Socrates, returning from service in the army, arrives at the Taureas palaestra, one of his "old haunts." He is greeted there by a number of friends and acquaintances, among whom Chaerephon ("who always behaves like a madman") runs up to Socrates to ask how he managed to escape from the brutal battle of Potidaea. News of the battle has just reached Athens. Socrates replies that he escaped "just as you see me now," and Chaerephon asks him to sit down and tell the story.
Socrates is led over to a group that includes Critias. Socrates answers questions about the army and the battle. Eventually, Socrates starts asking about Athens—the state of philosophy these days, whether any youth are particularly wise or beautiful, and so on. Critias points out a group of men just arriving who are the lovers of a remarkably beautiful young man named Charmides (the son of Critias's uncle Glaucon). Socrates recalls meeting Charmides when the young man was still a boy.
Charmides walks in. Socrates pauses in his narration to tell us how particularly bowled over he was by Charmides's looks. Generally, he says, he's a bad judge of beauty, since "all young persons appear beautiful" to him. But Charmides absolutely astonishes Socrates (and everyone else, not just the love-struck men but everyone, down to the smallest boy, "as if [Charmides] had been a statue.") Another troop of would-be lovers follows behind Charmides. Chaerephon asks Socrates what he thinks of Charmides's face, and Socrates admits it's beautiful. But Charmides's face is nothing, Chaerephon says, compared to his naked form, which is "absolutely perfect."
Socrates wishes that this "paragon" of beauty also had a noble soul, and is quickly assured that this is indeed the case. In that case, Socrates says, the company should first "ask him to strip and show us his soul" (i.e., talk with him before seeing him naked). Critias assures Socrates that Charmides (who, he adds, is already a good poet and philosopher) would be happy to talk. Socrates asks Critias to call Charmides over, noting that there would be no sense of "impropriety" in doing so because Critias is his "guardian and cousin." Critias has someone call Charmides and tell him that Critias wants him to come over and see a physician about the illness he's been complaining of—a headache in the morning. Critias persuades Socrates to pretend that he has a cure for headaches.
Charmides comes and sits down, among the riotous jostling of people who want to sit near him. As he sits down between Socrates and Critias, Socrates confesses (to the readers) that he became suddenly very nervous about talking with Charmides. Not only is there a whole crowd looking on, but Socrates is going crazy with lust (having caught sight of the "inwards of [Charmides's] garment" as the young man sat down. Socrates experiences a "wild-beast appetite," and thinks of Cydias's saying, on love, that one should not "bring the fawn in the sight of the lion to be devoured by him." Nonetheless, when Charmides asks after the headache cure, Socrates answers, "with effort," that he does indeed have one: it consists of a special leaf, accompanied by a spoken charm.
It becomes clear that Charmides knows Socrates's name, and that the young man has heard rumors about him (in addition to meeting Socrates at a young age). Socrates says this makes him more comfortable in explaining the nature of the aforementioned charm. He begins with the example of physicians, who never seek just to cure one part of the body without making the whole body well (to do otherwise would be "the height of folly"). Charmides agrees that this is a good policy. Socrates, beginning to feel less nervous now, tells Charmides that he received this "charm" from one of the mystical physicians to the king of Thrace (Zalmoxis), physicians he encountered in the army. These doctors told him that, although the Hellene policy of curing the whole body instead of a part is good, it's even better to start with the soul, and specifically the state of "temperance" that defines a healthy soul (thus the soul-body whole is cured, not just the body). Socrates claims to have taken an oath always to proceed this way.
There are a number of quite remarkable aspects to the way the Charmides is framed, aspects that make it, from the outset, both an intriguing and extremely problematic piece of "philosophy." The first thing to note is the particularly intimate tone of the narration. A few other Platonic dialogues (like the Lysis) use narration by Socrates (such as "I was walking along one day ") rather than direct dialogue (such as "Socrates: Nice to see you, Critias"). But nowhere is the tone of narration addressed so directly and so confidentially to the reader as in the Charmides; at two points in this first section, Socrates actually addresses the reader as "my friend"! It's as if Socrates, after getting out of the army, went first to his friends at the palaestra (where he tells the story of his army time) and then to our living room (where he tells us the story of meeting Charmides at the palaestra). Another possible reading of this intimate narrative, of course, is that it is meant to evoke Plato himself as the "friend" who is dutifully transcribing every word Socrates utters in telling this story (including the word "friend" itself).
In any case, it's crucial that these moments when Socrates addresses us (through Plato) as a "friend" to whom he is telling a story both come in the context of his being knocked head over heels by Charmides's beauty. In the second instance when he uses the word "friend," Socrates is recounting his embarrassment at being so lustfully aroused by a glimpse underneath Charmides's garments. Thus, intimacy pervades this opening section in a number of different ways: not just in the confessional tone of the narrative voice, but also in the rather racy goings-on narrated by that voice. First we hear (though without details) about Socrates's valiant escape from a battle in which "many of our aquaintance had fallen"; then about Socrates's trumping (through the headache trick and his friendship with Critias) of the whole gaggle of Charmides's suitors as the two sit down together; and finally about Socrates's "wild-beast appetite" as he looks up Charmides's skirts. Given all these details, we might wonder: is this philosophy?
The short answer is yes. As in the Lysis, another early Platonic dialogue, the process of philosophy is inextricable in this dialogue both from good storytelling and, more importantly, from desire. Commentators on Plato routinely miss this unusual intermixture, concluding simply that dialogues like the Charmides are, well, just plain bad (at best, they are valuable as windows on how more sophisticated Platonic dialogues looked in their early stages). Thus, Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, in their brief preface to the Charmides (in the 1994 Princeton edition of the dialogues), note simply that the argumentation of the dialogue is "inferior" to the Lysis and the Laches, neither of which is itself much good as far as cogent argumentation goes. The Charmides, then, does little more than demonstrate the "dark and dismal failure" of "ignorance" especially quickly.
If, however, we can read sections of the Charmides like this one not just for their dry, logical, coherent argumentation (of which there is decidedly very little), but also for the way in which philosophy is worked into the vividly colorful social scene of Greek life, then we will be able to learn something that is not available in the other dialogues. The Charmides recommends such a reading from the outset, with Socrates positioned not only as a lover of wisdom but also as a lover of the arts and the follies of love (the first things he asks about after years in the army are the "state of philosophy" and the beauty of the youths). Plato is concerned with making Socrates into a sort of whole, human hero in parts of these early dialogues, in a way that he is not in his later, increasingly theoretical work.
Only after establishing a framework of heroic philosophers and gorgeous young men in place, is it time to play at a little philosophy. We are told, directly, by a storytelling "friend," about Socrates's own martial heroism, his skills (and foibles) as a lover, and even about the mystical, immortality-giving physicians of the Thracian king. Moreover, it's worth noting that Socrates's language itself becomes more mystical and enchanting during this story. But the story of the mystical Thracian charm turns out also to be an early, remarkably colorful version of a very Platonic philosophy, indeed: the notion that all forms of health and happiness ultimately depend on the health of the soul ("temperance," in Greek sophrosyne). With this shift, the dialogue starts to get more argumentative and more familiarly philosophical.