Episode 63 – Plato versus Grigori Rasputin

The Rebels, Rogues, and Scholars bracket brings us these two vastly different people from world history, the first being one of the most influential Greek philosophers, Plato. The second, a real rogue, the Russian mystic said to have helped to bring down the Romanov’s, Grigori Rasputin.

My primary sources for Plato include The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman, The Human Story: Our History from the Stone Age to Today by James C. Davis and Titans of History: The Giants Who Made Our World by Simon Sebag Montefiore. For Rasputin, I will lean on The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin: A Conspiracy that Brought Down the Russian Empire by Margarita Nelipa, Russia and the Russians: A History by Geoffrey Hosking and A History of Russia by Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg.

Plato
Plato

Earlier this year, in May 2019, my family went to visit my daughter Anika in Italy, where she was an exchange student through Rotary. When we visited Rome, I was sure to be awed by sites like the Coliseum and the Vatican. What I remembered most of the incredible artwork was one painting knowns as The School of Athens by Raphael in the Stanze di Raffaello, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. In it, the great philosophers of Athens and ancient Greece were portrayed. The main focal point was two men, one we met in episode 21, Aristotle. The second was, of course, Plato, Aristotle’s teacher.

Arthur Herman writes this about our topic today, “On one side there is Plato the idealist, who became the guiding spirit of Western idealism and religious thought. In Plato’s arms, Raphael has put his famous dialogue the Timaeus, which inspired a thousand years of theologians, mystics, and students of the occult.” 

The School of Athens
The School of Athens

Very little has made it to today about the early life of Plato. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Born to a noble Athenian family, Plato could trace his ancestry back to the last kings of Athens. He was a disciple and fervent admirer of the plebian Socrates, whose refusal to toe the line and temper his ideas brought about his enforced suicide for impiety and corruption of youth in 399 BC.” Plato’s mother, Perictione, was a descendant of the great Athenian lawmaker, Solon, who laid the foundations for their form of democracy.

Another little-known fact is that Plato is not his real name; it was likely only a nickname as it means wide or broad in Greek. His given name is really Aristocles. Also, since his birth father died when Plato was very young, he was raised in the home of his stepfather.

While his life is essential to some extent, it is his writings and teachings that have influenced the world as we know it. That will be my focus in this episode.

Plato was born anywhere from 429 to 423 BCE, with the most likely years being between 424 and 423. This was a time of the disastrous Peloponnesian Wars, which was to wreak havoc on Athens. Luckily for Plato and his students, the Corinthian War of 394-386 BCE was to allow Athens to recover some of its past glory.

Socrates and Alcibiades
Socrates and Alcibiades

A significant contribution Plato gave us was the teachings of his mentor, Socrates. Since we have no writings from him, without Plato and Xenophon, one of Socrates other students, we would not know of the great philosopher. It is on his shoulders that most of the western world’s thinkers stood on. The twenty-eight dialogues, whose leading character is Socrates, is part of the total of thirty-five dialogues and thirteen letters that have survived over the past 2,400 years. So important were Plato’s writings that they were copied and preserved over and over.

Plato gives us many concepts that religions of the west and east base their philosophy on. The first is that, as Arthur Herman writes in one of my favorite books of all-time, The Cave and the Light, “To be a human is to have a soul, Socrates and Plato tell us. Our soul is our true essence, our true identity. It is the soul that actively seeks to unlock the mysteries of the world, including the truth about reality.” James C. Davis writes in his book, The Human Story, “Someone once observed that the history of philosophy is only a series of footnotes on what Plato wrote about the big questions.”

He further goes on to say this about Plato’s answer to what, especially in today’s hot political world, is the best type of leader of a country and type of government. “Perhaps the most important of these questions was this: how does one produce good men and a good state? In his most famous book, The Republic, Plato gives his answer. The important thing is to select a few talented people and educate them well. Sparta, he decided, was good at choosing future rulers and preparing them; the only trouble was that the Spartans did not teach the right things. Plato wanted to instruct his future rulers so that they could understand the goals that they should strive for. The basic test that Plato wanted to apply to any public act was this: will it make us better humans than we were before?”

I remember loving philosophy in college, so much so I got a minor in it. The reason I so enjoyed the classes was the in-depth discussions it elicited during the time with the teacher and the reading assignments. In his work, The Republic, Plato brings us the concept of the illusory world known as the myth of the cave. For me to fully explain the idea he laid out, would take at least a few episodes, likely taking a full hour of discussion. Instead, I’ll try to give you a short, and hopefully insightful explanation.

The idea of the myth of the cave is a metaphor for real life. From The Cave and the Light, “… Socrates describes the world around us as a darkened cavern, across the back of which a puppet show is flashed with the figures of men, animals, and objects cast as shadows. For a modern audience, the description has an eerily familiar ring. It’s the world of television and the media at its most flimsy and superficial.”

