Faced with the prospect of a bleak and dark Ukrainian winter, I decided to learn something about Hryhorii Skovoroda. Who is or was he, you might ask? Well, he was a philosopher of Ukrainian Cossack origin who also apparently composed liturgy in Church Slavic, although I could not find any examples of his liturgical compositions. I did find a version of his poem De Libertate sung to music, although I wasn’t hugely enamoured by it.
Skovoroda was born into a parastate within the Russian Empire called the Cossack Hetmanate, a sort of autonomous community of Cossacks in the Zaporizhzhia region with its own legal and administrative systems. He lived from 1722 to 1794, which was quite a long time by the standards of the age. He renounced material wellbeing, living a monastic existence and engaged in study while travelling through free Ukraine (those parts of Ukraine in which the Russian Empire’s writ did not extend by reason of Cossack autonomy and the like). He wrote in Ukrainian and also in Church Slavonic, and developed his own distinctive branch of humanist philosophy which was not much published in his lifetime because he was writing in the context of Orthodox Church domination of philosophy. Most ecclesiastical philosophy was based around the scholastic tradition, which involved bending the ideas of Aristotelean ethics with mainstream religious observance. Skovoroda stood in opposition to this tradition, focusing upon altruism, equality as an inherent good, and freedom of thought and actions. The Church didn’t think much of these ideas, which were perceived as undermining ecclesiastical authority.
Skovoroda was known by his peers as a Socratic philosopher, and he was even referred to by the title of “Socrates”. He was a natural teacher, and he professed the value of ignorance about the self. He was a profound sceptic, doubting the established Church norms and seeking to acquire knowledge from first principles rather than imagined institutional precepts. This quality he shared with all philosophers of substance throughout the history of the discipline.
Skovoroda’s works seem to have been limited in content, and certainly far less than I myself have written. I have struggled to find translations of his limited textual output into English, and I have discovered only one. It is a translation of his Socratic discourse entitled A Conversation Among Five Travellers Concerning Life’s True Happiness, and I cannot even establish from when it dates or where it was first published. It is extremely difficult to obtain information about Skovoroda’s written works and for that reason his precise beliefs and views remain shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless some good-hearted souls have translated this work into English and a link to their translation appears below. I commend it to all those trying to understand through philosophy the key to the Ukrainian soul.
In this work, Skovoroda espouses almost hedonistic principles, but with respect and decency towards others, and with liberal values and tolerance of diversity. Skovoroda develops his own distinctive Socratic dialogue to promote western humanistic values of the kind that we recognise today, and in this sense he is well in advance of his times. Although a profoundly obscure character outside Ukrainian intellectual circles, Skovoroda was an approximate contemporary of such European philosophical giants as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and one can perceive within the limited set of writings that I have been able to peruse that were written under his name a sense of the Enlightenment pursuit of rational ideals of human happiness and satisfaction and decency towards others that were and remain such compelling concepts in contemporary modernism in western philosophy. I am quite satisfied that Skovoroda represents a consistent theme in western philosophical thinking towards modernist goals from the Enlightenment period to the present day.
In this regard, Skovoroda ran quite contrary to the Russian imperial political-philosophical cynicism that granted paramount weight to pressure, force, domination and suppression of others. Although the Russians have on occasion tried to embrace Skovoroda as one of their own intellectuals, in point of fact he stands in opposition to the predominant Russian social and political trends of the time, that have fed through to the present day, namely the glorification of power and ruthlessness at the expense of the Enlightenment values of the pursuit of rational politics and, in Kant’s words, perpetual peace.
Speaking personally, the most intriguing thing I found about Skovoroda’s biography was the circumstances of his death. In November 1974, anticipating the oncoming cruel Ukrainian winter, he went to a friend’s house in a village in what is now Kharkiv Oblast in northeastern Ukraine and told him that he had come to stay permanently. He then spent the next three days in the garden. Not wanting to inconvenience his host, hen was digging his own grave. After having finished the job, he promptly did what was appropriate and he died. He asked that the epitaph on his gravestone be this:
The world tried to capture me, but it didn’t succeed.
The village in which he died was renamed Skovorodinovka, in his honour. It was a beautiful place, just a few kilometres from the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine, with a much-admired museum complex in honour of Skovoroda erected by the Soviet regime. And then, in the early part of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Russians blew the museum up and thoroughly destroyed the village that had been been maintained as a testament to the philosopher commonly admired by Ukrainian and Russian intellectuals alike. They put a missile through the museum: just the sort of damned thing the Russians would do, who give not a toss about the cultural institutions and artefacts they have built up and will carelessly destroy such as they construct. They are cultural barbarians and I am disgusted.
Nevertheless, defiantly, notwithstanding the destruction engaged upon the museum and complex in his honour by Russian rocket attacks, the statue of Skovoroda survived, standing proudly amid the ruins of the Russian cultural carnage. Now Skovoroda’s image emblazons the 500 Gryvna banknote, and he is hailed and admired as one of the most important figures in the Ukrainian intellectual movement that has sustained Ukrainian culture to the present day through her historical travails. Every time Ukrainians go to the bank machine, they are reminded of the legacy of Skovoroda, and no quantity of Russian missiles or artillery can undermine that.