Grigorij Skovoroda – 1722-1794 – a Ukrainian Socrates

On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of his birthday a symposium about Skovoroda was held in December 2022, in Christianopolis, a German Rosicrucian conference centre.

Grigorij Skovoroda – 1722-1794 – a Ukrainian Socrates

There were two Ukrainian speakers and one Russian/German speaker, with the cooperation of youth members of the Lectorium Rosicrucianum, who performed Skovoroda’s play ‘Narcissus’ [1].


For Skovoroda it was about a very concrete spiritual path, for living knowledge, for the development of the ability to discern and about the consequences of this knowledge that he wished to transfer to all those who were open to it. He opened the hearts of the people – not in the least with his music, but also through his profound talks, understandable for anyone.

Because of his modest and loving nature and his deep understanding for human nature, but especially because of his sincerity, he touched the hearts of innumerable people, helping them to learn to listen to the inner spirit spark.

Probably no one has ever heard of him in the Netherlands, but in his own country he is a legendary figure, by far as famous as here with us Spinoza or Descartes. In many cities there are statues of him; on the bank note of 500 hryvnia his image is printed and in Charkov a university is named after him. At the same time he is a controversial figure: according to his biographer Dmitry Tschischewsky in the thirties of the previous century:

In the at least 250 works written about him, there are no less than 250 different viewpoints about  Skovoroda.

Nowadays at least five thousands works have been published about him, in the Ukraine, Austria, Australia, England, Armenia,  Brazil, Hungaria, Germany, Georgia, Spain, Italy, Canada, Moldavia, Poland, Rumania, Servia,  Slovakia, United States, France, Czech Republic.

What makes him so special? Why is everyone continuously trying to understand him, to clarify and interpret his insight, and why do these attempts result in new efforts? Let us start with his childhood.

He grew up in the same idyllic nature where also Gogol and Solovyov came from. This provided him with the ability to live in the woods when circumstances made it necessary.

In the 18th century, Ukraine was part of Russia and during the government of the tsarina Elisabeth I (daughter of Peter the Great, 1709-1762) it experienced a cultural and scientific period of flourishing. At the age of sixteen, Skovoroda went to the Academy of Kiev [2] where a liberal atmosphere ruled, especially as to philosophy. Students ‘indulged’ in the works of Pico della Mirandola, Bruno, Cusanus, Bacon, Kepler, Spinoza, Comenius, Leibniz. He learned German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Italian. Because of his beautiful voice he was sent to one of the finest choirs of Europe, in Petersborough, where the tsarina enjoyed his voice.

He could have reached a high rank in church hierarchy, but preferred to expand his knowledge abroad. For five years he visited several countries. He had a special interest in the German mentality. Twentieth century investigators recognised  the incredible similarity of expression of Skovoroda, compared  with for instance Böhme, Arndt and Silesius. This cannot be explained by his knowledge of languages; only a deep, inner spiritual congenital state as well as his drawing from the same source can explain such a concurrence  in two languages that are so different.

Up till now scientists have not found any clues as to how Skovoroda  reached this so very special world- and life deliberation. His ideals of life were not ‘compatible’ with those of the world.

He was asked multiple times to become a monk, but for him an inner form of monk-hood was more important. He saw the state of monk-hood as an attempt by the world to lure a person into its nets through the holy (the religion).

After self-investigation I have learned that I can merely be a humble, simple, careless lonely one on the world’s stage and that is enough for me.

(his answer to the governor of Charkov who tried to persuade him to become a monk)

In the year 1765 he abandoned his profession as a teacher. This marked the beginning of a period of twenty five years in which he was constantly traveling and had no permanent residence anymore till the day of his death.

What is life? It is an odyssey: one tries pathways without really knowing whereto and why.

But he desired to start a different path, in which the inner purpose becomes a guiding principle. Almost like a beggar, a cane over his shoulder and a bag dangling from the cane, containing a Hebrew and a Greek Bible plus a flute, he walked the world. He made many friends in convents, villages and larger cities. Often he stayed for a longer period  as a guest with one of his friends of pupils, but then returned to the road again. He sang his songs at markets and in workhouses for the poor, telling his fables, sending texts and dialogues to friends. About this trek he wrote:

The poverty that has found what is necessary and despises the superfluous, that is true richness.

