 at the estate of Ivanivka which belonged to the landowner Kovalevsky. The dying philosopher asked to bury him at a high spot near a grove and to have this written on the grave stone: “The world’s been trying to catch me but failed.”

After his death, Skovoroda remained an odd figure, very much the same as he was during his life. He was praised and vilified. He did not establish a philosophical school, there were no pupils who would carry on making popular his ideas and teaching. The authorities dismissed him as “an oddball,” the scholars looked upon him as a mystic difficult to understand, and the church treated him as a heretic. His message was lost to the cultural elite and the seeds that he had sown gave shoots at the grass-roots level. Skovoroda became a much revered figure in the folklore — a wanderer, a sage, an itinerant musician with a flute and a walking stick, walking from place to place teaching the words of wisdom. Skovoroda appears in many folk legends, anecdotes, jokes and fables.

The generations that have come to pass since his death sought in Skovoroda’s life and writings things that were relevant to their time. A considerable number of Ukrainian and Russian writers and poets sought inspiration in the rich legacy of his life and of his writings — Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Kotlyarevsky, Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, Mykola Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, and Fedor Dostoyevsky. Closer to our times, Ivan Dzyuba, the literary critic, said, “Skovoroda is the leading mind of ours,” and Yuriy Andrukhovych, the remarkable writer of today called Skovoroda “the first Ukrainian hippy.”

Most of what Skovoroda wrote — or maybe almost all of it — has been published, as well as testimonies of his contemporaries. “Accept this little contribution of mine,” says Skovoroda addressing himself to us in the twenty first century from the eighteenth, “Read, ponder, add your own contribution, plant it and let it grow. From that little seed a mighty oak will grow, and then in its shade you’ll discover the whole Universe.”


Natalya Kosmolinska ponders over the philosophical
and moral legacy of the Ukrainian thinker Hryhoriy Skovoroda,
a peripatetic philosopher who practised what he preached.

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