02 December 2022
He lived as he taught, and taught as he lived: Ukrainian philosopher and poet Hryhorii Skovoroda
On the night of 7 May 2022 a Russian missile completely destroyed a historic 18th-century building in the small Ukrainian village of Skovorodynivka, situated in a rural area, far from any infrastructure. This building housed the National Literary-Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda – a Ukrainian poet and philosopher whose creative legacy consists of philosophical treatises, poems, fables, parables, and translations from Plutarch and Cicero. The house was where Skovoroda worked in the last years of his life. There he died.
The National Literary-Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda after a Russian missile strike
Meanwhile this year we mark the 300th anniversary of Hryhorii Skovoroda’s birth on 3 December 1722 to a Cossack family in the small Ukrainian town of Chornukhy. It was a transition period for Ukraine and Ukrainian independence when some old traditions of the Hetman state, which had a wide autonomy, still existed. But this autonomy had been gradually limited by the Russian empire. Just before Skovoroda’s birth Ukrainian printing houses were forbidden by decrees of the Russian Tsar (1720) and the Synod (1721) to publish anything except reprints of old editions which were not supposed to differ in language and even accents from Russian. Certainly, none of Skovoroda’s works were published during his lifetime and thus could not become part of the scholarly discourse of that period.
H. Luk’íanov. Portrait of Hryhorii Skovoroda, 1794
At the age of 11 Skovoroda was enrolled in the famed Kyiv-Mohyla Academy where he studied poetics, rhetoric and philosophy, as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew; he read Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, and other classical authors.
From early childhood Skovoroda was musically gifted and he carried a love for music and church singing through his whole life. He played the flute, violin, bandura and harp. Later, in one of his parables Skovoroda wrote: “Music is a great medicine in sorrow, comfort in sadness, fun in happiness.”
At the end of 1745, eager to see foreign lands and to get to know a wider ‘circle of sciences’ Skovoroda travelled to Tokai (Hungary). In the following five years he visited Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, possibly Rome, Venice, and Florence, where he met with scholars, studied philosophy and improved his knowledge of foreign languages. Biographers believe that he also attended German universities, in particular the University of Halle. The German roots of his mystical philosophy were thoroughly studied by Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, one of the best interpreters of Skovoroda’s life and thoughts. Chyzhevs’kyi’s book The Philosophy of H. S. Skovoroda was published in 1934 in Warsaw and also included an analysis of Skovoroda’s poetry. The well-known Ukrainian emigré poet Ievhen Malaniuk wrote that it is difficult to imagine the spiritual life of his generation without this book.
Cover of Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, Skovoroda: Dichter, Denker, Mystiker, Harvard series in Ukrainian studies; vol. 18 (Munich, 1974) X.0800/445.(18.)
Chyzhevs’kyi also prepared a German edition of this book. It was supposed to appear in 1946 but was not published until 1974. Skovoroda: Dichter, Denker, Mystiker is different from the Warsaw edition. The author enhanced the biographical materials and added quotes from the texts of German mystics.
After returning to Kyiv in October 1750 Skovoroda taught poetics at the Pereiaslav Collegium, again studied at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and from 1753–1759 worked as a tutor. Then he taught poetics, syntax, Greek, and ethics at the Kharkiv Collegium. His last attempt to teach there in 1768–1769 ended in a conflict with the bishop because Skovoroda’s course on the catechism differed from what was generally accepted. After that he left all positions and became a traveling philosopher and poet.
As a philosopher, he was not so much concerned with the creation of a general world-view. He reflected on ethical issues and mainly focused on the philosophy of happiness, what happiness is and whether everyone can achieve it. Freedom and happiness through knowing oneself were key themes for Skovoroda. He was looking for a new, better world and taught that there is no need to seek happiness in other countries, in other centuries. It is everywhere and always with us; as a fish is in water, so we are in it, and it is near us looking for ourselves. It is nowhere because it is everywhere, similar to sunshine – only open your soul.