Socrates, per Plato, has us imagine that everyone has been looking at this puppet show for their entire lives, not being allowed to take their eyes off the wall. Socrates further asks, “If they were able to talk to one another, would they not assume that the shadows they saw were the real things?” Inevitably is the reply. “And so in every way, they would believe that the shadows of the objects we mentioned were the whole truth.” 

From here, Socrates has us imagine that an individual breaks away from the forced watching of the puppet show and sees the light that created the shadows. Belief is first crushed, then comes the process of reason, where we discover the way out of the illusion. Then comes the full level of knowledge where we understand the illusory world and begin to reach for the ideal form of good and truth. From here, we move on to the concept of if there is a good, then there should be a better and ultimately the best. It is this best that Plato, through Socrates, believes that we must strive for. Within the Christian-Judeo philosophies, God stands as the best.

But the bottom-line reality, according to Plato, was that there is a bitter truth that most people prefer life watching the shadows on the wall. For this reason, he believed that the best leaders are those who are the wisest and best-educated willing to leave the cave and become enlightened.

Interestingly enough, Plato’s works in the west were glossed over and forgotten after the fall of the Roman Empire. Luckily for all of us, this was not so in the Byzantine Empire as they continued studying his writings. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, Plato’s material began to make its way toward Rome and other centers of European learning. It was during the Renaissance that Platonic thinking made a resurgence. 

Plato opened his Academy in 387 BCE after he had traveled to Italy and Syracuse. For the next forty years, he would teach the next generation of philosophers and thinkers, with Aristotle being the greatest. The Academy would survive for 300-years until one of the contestants in episode 32, Cornelius Sulla, would destroy in in 84 BCE.

Plato, the man, would go through many trials and tribulations throughout his life, one time being sold as a slave by the ruler of Syracuse. Luckily, Anniceris brought his freedom shortly after that. Plato would live into his eighties, although there are ranges for the age of his death between 81 and 84. Whatever the exact date is, Plato would leave a mark on humankind that continues to this day. 

Now on to our second contestant, a definitive rogue, although many have called him far worse names, Grigori Rasputin. 

Grigori Rasputin
Grigori Rasputin

History views Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin mostly as a scoundrel who helped bring down the Romanov dynasty. Still, others have seen him as a holy man or miracle worker. In his time around the family of Nicholas II and Alexandra, many, especially those close to the Tsar, saw him as a dangerous interloper and con man, using his ability to help control the son of Alexandra’s hemophilia to ingratiate himself with the most influential people in Russia. 

Born on January 21, 1869, in the town of Pokrovskoye, along the Tura River in Siberia, to Yefim and Anna, who were married in 1863. Anna would have seven, maybe eight other children, all of whom died in childhood or early. There is some debate whether Grigori had a sister Feodosiya who survived into adulthood. Still, we are lacking the paperwork to confirm or deny it. 

Needless to say, they were a poor family with the father working as a farmer on a small plot of land with a side job as a government courier. We know almost nothing of Rasputin’s early childhood or teenage years, what we do know is that he was an unruly kid, getting caught stealing and drinking on several occasions. As with most children born to peasants in Siberia, Grigori had almost no education and was functionally illiterate.

When he was seventeen, he met and quickly married Praskovya Dubrovina, who would bear him seven children, with three, Dmitry, Maria, and Varvara surviving into adulthood. Maria would later pen two books about her father, with a third, The Man Behind the Myth, being published in 1977 co-authored with Patte Barham. Her books spoke highly of her father and tried to dispel many myths about him, but much of what she wrote has been called into question. She would die in 1977 in Los Angeles, California. His wife, on the other hand, would stay in Pokrovskoye, for the rest of her life, even when Grigori became famous.

In 1897, something struck Rasputin as he rediscovered religion, leaving the village and his family to become a Strannik, a religious wanderer or pilgrim. Grigori would leave his family for months, sometimes even years, with one claim being that he made it all the way to Athos, Greece, in 1900 to attend a monastery there. The idea of a pilgrimage was common in the Russian Orthodox Church at the time. Indeed it was considered a duty. Rasputin’s popularity on his returns made him famous around Siberia, becoming something of a cult figure.

Alexando-Nevsky Lavra
Alexando-Nevsky Lavra

When Grigori was 35, he walked, yes, walked from his home in Siberia to St. Petersburgh, some four thousand miles. Rasputin did this to meet with Father John of Kronstadt, considered a miracle worker, and to raise money for the construction of a church in his hometown. Grigori’s first visit was to the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra, one of the holiest and most important religious sites in Russia at the time.   

Rasputin would meet with and speak to Bishop Sergei of the lavra, who, in turn, would introduce Grigori to the Imperial spiritual advisor, Archimandrite Feofan.  Here is a description of Rasputin by the monk Illiodor, “Grigori was wearing a plain, cheap, grey color jacket…. His pockets were blown out like a pauper’s… the pants were like the jacket… tucked under rough man’s boots… hair was roughly combed… his beard barely resembled a beard… glued to his face… his hands were rough and soiled, under the long nails there was dirt… his body gave off an unpleasant odor.”