His philosophical creations bloomed. During this time he wrote his Dialogues.

Based on an inner Christ-experience he strove for a deep understanding for world and mankind. He gained a large circle of followers which he called ‘his invisible community’.

He became famous, everyone wanting to speak with him and invite him, so that every now and then the philosopher had to hide in the dense forest near Charkov. There, in the solitude, the largest part of his literary work arose: essays, dialogues, parables, hymns, poems, fables and letters.

He only had but one purpose to take the pen in his hand: to address human hearts and to show the path towards the truth to those who can hear.

It seems to me that knowledge actually is the path towards redemption. What else is eternal life than to know God? Meaning: to be a living, imperishable eternal human being?

Knowing oneself he symbolically called: chewing twice. The first act of chewing consists of chewing the historical, ceremonial, in short: the material crust of scale, to break it. He calls upon us: bite this idol and break it, tear up the lion-devil and find within you the hidden nourishment and sweet honey of eternity, the unknown and secret Divine Truth. With the help of insight we must break through the scale of crust. The first step therefore is to liberate oneself from the crystallized aspects of our being.

The second chewing is self-reflection: knowledge is remembering. Skovoroda hereby leans on Plato’s teachings of the true thought or pre-remembrance. For the philosopher, the world that is surrounding us refers to divine reality. Do you see smoke? Remember the fire. Do you see the world? Remember eternity. He therefore sees the development of the inner divine as the second step.

For him it was the task of the philosopher to acknowledge the relationship of eternity or true being with our world and its natural laws, and to clarify those for others. Thereto the inner measure of the perceptive ability is required. If we want to measure heaven, earth and the sea, we need first to have measured ourselves with our own measurement. However, if we cannot find the measure resting within us, with what could we measure then? These words are written in the dialogue ‘Narcissus’ (performed as a play). The further path towards the eternal human being is a process for Skovoroda, of which the most important step is to acknowledge that the inner human being truthfully exists (the third step).

As an echo of Angelus Silesius the words resound:

My body is like the wall of a temple. And the heart and the thinking are like the sacrifice in the temple or like water in the vessel.

For the philosopher it is of utmost importance that a human being does not see God as something outside of him, but experiences him within him, in his heart, as his own inner being. The profoundly deep heart, only knowable to God, is nothing else than the unlimited depth of our thoughts, or, simply said, the soul, so the truthful being, the truth, the essence, our core, the power from which all life related to us and our own life exist.

Skovoroda also emphasised that the inner man is not some abstract idea, but a new human being in which the old human has to change. This new human being needs to be liberated within every person; it is impersonal, it is not your image, your beauty, it is not yours.

For the philosopher, the victory of the heavenly man over the earthly human being is the second birth or the actual creating of man, for the outer human existence merely is a sham-existence. It is a re-birth. One of the most important conditions hereto is the longing of the heart. Your enemies are your own opinions that rule in your heart and torment you. The heart is the origin of the soul, whereto it has to return. The earthly world cannot touch the heart for it is a divine element:

God within our heart. It is the divine spark in the soul.

So the fourth step therefore is the cleansing of the heart and the blood by means of catharsis, self-diminution. ‘What must die within a man?’ he was often asked by his pupils. His reply:

Those soul-elements that connect a person with the world, and that which is the self-state and the own will of man.

In this way someone who has decided to walk the path towards the truth will realise that the divine man, the true human being within him, comes forward and shines brightly.

The Bible

Skovoroda’s teachings are based on the Bible. He was a fervent proclaimer of the Bible and developed his own, strongly deviating version of the church-like doctrine Bible explanation.

The Bible opens up an astounding opportunity to reach the divine world out of the earthly world. When gnostic Christianity speaks of the Bible as a power, it is titled ‘the third field’, stretching out between the earthly world and the kingdom of heaven, in order to enable the transition for human beings (in: Büchlein über das Lesen der Heiligen Schrift, 1788).

The composition of the wordly-all he explained as follows:

The all exists of three worlds. The first one is the general, inhabited world. The other two are special, smaller worlds. The first one is the microcosm, or man. The second one is the symbolic world, that is the Bible. In it figures have been assembled as images to lead our thoughts towards understanding the eternal nature.

