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Charmides

Plato

Important Quotes

Section 6 (172c–176d)

Key Facts

And all the people in the palaestra crowded about us, and at that moment, my good friend, I caught a sight of the inwards of [Charmides's] garment, and took the flame. Then I could no longer contain myself.

At this moment (155d), toward the beginning of the dialogue, Charmides is just coming over and sitting down with Socrates. Clearly, Socrates's reaction to this simple action is overwhelming, a bit sneaky, and certainly far from what we now think of as "philosophical." But learning and love are intimately bound up in Athenian society at the time: the love of an older man for a young man was not only accepted, but idealized as a kind of teacher-student relationship in which wisdom was to be imparted. Nonetheless, the kind of bawdy and intimate narrative—emphasized by Socrates confiding in us as his "good friend"—drops out for much of the "philosophical" debate, leaving us to wonder what the framing device of uncontrollable desire has to do with the intense discussion of the "knowledge of knowledge."

"Temperance is doing our own business."

This quote constitutes Charmides's first really consequential definition of temperance, and is in turn a quote from someone else (who turns out to be Critias). Thus, the line is significant partly because it is one of the few statements that ties all three debaters (Socrates, Charmides, and Critias) together in debate at the same time. Specifically, this theory of temperance as "doing our own business" becomes the occasion for Critias taking over from Charmides as Socrates's interlocutor; seeing Charmides unable to defend what is really his own definition, Critias can't help but jump in. As the transitional definition between Charmides and Critias, then, the theory also occupies an unusual place in the dialogue: neither entirely Critias's nor entirely Charmides's, this definition is also neither a cast-off, easily defeated suggestion (as are Charmides's earlier efforts) nor a theory that involves the dense, convoluted debates about "knowledge of knowledge" with which the rest of the dialogue is concerned. It comes closest of any definition in the dialogue to the kind of received social commonplaces that are the usual candidates for Socratic debunking in the early dialogues. In the end, of course, this definition is defeated.

For I would almost say that self-knowledge is the very essence of temperance, and in this I agree with him who dedicated the inscription "Know thyself!" at Delphi.

Critias's suggestion here (164d) marks the beginning of the central discussion of the Charmides: how we can conceive of self-knowledge as the basis for a beneficial temperance (sophrosyne). Starting with the Delphic command known to all Greeks (a command that Critias understands as a sort of divine "greeting"), the dialogue will develop a much more complex philosophical notion of self-knowledge (see Self-knowledge in the Terms section). Plato uses Socratic dialogue (the elenchus) to completely re-frame what most Greeks took to be given knowledge. This process entails a piece of received wisdom being debunked altogether by Socrates. The discussion of "Know thyself," however, is a much more intricate and profound example; it does not seek to show the falsehood of the statement, but to understand it in rational terms, to make ancient wisdom into a new kind of very precise, very demanding knowledge.

How can you think that I have any other motive in refuting you but what I should have in examining into myself?

This is Socrates's response (166c) to Critias's accusation that he is only interested in refuting whatever Critias proposes. Socrates suggests that Critias mistakes both the point and the process of philosophical debate (the elenchus) because he identifies hypotheses with the debater who came up with them and refutations with an attack on that person. Socrates argues that the discussion should be free from personal motives, and that a refutation is of an argument, not a person—as such, refutations, though negative, only advance the participants' mutual progress toward knowledge. There is a remarkable sense in which Socrates sees the process of debate as a melding or exchanging of selves, a kind of dialectic in which, when one person asks a question of the other, he is also asking something of himself.

Now I quite agree that mankind, thus provided, would live and act according to knowledge, for wisdom would watch and prevent ignorance from intruding on us in our work. But whether by acting according to knowledge we shall act well and be happy, my dear Critias—this is a point which we have not yet been able to determine.

Here (173c-d), the peculiar problems with the form of self-knowledge under discussion in the Charmides give way to a general, intuitive problem that will occupy Plato for much of his career: how can we say for certain that there is a link between knowledge and happiness? Up until this section of the dialogue, temperance as self-knowledge has been discussed in terms of an abstract "knowledge of knowledge," which has obvious problems in terms of its causal relation to concrete goods. Socrates conjures up the perfect, wisdom- governed state partly in order to show up these problems. Here, however, the difficulty has shifted somewhat. Instead of making specific attacks on the particular idea of "knowledge of knowledge," Socrates admits to an anxiety that knowledge of any kind will not necessarily lead to happiness.

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