They knew almost immediately that Rasputin was not a learned man. Still, they considered him to have a gift of understanding of the nature of God, and as Margarita Nelipa puts it in her book, The Murder of Grigori Rasputin, “By 1905 Rasputin was viewed favorably as a man who possessed a simple, but intense religious commitment in a manner that was not seen in St. Petersburg before.” It was this reputation that got him to meet two sisters, the Montenegrin sisters, married to Grand Dukes Nikolai, and Peter Nikolayevich, who was close to the Tsar.

The sisters liked to hold regular seances, inviting Rasputin to them, which is where his mystic reputation began. From here, it was only a short road to a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. It was at one of the tea parties that the Tsar and his wife met the supposed holy man. Here is the diary entry from the Tsar the day he met Rasputin. “1905 – 1 November, Tuesday, Cold windy day… at 4 pm went to Sergievka… drank tea with Militsiya and Stanok… introduced to a man of God – Grigori from the Tobolsk Province.”

It would be another eight months before they would meet again. While there was a general understanding that Rasputin should never meet with the Imperial couple alone, it would happen in October of 1906. 

Alexei, the only son of the Tsar and his wife, was struck with hemophilia, a disease that was common within the family, which was related to Queen Victoria through Alexandra. He would suffer much with no doctor able to help with the pain. That one evening in 1906, Rasputin would walk over to the boy and, with some simple words, relieve his discomfort. Immediately it was seen as a miracle, and the royal couple and the rest of the family would stay by him through thick and thin until the day they had to bury him ten years later.

For the coming years, Alexandra felt that Rasputin’s presence was necessary to help her son. He was also going to numerous parties as many within the city of St. Petersburg wanted to get close to the Tsar and felt Rasputin would help out. Rumors started to circulate amongst high society that Rasputin was debauched, having sex with the wives of the nobility. The newspapers began to cover his behavior, many times making up stories to sell more newspapers.

By 1914, World War I began with the Russians doing reasonably well, but that would change quickly. The losses of men were staggering, with close to 1.8 million men dying. In 1915, Tsar Nicholas II took control of the army in name only, a move that many of his advisors warned him not to do. They made it known that if the war continued to go wrong for the Russians, the people back home would blame him. Nicholas believed that God had put him on the throne, and only God could remove him, not the people.

While off to war, basically reviewing the troops before they would march to slaughter, Alexandra and Rasputin took control of the government. The Tsarina was already an unpopular figure since she was German by birth. Having the much-disliked Rasputin as an advisor was adding insult to injury. Rasputin would name and then fire minister after minister, appointing men with no qualifications to jobs they had no business having. On top of it, it was well-known that Rasputin was advising the Tsar and his wife that Russia should pull out of the war, something the allies and, in particular, Britain absolutely did not want.

The reason I make mention of this is that the murder of Rasputin has been part myth and part Keystone Cops comedy of errors if you believe that stories that have circulated over the years. The book by Margarita Nelipa, who is trained in the medical field, reveals some interesting information about Rasputin’s death.

It is likely that the conspiracy, led by Prince Felix Yusupov, with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and politician Vladimir Purishkevich in on it, bungled parts of the murder attempt. It has been suggested that they had poisoned the cake that they fed him. Still, I believe that they actually backed off of the idea, and really what killed him was three shots one into his forehead. There are many theories about who pulled the trigger, and the one I find most interesting is that it was a member of the British secret police and not Yuupov or the Grand Duke. What happened in the basement of the Prince will likely never be known. What we do know if that on December 30, 1916, Grigori Rasputin was murdered, and his body dumped into the Malaya Nevka River off the Petrovsky Bridge.

Now it’s time to head on over to the scorer’s table.

First, we start with the fifteen points for the length of time they were a rebel, rogue, or scholar. For Plato, he begins his time when he returned to Athens to start the Academy when he was forty years old. It ends with his death at the estimated age of 82 for a full 42 years of service. Rasputin begins his journey with his religious awakening in 1897 and ends with his murder in 1916 for a total of 19 years. Fifteen points to the Greek philosopher and 7 for the Russian.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This one is tricky as Plato’s influence was long-reaching in time, but not so much at the time of his life. With Rasputin, I feel that his power over the Romanov’s had a more significant effect over the world than did Plato. Twenty points for Grigori and 10 for the Greek.

Next up is the twenty-five points for their lasting effect on world history. This is a rout for Plato. As I mentioned numerous times, his legacy has spanned 2,400 years and still influences us today. Rasputin did have a part in the collapse of the Romanov regime and the coming of the Soviet Union, but I feel that this was an eventuality with or without his meddling. Twenty-five points for Plato, fifteen for Rasputin.

Last up was the forty points for how they affected their country for the better. Plato taught countless men how to think, which benefitted his country, while Rasputin made things a whole lot worse. For these reasons, I’m giving Plato forty points and Rasputin ten. The final total is 90 to 52 to the Greek philosopher. Plato moves on to the second round where he will face off against Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.

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