(in: Schlangensintflut. Gespräch zwischen der Seele und dem unverweslichen Geist, 1791).

The phenomena like day and night, light and darkness, are referred to as figures by Skovoroda. The sun is the most important one. Cherubim are figures from the divine world.

He encourages his readers not to wait any longer but to turn to that path now:

Take off your  boots at home, wash your hands and feet, leave all the unnecessary behind and go up to the divine. For this transition the Bible is a bridge and a ladder.

New perspectives and the divine world

Skovoroda saw our stay in this world as the necessary basis for a man’s inner struggle.

Praised is God that he has made the required light and not the difficulty.

As the fruitful result of the great work, tranquility arises within a person, the inner peace, unlimited freedom of the inner man. Skovoroda here uses opposites, a method often eagerly applied by him. Less doctors – less sick people; less gold – less necessities; less handcraft – less waste; less scientists – less lunatics; less friends – less enemies; less weapons – less wars; less sweetness – less sadness; and so on. Where there is no resistance, one does not need to strain to conquer them.

What is more blissful than to obtain such peace of the soul, so that one looks like a bullet that does not care whereto it is rolled.

Grigorij was filled with the longing for non-conflict. Such a person is happy and no one can take that away from him. He was convinced that it would be possible to buy a village, but happiness, a necessity, is always and everywhere freely given.

The divine world and matter are related to each other as a tree to his shadow: both are in the same place and in the same person. He talks about two parallel existing dimensions. Just like Böhme and Comenius,  Skovoroda looks at matter like a veil that is covering the spirit, the being. He very clearly places the two nature-orders opposite to each other. The entire visible cosmos is perishable, an ocean on which the human being navigates to his eventual destination: the steady rock of divine being. This journey is possible for a man through the presence of the divine spark within him. To fathom this eternal nucleus is one of the core tasks of man, for in the eternal seed rests an eternal development. It suffices to imagine an apple pit. If in it a tree with roots, branches, leaves and fruits is hidden, you can also find innumerable gardens within it, innumerable worlds.

The unequal equality with God

God is like a source full of water, filling various vessels, each to its capacity. Above the source  is written: all an unequal equality. Various streams flow out in various vessels, around the source. A small vessel contains less, but is insofar equal to the larger one, that they are both full. This is how Skovoroda sees the individual development of every human being, leading towards absolute unity with all other beings in the divine world. The same idea of unequal equality we find with Plato.

God is love: love and unity are equal. God himself, herself, is eternity, without a caused beginning, a beginning without cause. Beginning and ending are nothing else than God’s eternity. There is nothing before and nothing thereafter. Eternity is like a ring: where it begins, it also ends. Skovoroda used many lofty images that symbolise God: source, abyss, mountain. He also liked to use the well-known symbol of circle, triangle and square to symbolize the unity of God.

The path towards God is the only sense of our existence in this world; when creatures flow out from the divine source, they also have to return again to what was the beginning and the end, leading us from death towards life, from the earth towards heaven.


The teachings of Skovoroda shed a light on all essential aspects of the gnostic spiritual path, in an accessible, vivid way. His innate musicality helped him herewith. The philosophical explanation goes far beyond his own century. The amazing conformity with the teaching of Hermes Trismegistos, Lao Zu, Plato, Böhme, Comenius and finally the teaching of the Modern Rosycross show us Skovoroda as a gnostic, who joined all proclaimers of the Gnosis, namely to the path of truth yourself. He has helped innumerable people to really go this path in practice. Many felt the burning of his inner fire. Over five thousand attempts to explain his teaching form his spiritual heritage; he moves the minds and hearts, stirs them, and leaves them no longer lingering in inertness and aimlessness, but instigates them to take a step forward.

We can be grateful for this support of Griforij Skovoroda  that we still now can experience on our own path



Love is the eternal bond between God and man. It is the invisible fire, through which the heart opens up for the Word of the Will of God, and therefore it is God.



Your happiness and your peace and your heaven and your God are within you. Be aware that God is always with you, then you will also be with him.



