Link copied

The world tried to catch me but failed to do so

The world tried to catch me but failed to do so

Ukraine celebrates 300th birthday of Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda

This year marks the 300th anniversary since the birth of one of Eastern Europe’s most prominent philosophers, a patriot-humanist, poet, teacher, and one of Ukraine’s most famous public figures. Hryhorii Skovoroda was the first to declare the importance of the concept of human equality in Eastern Europe and to develop the concept of “kindred work.” He also had a strong belief in the efficacy of science. His poems and fables are revered because Skovoroda was and continues to be the voice of the Ukrainian people. 

On May 7, 2022, a targeted russian rocket attack destroyed the Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda in the village of Skovorodynivka in the Kharkiv region. Later, Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, declared that “only terrorists attack museums,” while Ukraine’s Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Oleksandr Tkachenko dubbed the attack as “an intentional ideological action” intended to “to strike the heart of a philosopher” who is buried on the museum’s grounds.

The philosopher’s background and adolescence

Skovoroda, a former member of the Lubensky regiment, was born on December 3 (November 22 in the Old Style calendar) in 1722 in the Cossack settlement of Chornukhy (now Lokhvytskyi district) of the Poltava region. Skovoroda’s parents were Cossack peasants who lived on modest farms. The future philosopher was deeply influenced by the breathtaking local scenery, folk traditions, music, and ideas of the Lyrniks. Childhood and adolescence spent with people who were unaware of self rule deeply impacted Skovoroda’s consciousness and molded the development of his independent and free-spirited personality.

Little Hryhorii had a natural talent for playing folk instruments, wrote and sang songs well, and from a young age showed a profound curiosity about the world, excellent scientific aptitude, and a love of reading. The boy was initially instructed by the village dyak, a church clerk, before being sent to the parish school by his parents who wanted to provide for his education. Being a curious child, Hryhorii learned liturgy from liturgical books, and since there wasn’t much else to read around, he enjoyed reading books with religious themes. Since he was a young child, Skovoroda learned to be content with little and to be unpretentious with regard to food, clothing, and household comforts from the impoverished material shortages that his family endured frequently and that he saw around him every day. He lived the remainder of his life with this trait.

Years of study

Hryhorii Skovoroda enrolled at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in 1738. At the time, it was the only higher education facility in Dnipro, Ukraine, but it was on par with the European universities of the era in terms of quality. Young foreigners, particularly from Bulgaria, Moldova, and Serbia, desired to study there because of the academy’s extensive library and well qualified faculty. Particularly effective were the teachings of languages, poetry, and rhetoric. The 12-year full course of study was made up of eight regular classes. During the first four years, emphasis was placed on learning Old Slavic, Latin, Ukrainian, Greek, and Polish. Greek and Roman classical literature received attention. Students were taught how to write poetry, were introduced to the broad guidelines for writing poems, and were taught the capacity to write and give speeches for various objectives in two secondary classes, poets and rhetoricians. Due to the extensive amount of study, there were much fewer students in the two senior philosophy and theology classes.

The study of mathematics received a lot of attention at the Kyiv Academy, where it was taught alongside all other courses using handwritten author’s textbooks. The series of lectures by Prokopovych is one of the well-known theoretical courses in mathematics that has endured to this day. “The Kyiv-Mohyla Academy taught in the years of God 1707 and 1708 the two first and most fundamental foundations of mathematics, arithmetic and geometry for the benefit of Ukrainian students.” Education in the arts and music, including sketching, choral singing, conducting, and composing, also received significant attention. Skovoroda was a pioneer amongst his peers, receiving all acclaim. He studied Latin, Greek, Church Slavonic, Polish, German, and other languages during his time at the Academy, giving him the chance to read the original works of ancient philosophers, poets, and historians as well as those of Renaissance and modern thinkers. He also actively used the academic library, which housed these writers’ works from antiquity to modernity. The first vision of the future humanist-educator was shaped by the intellectual and literary traditions of the academy.

Hryhorii Skovoroda spent nearly ten years studying at the Kyiv Academy. According to the royal edict “On the Recruitment of Singers in the Court Chapel, among Other Things, from the Students of the Kyiv Academy,” he was transported to St. Petersburg from 1742 to 1744 as a soloist of the academic choir. Hryhorii gained more musical training in addition to life experience. He returned to the Academy in 1744, graduated in 1750 with a degree in poetics, rhetoric, and philosophy, and took only a two-year (instead of a four-year) term in theology since he was dissatisfied with his position as court singer. Major General Vyshnevsky was suggested to travel with student Skovoroda because of his “knowledge of music, voice, desire to be in various locations, and understanding of some languages,” according to the administration. Due to a shortage of funding and state subsidies, many students in that time period searched for opportunities to travel to European nations in order to become more familiar with the accomplishments of the foreign sciences, complement their education, and improve their language skills.

