Traditionally, the Charmides has been thought to belong to the so-called Socratic dialogues of Plato and hence in the early phase of Plato’s production. According to the interpretation outlined below, on the one hand, the dialogue is ‘Socratic’ but, on the other hand, it points to the doctrines that are believed to belong to Plato’s middle and late periods.
The introductory scene engages us directly in the dialogue’s setting and action. Speaking in the first person and in past tense, Socrates specifies that the dialogue that he is about to narrate has taken place immediately after his return from the battle of Potidaea in the autumn of 432 BC or the spring of 429 BC. In either case then the dialogue is located near the beginning of the Peloponesian war, in Athens, and specifically in the palaestra of Taureas accross from the temple of Basile.
The dialogue is oblique in the sense that it follows the convention of a frame within a frame. The outer frame consists of Socrates and his ‘noble friend’. As for the inner frame, the prologue contains exchanges between four personages. Socrates; Chaerephon, Socrates’ lifelong friend; Critias, who is depicted as a close acquaintance of Socrates and whose historical counterpart was the leader of the Thirty; and the young and beautiful Charmides, whom Plato represents as Critias’ cousin and ward and whom, historically, we know to have also participated in the regime of the. In reality, both Critias and Charmides were Plato’s own relatives.
The first phase consists of the dialectical conversation between Socrates and Charmides. And the second phrase consists of the sustained dialectical argument between Socrates and Critias. The topic of the discussion is what is sôphrosynê, a cardinal virtue commonly believed to entail the possession self-control and, most importantly, of self-knowledge.
Socrates narrates to an anonymous listener a certain encounter, whose particulars coincide exactly with the contents of the dialogue. Upon his return to Athens, Socrates goes to the palaestra where he finds many of his acquaintances. He enquires about his own concerns, namely what is the present state of philosophy and whether there are any young men distinguished for wisdom or beauty or both (153e). Critias answers that Charmides is notable for both and, indeed, Charmides’ entrance confirms that the young man has a splendid stature and appearance (154c), and causes a stir to the male company and sexual arousal to Socrates. Socrates proposes to examine whether his soul is just as perfect as his body (154e). Charmides agrees to investigate together with Socrates the question whether or not he possesses sophrosyne, temperance (158d-e). In fact, temperance and the successive attempts to define it turn to be the main subject of the dialogue.
According to Charmides’ first definition, temperance is doing everything in an orderly and quiet way’; it is, in other words, a sort of quietness (159b). Working from Charmides’ own set of beliefs, Socrates shows to him that, since temperance is always an admirable things and since in matters involving either the body or the mind quietness is often less admirable than its opposite, it follows that temperance is not a kind of quietness (159c-160d). Charmides then proposes a second definition, that temperance is modesty or a sense of shame (160e), which is duly refuted in similar manner: since temperance is always a good thing but modesty is sometimes good and others bad, we must conclude that temperance is not modesty (160e-161a). Charmides owes himself convinced by the argument, upon which point he tenders a third definition which he has heard from someone else, namely that temperance is doing one’s own things (161b). It becomes clear that the author of the definition is Critias, who jumps into the discussion and takes over the argument (162e).
On the authority of Hesiod, he draws a distinction between doing a thing and making something and he modifies accordingly the claim advanced earlier by Charmides: now temperance is defined as the doing of good things (163e) or the performance of useful and beneficial actions (cf. 164a-b). This fourth definition too gets refuted when Socrates points out that, assuming that the definition is true, it follows that temperate men are often ignorant of their temperance (164b-c).
Rather than accept this implication, Critias proposes a fifth, altogether different definition: temperance is to know oneself (164d, 165b), it is the knowledge or science of the self (165d). Using analogies from specific disciplines and arts (first order arts) such as medicine, Socrates presses the idea that temperance qua knowledge or science must have an object distinct from itself and asks what that object might be. Critias, on the contrary, argues partly on methodological grounds that the science equivalent to temperance differs from other sciences to the extent that it is both reflexive and second-order, i.e., it has as its proper object both itself and the other sciences (166c). The sixth definition of temperance, then, is this: it is the kind of knowledge or science and the only knowledge or science that is both a knowledge or science of itself and of the other sciences (166e); it is, as Socrates puts it, a science of science (or knowledge of knowledge) as well as of the absence of science (or knowledge) in oneself and in others (166e0167a). The argument that follows focuses, precisely, on the intriguing concept of knowledge of knowledge, and it is motivated by two questions: whether this kind of knowledge is possible, and also whether it is beneficial (167b).
