Charmides

by: Plato

Section 4 (165e–169c)

Summary Section 4 (165e–169c)

This claim to purely disinterested, primarily negative argumentation, free from personal ego-investment, takes on a great deal more complexity in light of the beginning of the dialogue, which is full of deception, emotion, and deep personal investment (recall Socrates's anxiety about talking with Charmides). If Socrates's claim here about true philosophical argument seems to be questionable in light of the dialogue's opening moments, it certainly is. At the same time, the contradiction lies more with the text itself (i.e., with Plato) than with Socrates. What might be perceived as a contradiction between personal desire and disinterested argumentation is probably, for Plato, a difference with an important point: Socrates is capable of dropping base desire for pure philosophy, capable of replacing the incontrollable loss of self that happens in lust for the elevated, noble, and purposeful loss of self that should occur in philosophical debate.

For there is a loss of self in Socrates's notion of argument, a loss of self that is not just a matter of casting pride aside: Socrates claims that his refutations of Critias are just as much refutations of himself. Thematically, this aspect of the elenchus as a kind of metaphysical manipulation of the self leads quite strongly into the profound formulations about temperance as the "science of itself" that follow soon after. The central issue here is how to conceive of a science or of a form of knowledge that is defined both by its relation to itself (because it must know itself) and by its relation to its own absence (because it must know what it does not know). This "science" called wisdom must also be a science of all the other sciences, but this is a much less difficult proposition.

Our questions from the last section, about the relationship between self-knowledge and the ordered soul (temperance), have now expanded into a deep consideration of what it might mean to have self-knowledge at all. Socrates's remarkable (and difficult) contribution here is just one, particularly dense formulation of the maxim for which he is perhaps best known: not the ancient Delphic oracle's "know thyself," but rather the more disturbing maxim, "all I know is that I know nothing."