Our Notes & References
First edition of the “first textbook of Orthodox theology in Russia” (Glazeva) by an important religious figure of 18th-c. Russia, whom Voltaire called “the Russian Plato”.
Very rare, especially on the market: we could not find any copy of this edition at auction worldwide (including Russia), and WorldCat locates only three, none in the USA (British Library, Württembergische Landesbibl. and Universitätsbibl. Göttingen). We could however trace at least six examples in Russian institutions.
“The most significant and the brightest of the figures of Church education of the 18th century” (Florovskii, our translation here and below), Platon (Petr Georgievich Levshin, 1737–1812) was barely 25 when Catherine, impressed by his intellect, appointed him as teacher of religion to her ten-year-old son and the heir to the throne, Tsarevich Pavel Petrovich (1754-1801). The lessons, which took place three times a week at the Winter Palace, lasted for two years in 1763-65, by which time the basics of the catechism had been covered and the classes became less frequent. ‘But they seem to have had a lasting effect and to have imbued the future Emperor with a degree of sincere religious belief far in excess to what can be perceived in his mother’ (Papmehl, p. 11).
This edition arose out of these imperial lessons and 800 copies were printed by the prestigious stately Imperial Academy of Science. This “book of scientific theology, for the first time written in Russian, […] is remarkable for its laconism, clear language, absence of superfluous formalism” (Zaitsev). In its preface, Platon stresses that theology is necessary and useful for the future monarch, for he realises God’s will on earth. He considers theology the highest guiding science, opening all paths: to government, to the natural sciences and to arts, highlighting the idea (possibly under some influence of Western philosophers) of a rational and enlightened church as the main pillar of the State.
The work is structured in three parts: on natural knowledge of God, on the Gospel, and on the law of God and moral teaching. It ends with the Discourse on Melchizedek, compiled by Platon for Pavel in November 1764, and Pavel’s answer to it, in which the ten-year old Tsarevich argues about the usefulness of the sciences.
Platon became a highly-regarded figure in Western Europe thanks to the present work, which became a major source of information about Christian Orthodoxy for Western readers. It was translated into German (Riga and Leipzig, 1770), Latin (St. Petersburg, 1774), French (St. Petersburg, 1776) and Greek (Vienna, 1786), before English (Edinburgh, 1815) and Bulgarian (Constantinople, 1844), among other languages. An important text in Russia too, it was republished at least five times in the 18th century (but all these editions are rare outside Russia). Dostoevsky refers to Platon’s discussions with Diderot over the existence of God in The Brothers Karamazov.
Once he had completed Paul’s religious education, Platon’s rise through the ecclesiastical ranks was assured. A master of rhetoric and a prolific writer (over 500 of his sermons alone are preserved), the young hieromonk became in 1766 Archimandrite of the Lavra of the Holy Trinity and St Sergius in Sergiev Posad (i.e. abbot of the most prominent monastery in Russia); in 1770, Archbishop of Tver; in 1787, Metropolitan of Moscow.
Two old ownership inscriptions in Cyrillics difficult to read: P.A. A…. to title, and Vasilii Kra…tsev to lower fly-leaf.
Bitovt 1540; Sopikov 2275 (“Rare”); SK 5361; Guberti III, 97.
Prot. Georgii Florovskii, Puti russkogo bogosloviia, YMCA-Press, Paris, 1983.
P. V. Kalitin, Russkaia filosofiia. Entsiklopediia. Izd. vtoroe, dorabotannoe i dopolnennoe. Pod red. M.A. Maslina. M., 2014, pp. 475-476.
A. S. Glazeva, Platon, in Bolshsaia Rossiiskaia Entsyklopediia, Ministerstvo kultyry Rossiiskoi Federatsii.
A. A. Zaitsev, Dogmaticheskoie bogosloviie, in Pravoslavnaia Entsyklopediia, pod. red. Patriarkha moskovskogo i vseia Rusi Kirilla.
K. A. Papmehl, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow (Petr Levshin, 1737–1812): the Enlightened Prelate, Scholar and Educator, 1983.