Skip over navigation

Charmides

Plato

Section 2 (157c–162b)

Section 1 (153a–157c)

Section 3 (162b–165e)

Summary

Critias agrees that Socrates should try to cure not just Charmides's headache, but also his soul. Charmides is then praised both by Critias (for his temperance) and Socrates (for his illustrious family heritage). Socrates proceeds to point out that, if all this praise and noble heritage is true, then Charmides has no need of the "charm" that makes the soul temperate—he only needs the "leaf" part of the cure. Socrates asks Charmides if this is indeed the case. Charmides blushes (which, Socrates tells us, only makes him more beautiful), and answers that he can't really say: to say he's not temperate of soul would be an untoward self-accusation, and would go against Critias's claims; but to claim such temperance would be boastful and therefore indicate "ill manners."

Socrates proposes an "inquiry" to determine whether or not Charmides is already temperate of soul—this way, Charmides won't have to answer himself. Charmides agrees to give it a try, giving Socrates free reign. The discussion begins with Socrates proposing that, if Charmides has temperance, then he must have some notion of what that is, some "intimation of her nature and qualities." After some hesitation, Charmides answers that temperance is a matter of doing everything "quietly"; thus, temperance is a kind of quietness.

Socrates argues that temperance is surely to be found in the "noble and good" (at this point, true dialogue begins, with Socrates framing his arguments in the form of brief questions, to which Charmides generally just assents). But in things like writing, reading, musicianship, and wrestling, quickness and sharpness are good and noble, whereas "quietness and slowness" are "bad and unsightly." Thus, "in reference to the body" especially, quickness rather than quietness will be more temperate (since temperance is a good). The same dominance of quickness and energy holds for learning, teaching, remembering, understanding, deliberation and discovery, and so on; "is not cleverness," Socrates asks, "a quickness of the soul?"

With this line of argument, then, quietness is dismissed as the definition of temperance. Socrates asks Charmides to try again. Charmides makes a "manly effort," and comes up with modesty as the new definition. Socrates points out that Homer (in the Odyssey, at 17.347) says, "Modesty is not good for a needy man." Thus, modesty is at least sometimes not good, and so cannot define temperance (which Charmides has agreed is always good).

Charmides suddenly recalls something that someone told him about temperance: "Temperance is doing our own business." Socrates, after some brief, inconclusive questions about where Charmides heard this, claims that it is a kind of riddle: "whoever uttered [this definition] seems to have meant one thing, and said another." Asked why this is the case, Socrates cites the example of the schoolmaster who asks students to write down names of both enemies and friends, since his aim in writing them is merely to teach writing. The students are doing nothing intemperate in this case, even though they are not doing just their own business (because they are not writing just their own names and that of the schoolmaster). The same difficulty holds in many cases of "doing" (of which writing is one): a state which compelled men to wash only their own clothing and dishes (in their entirety), for example, would be an intemperate, poorly-ordered state.

Thus, whatever philosopher gave the "doing our own business" definition must, unless he was a fool, have had a "hidden meaning." Charmides admits that he doesn't know what this might be; he can no longer say what "doing one's own business" really means.

Analysis

After the humor, high drama, and bawdiness of the first section, here we are introduced to the rather informal and highly problematic features of the "philosophical" dialogue itself. At the outset, we should remember to keep in mind the full meaning of the term translated here as "temperance," which has significantly less resonance than the Greek term it translates (sophrosyne; see "Temperance" in the Terms list). It is this temperance, this particular goodness, harmony, or proper ordering of the soul, that Socrates's "inquiry" is supposed to search out in Charmides.

This intriguing diagnostic notion of searching-out, which stems largely from the melodramatic mysticism of Socrates's tall-tale about the Thracian "charm" in the first section, quickly gets transformed into the more mundane process by which most early Platonic dialogues proceed: Charmides gives definitions of temperance, and Socrates shows that they don't make sense. Despite this transformation, however, the notion that the Socratic elenchus is a kind of diagnostic tool wielded by a semi-mystical physician of the soul (a physician, moreover, whose art will turn out to depend on an admission of ignorance) is an important and far-reaching point to recognize.

In a sense, in the early dialogues Socrates diagnoses and treats people's harmful assumption that they know what good (or wisdom or temperance or courage) is. Linking such philosophical medicine with mystical or cult-like phenomena (like the Thracian immortality-doctors) is partly a trick. Socrates is concerned and quite nervous about keeping a famously beautiful young man engaged in conversation, and we can imagine Plato having a similar concern and nervousness about his readers' engagement with a philosophical text. In this sense, the blurry line between Socrates's actual status as a physician-philosopher and his colorful and probably deceitful claim that he is a heroic physician-mystic is there to hold our interest as much as Charmides. This is one way in which the Charmides becomes more than just a kind of pure philosophical argument.

A second undertone to the discussion in this section lies in Socrates's gradual regaining of his footing after being so dumbstruck by Charmides's beauty. A similar emergence of Socrates's argumentative dominance over the erotic charge of his interlocutor takes place in the Lysis; in both cases, we are given a fascinating glimpse into philosophy's attempt to break itself free from the grip of physical emotion, and in both cases this process is never completed. In a sense, this struggle has a great deal to do with the extent to which the very philosophical ideals being sought and discussed are actually embedded in the body. Temperance is an ordering of the soul, but it is intimately and directly linked to an ordering of the body and is expressed largely through the beauty and grace of the body.

This utter intertwining of soul and body—and its narrative counterpart in the intertwining of philosophy and eros—is analogous to the strange way in which Socrates figures thought and "deliberation" in this section: namely, he figures philosophical thought and discovery, at their most noble, as "quick" and "energetic" rather than "deliberate" or "difficult." This is a graceful, almost bodily kind of thinking, paired primarily with gymnastics, and it is certainly not the first thing we might think of when we think of the Socratic method—which is extremely involved and deliberate, and which rarely reaches much in the way of quick, "easy" discovery.

As for the shoddy arguments surrounding the notion of temperance as "doing your own business," they are not of great importance here. They will be developed in the next section. We might note, however, that Socrates makes a brief link between the temperate soul and the well-ordered state, a link that will provide the central metaphor in Plato's Republic.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us