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Study Questions

Dicuss the narrative mode of the Charmides. What is unusual about it? What effect does this have on the dialogue?

The narrative mode of the Charmides is relatively unusual in the Platonic dialogues because it is a direct narration by Socrates rather than a set of lines in dialogue form (as in, ‘Socrates: I agree’). The effect is to make the dialogue seem more personal or intimate, as if Socrates were telling the story directly to the reader as his ‘friend.’ This sense of intimacy is heightened by Socrates’ repeated confessions (to us, but not to the others in the story) as to his strong attraction to Charmides and his nervousness in the young man’s presence. In terms of the dialogue as a whole, this narrative intimacy drops out almost all together through much of the middle part of the dialogue (it might as well be in dialogue form). The pairing of intimate tone and intimate content in the beginning make this shift in the middle all the more striking, thus raising questions about how the two sections are supposed to relate.

How does desire function in the first section of the dialogue?

The Greek term sophrosyne involves a number of senses that cannot be unified in one English term (‘temperance’ probably gets as close as possible). The various sense of sophrosyne can be thought of as moving from the innermost part of the person outward. The soul is well-ordered, knowledge is fully self-aware, the body is healthy, and the whole person does good acts; all these are linked under the notion of sophrosyne, which was one of the highest of Greek ideals. Another useful way of understanding what the term connotes lies in its combination of two Delphic commands: ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Nothing in excess.’ Thus, sophrosyne involves both a sense of wisdom and a sense of controlled balance.

Define sophrosyne, covering its major aspects.

Socrates refutes the notion of temperance as ‘quietness’ on the grounds that many pursuits are noblest and best when they are not performed quietly, and that temperance is both noble and good. Therefore, temperance cannot be defined as quietness. In the case of the definition of temperance as ‘modesty,’ the refutation is a simple one, with a line from Homer as the example: ‘Modesty is not good for a needy man.’ Thus, argues, Socrates, modesty is sometimes bad; if temperance is always good, then it cannot be defined as modesty. One unusual consequence of the first refutation is that Socrates ends up arguing that quickness, energy, and ease (rather than ‘quietness and slowness’) are defining qualities of good and noble gymnastics, but of good and noble thinking and philosophy as well. This seems a somewhat unusual way for Socrates to be talking about the process of philosophy, which, on the model of elenchus that he uses, is difficult and painstaking.

What are Socrates’ refutations of Charmides’ successive arguments that temperance is ‘quietness’ and ‘modesty’? Is there anything unusual in these refutations?

Why does Socrates claim that the definition of temperance as ‘doing our own business’ must be a riddle?

Discuss the nature and significance of the change of interlocutor from Charmides to Critias.

What are some of the various problems with the notion of self-knowledge or ‘knowledge of knowledge.’

Discuss Critias’s accusation that Socrates is only interested in refuting his proposals, and Socrates’ response to that accusation.

After Socrates suggests the idea that he and Critias are perhaps asking too much from wisdom, the dialogue becomes increasingly disjointed and desperate. What goes wrong?

Discuss the significance of the final exchange of the dialogue (between Charmides and Socrates).

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