Once at the age of 72,  when visiting a pupil, Skovoroda suddenly took a shovel at night fall and began to dig a hole. ‘What are you doing my friend’,  his host asked. ‘It is time to end the journey’,  his guest replied. ‘Please, let this be my grave and write on it that the world hunted me but never could catch me’.  The next day they found him dead in his room.

His arms crossed over his chest, his head resting on paper rolls on which his teachings were written.


About his didactic ideas:

During the course of his life Skovoroda taught at various institutes, and also privately, the art of poetry, Greek, ethics and philosophy. Pedagogy is for him a result, a consequence, of his ideas. Thus for him education is not so much transferring knowledge, but much more the support of the spiritual opportunities of a pupil. His opinion is that the teacher needs to nourish the children with spiritual nourishment, fit for their nature, thus helping them to learn how a person can keep ‘the economy of the soul’, the ‘economy of our small world (the microcosm)’ in good order.

He needs to teach his pupils  ‘the structuring in their heart’.  Skovoroda does not think little of transferring knowledge, however ‘one should not rely on it and neglect the highest science’.

In all this we see apparent similarities with the pedagogical method of Comenius.


About a mystical experience (from a letter):

… I went out into the garden for a walk. The first experience that I perceived in my heart was the state of being free, freedom, freshness…..

Within me I felt an exceptional compassion that filled me with an unfamiliar power. A sudden, unspeakable sweet outpouring filled my soul and everything within me started to burn like a fire. The entire world disappeared for me, there was still only a feeling of love, calmness and eternity inspiring me.

Tears flowed from my eyes, spreading a heart-warming harmony in my entire body…


Quote from ‘Narcissus’:

Oh divine spark! Oh grain of wheat! Christ Jesus! Heavenly and new man! Head and heart in the Light of the entire creation! Centre of the world-all! Power, law and realm of peace! Right hand of God. Our revelation!

When will we know you? You are the true man from the true flesh. But we do not know this new man. Each one we know will die, all of them. But the true man never dies.



In His infinite compassion the Lord had made simple all that is necessary, all what is complicated He has made superfluous.


Quote from the book:

Grigorij Skoworoda. His life and his teachings, by Wladimir Ern:

Skovoroda is the first one who abandons the fixed places of the new European history, the first one who enters the future, the first one who appears from the Egypt of material ‘mechanical’ civilization and surrenders to the search for the new, the eternal, the unchangeable.

With his rod he not only traverses the rural lands. His thirsting mind wanders through the entire universe, the entire existence, searching for the steady rock, the true Petra, the spiritual peace – ‘the sweetest resort of eternity’- . In Skovoroda the way of thinking of his country an important revolt is made, taking a basic decision, applying a direction that it will never leave again anymore.


This article is based upon the lecture of Veronika Jefremowa during the aforementioned symposium.


[1] Explaining the myth of Narcissus:

When hearing the name Narcissus one thinks of a fair young man who saw himself reflected in a lake and fell in love with his own beauty. Over and over again he kept looking for his reflection in the water, and finally he drowns in self-admiration. Hence the word ‘narcisist’, that we still use today.

Skovoroda explains this myth in a different way. In his essay ‘Narcissus’ he declares:

In the clear water of knowledge, Narcissus sees his true, imperishable being. From that moment on he can find no rest because of the tremendous longing for the Other. Only once he sees his true figure again, the image bearer of God within him. In boundless love for this Other One, Narcissus  perishes in the sparkling water of life, through which the divine principle within him is saved for eternity. This is how each person can obtain knowledge and behold the inner man underneath his outer appearance and awaken the Other One to life.

[2] Among the well-known alumni of the academy of Kiev we find a good friend of Skovoroda, Semjon Gamaleja (1743-1822), who was congenial to the Rosicrucian Novikov and who translated a large number of Böhme’s works in Russian and made them known in his fatherland.

[3] Tetyana Hoggan-Kloubert, Hryhoriy Skovoroda, ein Ukrainischer Sokrates with the annex of  Skovorodas ‘Narziss’, translated by Veronika Jefremowa, Königsdorfer Verlag 2020



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Article info

Date: July 12, 2023
Author: Veronika Jefremowa (Germany)
Author: Anneke Stokman-Griever (Netherlands)
Photo: by Ileana Skakun on Unsplash CCO

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