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Charmides

Summary

Section 2 (157c–162b)

Summary Section 2 (157c–162b)

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.