Charmides

by: Plato

Section 3 (162b–165e)

Summary Section 3 (162b–165e)

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.