Until the 17th century Ukraine was closely associated with Catholic Poland. When Ukraine became part of Russia in the middle of the 17th century, she brought with her not only Catholic but also Protestant ideas taken from the communication between Kiev's church groups and German centers of Protestantism.
It was against this background that the star of so talented an individual as Grigory Skovoroda began to shine. He was a very religious man and, at the same time, had an unusual sense of internal freedom. He courageously exposed local abuses of the time. In bold, and at times audacious, flights of thought he rose in opposition to traditional church teachings and was absolutely fearless in his fiery pursuit of the truth. With an internal equilibrium between faith and reason, he himself did not differentiate between one and the other, Skovoroda relied upon an "allegorical" method for interpreting the Holy Scriptures. Here he demonstrated much courage, often completely rejecting the literal idea of the Scriptures in the name of an interpretation that seemed to him to be correct.
From his early years he stood out for his love of learning and a "firmness of spirit." He entered the Kiev Academy at the age of 16, but his studies were soon interrupted by a call to join the court choir in St. Petersburg. The young Skovoroda had a magnificent voice and exceptional musical skills. Two years later he returned to Kiev where he finished the Academy as a 28-year-old. Declining a spiritual title, he set out as a church minstrel with a certain General Vishnevsky, who was bound for Hungary on a diplomatic mission. Over a three-year period, Skovoroda visited Hungary, Austria, Poland, Germany and Italy, often traveling by foot. He was extremely well acquainted with the works of the ancient masters and the church fathers. During that period mystics and quietists were active in Germany. Having spent time there, Skovoroda always had a preference for Germany over all other countries, with the exception of his native land.
In 1765, Skovoroda abandoned his service to the church once and for all. This is the point at which the period of his "wandering" began. For the rest of his life Skovoroda no longer had a permanent refuge. "What is life?," he writes. "It is the dream of a Turk ecstatic from opium, a terrible dream causing the head to hurt and the heart to turn cold. What is life? It is wandering experience. I pave a road for myself, not knowing where I am going and why." In these wanderings Skovoroda traveled with a sack on his shoulders as if an indigent "The sack always contained the Bible." His time-tested flute and staff were always with him. Occasionally he visited with his many friends and worshipers for long periods of time; sometimes he left his friends unexpectedly.
Some unseen hand guided him on his path. Thus, when Skovoroda was visiting with friends in Kiev in 1770, he suddenly began to plead that he be allowed to leave Kiev. While in Podol, he suddenly sensed the strong odor of corpses. He fled the city the very next day. Two weeks later a famine broke out in Kiev, and the city was closed.
Skovoroda becomes a philosopher as his religious tribulations require that he do so. He moves from his awareness of Christ to an understanding of man and the world. Skovoroda often experienced a spiritual ascent, a sort of ecstasy. Skovoroda himself writes about one such mystical episode to his young friend Kovalensky: "I went for a walk in the garden. The first sensation that sensed in my heart was a certain lack of restraint, freedom and courage. I felt within myself an exceptional mobility that filled me with incomprehensible power. Some very sweet, momentary outpouring of emotion filled my soul, causing everything within me to burn with fire. The whole world disappeared before me. A single feeling of love, calm and eternity revived me. Tears flowed from my eyes and spread a soothing harmony throughout my being."
In the world of mystical tribulations Skovoroda becomes increasingly convinced that "the entire world is asleep," and its sleep is agonizing. In his songs we come across many judgments about the world's innermost life, which one can only experience through religion. Skovoroda feels deeply the secret sorrow and secret tears of the world.
"This world reveals a magnificently beautiful view
But hidden within it is a vigilant worm
Woe to the world! You show me laughter
Inside you sob secretly with your soul"
Thus, on the soil of religious sentiment, alienation from the world emerges in Skovoroda. Life on earth appears before him in a dual form. The reality of one's being is different on the surface and in its depths. And from this Skovoroda comes to the view that there is awareness coursing along the surface of existence and awareness "of God."
"If you wish to know something in truth," he writes, "first look at the flesh, i.e., on the surface, and you will notice on it traces of God, revealing an unknown and secret wisdom. This is a high level of awareness, the discerning of "God's tracks," is achieved through spiritual insight, but it is attainable by anyone able to free himself from the captivity of sensuality. "If God's spirit has entered your heart," he wrote, "if your eyes are opened by the spirit of truth, you now see everything double; you divide every creature into two parts. When you take a fresh look at God, then you will see everything in Him, as if in a mirror: everything that was always in Him but that you never saw before."
The path to a deeper contemplation of existence needs to be found, first and foremost, within ourselves. Self-awareness, opening within us two "levels" of existence - that is, opening a spiritual life following corporal-psychological tribulations - enables one to see everything in the duality of existence. Therefore, self-awareness is the beginning of wisdom: "Without first taking measure of yourself," observes Skovoroda, "what value will you extract from the knowledge of measuring what is in other beings?" "The seeds of all knowledge are contained within an individual; this is where their secret source resides," Skovoroda asserts. "I know that my body is based on an eternal plan," he writes. "You see within yourself one earthly body but do not see a spiritual body." "Know yourself and understand God as a single endeavor."
Skovoroda frequently equates a "genuine" person (who becomes apparent within us during spiritual guidance) and Christ through thoughts such as this: "When you know yourself well, you will know Christ with just a single glance."
Man's self-adequacy, that is, his acquisition of his own internal self, is the fulfillment of God's wish for him: "All his deeds lie in faith; faith lies in truth; truth in eternity; eternity in immortality; immortality in the beginning, and the beginning in God." Only then does the "world open to your thoughts the temple of serenity and dress your soul in the clothing of joy, satisfies and enriches the heart."
Man does not choose between the righteousness of the Bible and the evil of the empirical world. Skovoroda proceeds from the premise that, selecting himself, a person pursues a course of self-awareness, knowing himself from within and, as the culmination of this course, finds a single, genuine symbolic person. Furthermore, a person has no freedom in selecting himself. Predestination and predetermination of the choice is indeed the very symbolic person Christ in the entire scope of his individual history, each moment of which is symbolic and points to the required path.
In his twilight years, having reached the age of 72, Grigory Savvich Skovoroda was visiting with one of his students. Sometime around evening he took a spade and began digging a narrow ditch. "What are you doing, dear friend?," his host asked him. "It is time, my friend, to end the wandering!", the guest responded. "And I ask you to let this be my final burial site and that it bear the inscription that the world caught me but did not manage to hang on." The following day he was found dead in his room. His hands were crossed together on his chest, and his head rested on a scroll of his own writings. They were only published a hundred years after his death. This did not prevent him from becoming a genuinely legendary figure among the people. And official scholarly records consider him to be Russia's and Ukraine's first philosopher.
By Alexander Pogorelov