Concerning the possibility of a reflexive type of knowledge, i.e., a knowledge of knowledge, Socrates brings Critias to concede that reflexivity in some cases appears at the very least strange, whereas in others is seems downright impossible. Socrates declares the argument inconclusive, but attributes considerable weight to the next argument, which concerns the issue whether or not a science of science would be of benefit to us.
The first phase of the argument is this: supposing that there is a science of science, it will only be able to tell that something is a science, but not what that science is of (170a-e). It would seem, however, that knowing that someone is a doctor implies knowing what the doctor’s knowledge is of. And this is achieved by knowing medicine, not by knowing knowledge (171a-c). According to this reasoning, then, temperance understood as knowledge of knowledge is useless. In the second phase, Socrates concedes for the sake of the argument that the temperate man knows what he knows as well as that he knows (171d, 172c-d) and, subsequently, speculates about the benefits of temperance in that case: error would be completed rooted out (173a-d). However, Socrates contends, living temperately, i.e., in possession of knowledge of knowledge, does not entail faring well and living happily (173d).
The last phase of the argument aims to overcome Critias’ resistance to precisely that contention. Socrates elicits from him the admission that the science responsible for happiness is the science of good and evil (174b). It is this science, not temperance qua science of science, that is beneficial for us (174d), and, since the science of science has only itself as its object, it cannot do the work of any other science, including the science of good and evil, and cannot produce any useful thing (174e-175a). Socrates now pulls together the strings of the argument pointing to major flaws of the way in which it has been conducted (175a-176a). Temperance defined as science of science proved to be useless, whereas Socrates still believes that it is a great good whose presence in the soul is coextensive with happiness (175e-176a). In addition to its inacceptable conclusion, the argument was developed on the basis of two concessions that should not have been allowed in the first place: that a science of science is indeed possible; and that temperance thus defined would be one’s knowledge both that one knows and does not know and of what one knows and does not know (175b-d).
No dialogue of Plato has received overall interpretations more disparate than the ones proposed for the Charmides. At the level of philosophical content, there is no agreement regarding the philosophical aims of the dialogue or its central topic. On the present interpretation, the Charmides is, formally, a Socratic dialogue but, philosophically, a transitional dialogue waving forward to the epistemological and metaphysical doctrines of Plato’s middle and late works. It could be considered a companion piece to the.
Interpretative challenges have to do with Charmides’ three consecutive efforts to define sôphrosynê. The corresponding dialectical arguments have received bad press on the grounds that they contain invalid inferences and even fallacies. However, it is arguable that such faults are only apparent and that satisfactory solutions are available to careful readers of the text. Similar remarks apply to Critias’ attempt to defend anew the definition of sôphrosynê as doing one's own things: contrary to the traditional view, Critias advances a subtle and effective defense of the definition. Critias’ next contention, that sôphrosynê is a sort of self-knowledge, has also been unsufficiently analysed and understood. According to the present account, the short speech by which he proposes this definition is both a piece of rhetorical epideixis and a shrewd dialectical move by which Critias reminds Socrates of his own commitment to intellectualism and of the value of self-knowledge.
However, by far the greatest challenges are raised with regard to the second half of the dialogue, in which Critias formulates and then attempts to defend his final definition of sôphrosynê. The dialectical argument developed in that connection is not a digression, as some scholars have suggested, but rather constitutes the core of the dialogue. Nor does it involve the rejection of the intellectualism usually attributed to Socrates, namely the view that virtue is a sort of knowledge and that the latter is necessary and sufficient for happiness. Instead, the argument refutes the specific kind of intellectualism proposed by Critias, namely the contention that virtue is just the sort of knowledge that is only reflexive but has no substantive content: it knows only itself and the other sciences, but not the objects of these latter. Socrates confronts Critias with a complex philosophical challenge: he must prove, first, that ‘knowledge of itself and the other knowledges’ is possible and, second, assuming that it is possible, he must prove that it is beneficial. Despite the fact that interpreters commonly consider the former argument inadequate and the latter weak, in truth both arguments succeed perfectly in their aim.
To conclude, the Charmides is an extremely complex and rich dialogue. It is crafted with consumate artistry and attention to psychological detail. It contains formidable philosophical challenges, and the dialectical examination of Critias’ final definition of sôphrosynê constitutes one of the most sustained and fascinating arguments in the entire Platonic corpus.
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- Tuozzo, T.M. Plato’s Charmides. Positive Elenchus in a “Socratic” Dialogue. Κέμπριτζ, 2011.