Cover of Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Garden of Divine Songs and Collected Poetry … translated by Michael M. Naydan (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.13622
All of Skovoroda’s writings were preserved in manuscripts. They comprise a collection of poems, The Garden of Divine Songs, fables (Kharkiv Fables) and philosophical treatises often written in the form of dialogues. Only after his death was a dialogue ‘Narcissus. Know thyself’ partly published in St Petersburg in a collection, without specifying the author’s name. The first full edition of works (in two volumes) appeared as late as in 1961 during a short cultural thaw.
The most comprehensive and authentic collection of Skovoroda’s works was published in independent Ukraine under the guidance of the outstanding researcher Leonid Ushkalov. All texts were checked against their manuscripts and quotations were correctly distinguished from the actual author’s text. A detailed and professional commentary adds value to this edition.
At the British Library the most complete collection of Skovoroda’s works (translated into modern Ukrainian) is the two-volume edition prepared by the T. Shevchenko Institute of Literature in Kyiv (1994).
In his poetry Skovoroda developed the same philosophical themes as in his treatises and dialogues. But in the poems they often sound more expressive and emotional. In the ‘Eleventh Song’ from the collection The Garden of Divine Songs he wrote “The spirit in man is an abyss, wider than all the waters and heavens”. Skovoroda was the last and the most prominent poet of the Ukrainian literary baroque, a style characterised by the emphatic use of metaphors and symbols, a variety of rhythms and stanzas.
Wandering folk minstrels sang his poems as songs. They were translated into different languages. The British Library has a Polish translation of some poems made by Jerzy Litwiniuk in an anthology of Ukrainian poetry.
Cover of Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Complete Correspondence of Hryhory Skovoroda, Philospher and Poet, translated by Eleonora Adams and Michael M. Naydan ; edited by Liliana M. Naydan; guest introduction by Leonid Rudnytzky (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.21042
A special part of Skovoroda’s legacy are his letters. Most of them (79 letters) were addressed to his best friend Mykhaĭlo Kovalyns’kyi. They were written mainly in Latin and resemble the ‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’ by Roman philosopher Seneca or the Earl of Chesterfield’s letters to his son. Skovoroda advised his friend to read good books, to look for real friends, to listen to exquisite music and to look at the theatre of everyday life from above.
It was Kovalyns’kyi who wrote the first biography of Skovoroda in 1795, just after Skovoroda’s death. However, for almost a century this invaluable source existed only in manuscript and was known only to the philosopher’s friends and admirers. Hryhorii Danylevs’kyi referred to this manuscript in his detailed biography of Skovoroda in 1862. However, Kovalyns’kyi’s memoir was only published as a separate edition in 1894, in Kharkiv.
Cover of Leonid Ushkalov, Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda vid A do IA (L’viv, 2019) YF.2019.b.2030
The first modern biography based on different archival sources, which helped to decode many controversial and unclear facts, was published by Leonid Makhnovets (1972). It was very important because various legends had arisen about Skovoroda, even during his own lifetime. The modern Ukrainian writer Valeriĭ Shevchuk wrote a comprehensive biography combined with an analysis of Skovoroda’s poetry, fables and letters (2008). Leonid Ushkalov’s scrupulous biography (2017) contains numerous references to works, people and the environment in which Skovoroda lived. It creates a vivid image of 18th-century Ukraine. Ushkalov also wrote a monograph on the literature and philosophy of the Ukrainian Baroque, largely based on the works of Skovoroda, and compiled a beautiful illustrated edition for children (2019).
The British Library contains books in different languages about Skovoroda, including a monograph by Elisabeth von Erdmann, a German professor of Slavic Studies, which places him in the tradition of philosophia perennis. This enabled a transparent and coherent reading of his writings in the contexts of the Baroque and Enlightenment eras and of Europe’s cultural and religious history.
Cover of Elisabeth von Erdmann, Unähnliche Ähnlichkeit: die Onto-Poetik des ukrainischen Philosophen Hryhorij Skovoroda (1722-1794). Bausteine zur slavischen Philologie und Kulturgeschichte. Reihe A, Slavistische Forschungen; n.F., Bd. 49 (Cologne, 2005) ZA.9.a.4768(49)
As well as his writings another no less valuable part of Skovoroda’s legacy was his way of life, with conscious rejection of the temptations of the world. He lived very simply, and had no family or permanent home. He gave priority to personal spiritual freedom, taught a true Christian attitude to life and showed how to be satisfied with the simple joys of life. In his own life Skovoroda followed what he taught. It can be said of him: “He lived as he taught, and taught as he lived”.