The most outstanding work of Hryhorii Skovoroda

When Hryhorii returned to his own country in 1753, the first phase of his active teaching activities got underway. He received an invitation to take a job teaching philology at the Pereyaslav Collegium. He started introducing novel concepts into the instructional process after completing further education abroad. He created a specific course called “Reasoning about poetry and guidance to its craft” in 1753 with the intention of explaining the inner workings of poetry in a straightforward and simple manner to students. Skovoroda started writing his first works and translating Plutarch at this time in solitude. Skovoroda was fired as a result of his disapproval of the episcopal command to “teach according to the then ordinary image of a student,” or in other words, in accordance with the old tradition, which annoyed the head of the collegium, Bishop Ioann Kozlovych. After being expelled from the college, he became a  tutor and mentor to the landowner Stepan Tamara’s son at his farm in the village of Kovray near Pereyasliv (1754–1759). At the same period, he wrote “The Garden of Divine Songs,” his most well-known book of poetry. Bandurists and kobzars sang Skovoroda’s poems and songs on main roads and at fairs, promoting his reputation, while churchmen and “those in authority” wrongfully harassed the philosopher, branding him a “corrupter of the people.” Skovoroda was under covert police monitoring, and cases were opened in which accusations of spies were made against him.

Final decades of life

Skovoroda moved around a lot, lived with some friends sometimes, then with others, and never considered changing his lifestyle as he got older. When the wandering philosopher traveled to the village of Khotetovo in the province of Oryol in the spring of 1794 to see his friend M. Kovalinsky after a 19-year absence, he was already 72 years old. In the village of Pan-Ivanivka (now Skovorodynivka), in the Zolochiv district of the Kharkiv region, Skovoroda made his home after returning to Ukraine at the end of August. There, he lived for more than a month before departing his ascetic life on November 9, 1794. In accordance with Skovoroda’s will, he was buried in his preferred location, which was on a high hill behind a large oak tree, as opposed to the cemetery. The statement “The world tried to catch me but failed to do so” was written by him beforehand and was inscribed on the monument of his grave. The Ukrainian philosopher’s tenets were aphoristically conveyed in this tombstone.

The relevance of his studies today

The science of a happy existence is the main subject of Skovoroda’s enlightenment. He saw social discontent as the result of poor upbringing. Therefore, in his view, it is possible to eradicate social evil by “saving” education, which has at its core the encouragement of the development of each child’s natural aptitudes and inclinations. The “mother of education and science,” the “teacher,” and the “guide” of the instructor are all aspects of nature. A person cannot succeed in life without considering “nature,” because according to Skovoroda, “without nature as without a path: the more you succeed, the more you go astray”. Skovoroda developed his anthropocentric vision of the principles of natural education in the context of Stoic ideas, which proclaimed as truth the need to “live in accordance with nature,” which was identified with God. Hryhorii believed that each person has a unique flair and innate tendencies that should be developed through the process of self-knowledge. He also believed that happiness can be attained through “related work,” or work that is in line with one’s vocation, which stands out in his educational theory as a practical way to achieve harmony.

Skovoroda disagreed with the typical practice at the time among the Ukrainian aristocracy of involving foreign rulers and mentors in the education of their children. He scathingly mocked such noble aspirations in the tale “The Poor Lark.” Skovoroda promoted the development of national universal education, which would be run by national instructors who would have a deeper understanding of their land and people with their history, customs, and requirements. Skovoroda condemned superficial education and detrimental rearing. He posited that an essential requirement for a teacher is the presence of moral character, and their role is to impart self-awareness, open their students’ eyes to the outside world, and aid in the discovery and development of their innate talents. But unlike educationalists from Western Europe (in particular, J.-J. Rousseau), he assigned the mentor the role of his guide on the path of self-improvement. And because only labor done in accordance with a vocation can be successful, a teacher must have “affinity” with the chosen activity and find enjoyment in it.

The philosopher gained widespread acclaim in Ukraine and much beyond its borders due to his unconventional manner of living, independence from authority, criticism of the official religion, and remarks challenging the status quo. 

Share this post