Skip over navigation

Charmides

Plato

Section 3 (162b–165e)

Section 2 (157c–162b)

Section 4 (165e–169c)

Summary

After the debunking of the definition of temperance as "doing our own business," Socrates begins to suspect that Critias (who appears increasingly agitated) was the original source of the definition. Socrates asks Charmides if he thinks that the person who invented the definition understands it, and proceeds to ask Critias, who is older and more educated, if he would like to try and defend it. Critias agrees. (Here the dialogue form continues, but Critias says much more in his replies than Charmides did in the previous section.)

Socrates continues to argue that craftsmen, for example, make and do things not just for themselves, but also for others, and they can nonetheless be temperate. This presents a problem for the definition of temperance as "doing our own business." Critias replies that craftsmen making something for others is not the same as craftsmen doing something for others. He quotes Hesiod in saying that "work is no disgrace," and argues that, while a worker might do something intemperate, they will remain temperate insofar as what they make is noble and useful. Their work, then, is their own business insofar as their work is useful and noble, and only this kind of noble manual work can truly be called "doing." When men make something that is not so noble or useful can they be said to be doing the business of others.

Socrates objects to Critias's unclear, nitpicky distinctions between doing, making, and working, and asks him to describe more clearly the thing (doing, making, or whatever) by which he would define temperance. Socrates says that it seems that Critias has claimed that doing good (and not evil) is temperance. Critias agrees. Socrates briefly develops this definition to include the stipulation that temperance lies in doing good both for one's client and for oneself (so that the temperate physician benefits both his patient and himself). He then suggests that craftsmen and physicians do not always know when their deeds will benefit both themselves and their clients. In that case, one can be temperate without necessarily knowing it.

Critias objects to this last formulation, withdrawing whatever concessions he has made that would now require him to say that one can be temperate without knowing oneself. For this self-knowledge, he says, is in fact the "essence" of temperance. Critias cites the Delphic oracle's commandment, "Know Thyself," as evidence here, arguing that the statement is nothing less than the gods' greeting to humans and not a simple piece of advice. This command-in-greeting, he argues, is a riddle that means nothing other than "be temperate." Critias proposes that they drop the former, useless argument, and he will now try to defend the definition of temperance as self-knowledge.

Socrates reminds Critias that he (Socrates) doesn't come to these questions with prior knowledge, but that he is rather inquiring after knowledge. After pausing to reflect, Socrates proposes that temperance, if it is a kind of knowledge, must be a science. Critias replies that it is the science of a man's self. But if each science produces a good effect (as medicine, the science of health, produces health, and architecture, the science of building, produces houses), asks Socrates, what good effect does temperance, the science of a man's self, produce?

Analysis

The dialogue takes a fairly drastic turn at this point, as Charmides and Socrates both subtly agitate Critias (who invented the definition they had just thrown out) until he can't help but jump in and argue. Charmides, then, seems simply to evaporate, and the conversation becomes both more serious and less animated by trickery, flirtation, or desire. Critias, as Socrates notes, is significantly more educated than Charmides, and he appears to have devoted much more time to thinking about these philosophical issues than Charmides. In a sense, then, Plato has sent Socrates to "level two" of the debating game. This move happens fairly often in the early dialogues; we are eased into the elenchus by a younger, more naive interlocutor (in the Lysis and the Charmides, this is the beautiful youth) before we hit the more serious discussion.

Socrates's first exchanges with Critias, then, have a pervasive tone of overwrought and even artificial complexity. The first move Critias makes is an extremely scholastic one, citing Hesiod and extrapolating an almost unintelligible (and ultimately irrelevant) set of distinctions between working, doing, and making. The rationale appears to derive almost entirely from the specific verb "to do" in the prior debate over the definition based on "doing our own business." Critias wants to narrow the definition of "doing" by putting it into play with Hesiod's use of "working," thus preventing "doing other people's business" from meaning anything but "doing bad work." After this unnecessarily convoluted argument, we arrive at the rather banal conclusion that temperance is "doing one's own business" simply because doing anything that is "good" counts as one's own business (no matter who it's done for).

Socrates objects to all this nitpicky argumentation, referring it back to the "endless distinctions" made by Prodicus, the philosopher of rhetoric. But he does not object to the unpromisingly broad notion that emerges from these distinctions, the proposition that temperance is "doing good." Instead, in a move that is both brilliant in effect and remarkably awkward in its delivery, Socrates relates this new definition of temperance to self-knowledge: it is granted that people are temperate when they are doing good, but are they always conscious of what they're doing? Part of what Socrates suggests is that temperance involves doing good both for oneself and for others, but that neither craftsmen nor physicians can always tell beforehand what will turn out to be good on both these fronts. In this way, Socrates makes the inability to predict the future seem like a flaw in self-knowledge.

Socrates's argument is hasty and flawed, however. What Plato really wants to do, here, is to introduce what might turn out to be an important criterion for temperance—namely, the internal ordering of the soul. Despite the fact that it is poorly introduced, the criterion of the ordering of the soul will be an extremely important consideration with some very deep philosophical issues attached to it. What, for example, is the relationship between an ordered soul and one's own knowledge of that soul? Is one a requirement for the other? Or, as Critias now wants to argue, are they the same thing? In any case, Charmides's departure from the conversation certainly puts the dialogue on a much more serious, introspective, and, one might say, less distracted track, despite the initial wrangling over petty terminology.

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