Nadiia Strishenets, Leading Researcher at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine and British Academy Fellow
Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, Filʹosofiia H.S. Skovorody = La philosophie de Grégoire Skovoroda (Warsaw, 1934) Ac.1147.d.
Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi, Skovoroda: Dichter, Denker, Mystiker, Harvard series in Ukrainian studies; vol. 18 (Munich, 1974) X.0800/445.(18.)
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, Tvory u dvokh tomakh, ed. Mykola Zhulynsʹkyĭ et al. Kyïvsʹka biblioteka davnʹoho ukraïnsʹkoho pysʹmenstva. Studiï; t. 5-6 (Kyiv, 2005) ZF.9.a.3589
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Garden of Divine Songs and Collected Poetry … translated by Michael M. Naydan ; with an introduction by Valery Shevchuk ; translations edited by Olha Tytarenko (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.13622
Od Iłariona do Skoworody: antologia poezji ukraińskiej XI-XVIII w.. ed. Włodzimierz Mokry (Kraków, 1996) YF.2010.a.22281
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, The Complete Correspondence of Hryhory Skovoroda, Philospher and Poet, translated by Eleonora Adams and Michael M. Naydan ; edited by Liliana M. Naydan; guest introduction by Leonid Rudnytzky (London, 2016) YKL.2018.a.21042
Orest Khaliavskiĭ [i.e. Hryhorii Danylevs’kyi]. ‘Skovoroda, Ukrainskiĭ pisatel XVIII veka’, Osnova, 1862, No. 8, pp. 1–39 and No. 9, pp. 39–96
Hryhorii Skovoroda: Vybrani tvory v dvokh tomakh / [Uporiadkuvannia, pidhotovka tekstiv ta prymitky B. A. Derkacha.] (Kyiv, 1972) X.989/26377
Leonid Makhnovets, Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda (Kyiv, 1972) X.519/15878.
Valeriĭ Shevchuk, Piznanyĭ i nepiznanyĭ sfinks: Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda suchasnymy ochyma: rozmysly (Kyiv, 2008) YF.2008.a.38916
Leonid Ushkalov, Lovytva nevlovnoho ptakha: zhyttia Hryhoriia Skovorody (Kyiv, 2017) YF.2017.a.17493
Leonid Ushkalov, Literatura i filosofiia: doba ukraïnsʹkoho baroko. Sloboz︠h︡ansʹkyĭ svit; 13 (Kharkiv, 2019) YF.2020.a.8355
Leonid Ushkalov, Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda vid A do IA (L’viv, 2019) YF.2019.b.2030
Elisabeth von Erdmann, Unähnliche Ähnlichkeit: die Onto-Poetik des ukrainischen Philosophen Hryhorij Skovoroda (1722-1794). Bausteine zur slavischen Philologie und Kulturgeschichte. Reihe A, Slavistische Forschungen; n.F., Bd. 49 (Cologne, 2005) ZA.9.a.4768(49)
Skovoroda, philosophe Ukrainien... : colloque tenu le 18 janvier 1973 à l'Institut d'études slaves de Paris à l'occasion du 250e anniversaire de la naissance de Skovoroda (1722-1972). Collection historique de l’Institut d’études slaves; 23) (Paris, 1976) Ac:8808.d/2
Hryhorij Savyč Skovoroda: an anthology of critical articles, ed. Richard H. Marshall, Jr. and Thomas E. Bird (Edmonton, 1994) YC.2019.a.10287
Hryhoriĭ Skovoroda, 1722-1794: bibliohrafichnyĭ pokazhchyk (Kyiv, 2002) YF.2004.a.2767
Hryhorii Skovoroda, Povna akademichna zbirka tvoriv, ed. by Leonid Ushkalov (Kharkiv, 2010). YF.2012.a.18740