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Skovoroda, Hryhorii Savych (Grigorii Savvich) (1722–1794)


Grigorii (Hryhorii) Savvich Skovoroda, the Ukrainian poet, fabulist, philosopher, and religious thinker, was educated at the Kiev Theological Academy. As a young man he traveled in eastern and western Europe and paid brief visits to St. Petersburg and Moscow, but eighteenth-century European culture left few traces on his thought. He taught, mainly literature, at Pereiaslavl' (Pereiaslavl'-Khmel'nitskii) about 1755 and at the Khar'kov (Khar'kiv) Collegium from about 1759 to 1765, but he fell out with his ecclesiastical superiors and was dismissed. He spent his last thirty years as a mendicant scholar and "teacher of the people."

Skovoroda's disciple, M. I. Kovalinski, has left an engaging account of Skovoroda's manner of life:

He dressed decently but simply; he did not eat meat or fish, not from superstitious belief but because of his own inner constitution; he allowed himself no more than four [hours a day] for sleep; he was always gay, good-natured, easy-going, quick, restrained, abstemious, and content with all things, benign, humble before all men, willing to speak so long as he was not required to ; he visited the sick, consoled the grieving, shared his last crust with the needy, chose and loved his friends for the qualities of their hearts, was pious without superstition, learned without ostentation, complaisant without flattery. ("The Life of Gregory Skovoroda," translated by G. L. Kline, in Russian Philosophy, Vol. I, p. 20)

Skovoroda aspired to be a "Socrates in Russia" both as a moralist, a gadfly provoking thoughtless and selfish men to scrutinize their lives, and as an intellectual forerunner, clearing the path for the more profound and systematic philosophizing of a future "Russian Plato." In many ways he was not only the last, but also the first, of the medievals in Russia. His metaphysics and philosophical anthropology are explicitly Christian and Neoplatonic, and his philosophical idiom is studded with Greek and Church Slavonic terms and constructions. He knew both German and Latin (he left over a hundred Latin letters and poems) and had some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, but he wrote all of his philosophical works in Russian. As it happened, few of his own philosophic coinages were accepted by later Russian thinkers.

All of Skovoroda's philosophical and theological writings are in dialogue form. They are Socratic in method and in theme, genuinely dramatic and dialogic, written with wit, imagination, and moral intensity. They offer an acute critique of both ontological materialism and sense-datum empiricism, and they outline a dualistic cosmology with a pantheistic (or "panentheistic") and mystical coloring. One of Skovoroda's favorite metaphors for the relation of appearance to reality is that of a tree's many passive, shifting shadows to the firm, single, living tree itself.

In deliberate opposition to the Baconian summons to "know nature in order to master it," Skovoroda urged individuals to "know themselves in order to master themselves" and to put aside desires for comfort, security, fame, and knowledge. His position is thus Stoic as well as Socratic. Seneca, no less than Socrates, would have savored the epitaph which Skovoroda wrote for himself: "The world set a trap for me, but it did not catch me."

See also Appearance and Reality; Neoplatonism; Pantheism; Plato; Russian Philosophy; Socrates; Stoicism.


works by skovoroda

Hryhori Skovoroda: Tvori v Dvokh Tomakh (Grigorii Skovoroda: works in two volumes), edited by O. I. Biletski, D. K. Ostryanin, and P. M. Popov. Kiev, 1961. Text in Russian and Latin; introduction, commentary, notes, and translation of Latin text in Ukrainian.

"A Conversation among Five Travellers concerning Life's True Happiness" (abridged translation by George L. Kline of "Razgovor pyati putnikov o istinnom shchastii v zhizni," Tvori v Dvokh Tomakh, Vol. I, 207247). In Russian Philosophy, edited by James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan, Mary-Barbara Zeldin, and George L. Kline. 3 vols. Vol. I, 2657. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1965.

works on skovoroda

Chyzhevsky, D. Filosofiia H. S. Skovorody (The philosophy of G. S. Skovoroda). Warsaw, 1934. In Ukrainian.

Ern, V. Grigorii Savvich Skovoroda: Zhizn' i uchenie (Grigorii Savvich Skovoroda: his life and teaching). Moscow, 1912.

Zenkovsky, V. V. Istoriia russkoi filosofii, 2 vols. Paris: YMCA Press, 19481950. Translated by George L. Kline as A History of Russian Philosophy, 2 vols., 5369. New York: Columbia University Press, 1953.

George L. Kline (1967)

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