Philosophical Themes, Arguments, and Ideas

Philosophical Themes, Arguments, and Ideas


Temperance involves a number of notions that are central to Plato's philosophy. "Temperance" translates the Greek word sophrosyne, which has a number of meanings that exceed the English word. The Greek connotes, simultaneously, both an inner order of the soul and a kind of self-knowing restraint; the two are linked together in a whole person who is "temperate" in soul, in body, in self-awareness, and in action. There are a few references to the ordered soul in the Charmides, particularly as a kind of "cure" that philosophical inquiry might be able to effect. But the full Platonic sense of the ordered soul as both a cause of and a metaphor for the external order of the body or society is not drawn out here. The aspect of temperance that becomes central to the Charmides is that of self-knowledge; the most significant and philosophically complex definitions that the dialogue tests for sophrosyne depend on questions of what it might mean to know one's own knowledge (including knowing what one does not know). Though this issue is wrestled with at length, it is never resolved here.

Self-knowledge and aporia

As discussed above ("Temperance"), self-knowledge is the fundamental but extremely problematic good with which the Charmides is primarily concerned. As the hypothetical definition of temperance that dominates most of the dialogue's debate, self-knowledge expands into a quality that is both more precise and less graspable than mere self-awareness. Specifically, the self- knowledge that defines temperance must be a knowledge of knowledge itself; as such, it involves knowing what one knows and what one does not know. This model, as Socrates points out, means that we are dealing with a kind of knowledge whose "subject matter" is simultaneously knowledge itself ("what one knows") and the absence of knowledge ("what one does not know"). The paradoxes involved in this complex version of self-knowledge, then, are multiple: knowing what one does not know; a knowledge that must know the absence of itself; and further, a knowledge whose subject matter is pure knowledge, but whose effect in terms of actual good must somehow be in the realm of practical, concrete knowledge. The primary problem here can be summed up as the problem of defining something by its relation to itself. These problems prove intractable in the Charmides, and the dialogue ends in aporia (a state of indeterminacy in which one realizes that one does not know what one thought one knew)—this is the most common end (one might even say aim) of the early Platonic dialogues. But aporia is also involved with self-knowledge in another way: namely, the provision that self-knowledge must know what it does not know creates aporia, and seems to say that the aporia associated with the Platonic method is also a key ingredient in being temperate.

Wisdom and the State

Although the Charmides does not have much to say about the ideal, wisdom- governed state compared with the lengthy analysis of such a state in the Republic, Socrates does touch on the idea multiple times in one particularly problematic section of the dialogue. He and Critias have run into trouble trying to conceive of temperance as a knowledge of knowledge itself (and thus as a kind of "science" that knows, abstractly, all other sciences). Socrates, in this moment of difficulty, extrapolates what he takes himself and Critias really to be seeking in this abstract notion: the ideal society, a world ruled by wisdom as pure knowledge-of-knowledge. Everything in such a state would necessarily be perfect, from shoemaking to the navy to oracles, because everything would be done according to knowledge (and never to ignorance, since knowledge of knowledge also knows what it does not know). Such a state, Socrates suggests, is almost unimaginably ideal; in any case, it is "nowhere to be found." Thus, the perfect state becomes both an extrapolation of Critias's and Socrates's primary definition of temperance and an illustration showing that such a definition is too idealistic, that it aims too high. After all, it remains unclear how pure reflexive knowledge might actually make anyone happy.


Like the Lysis, the Charmides is framed on both ends by an erotic situation: Socrates is awestruck by and irresistibly attracted to the famous beauty, Charmides (see "Historical Context" in the "Context" section for more details on male/male love in Hellenistic society). The pull of desire is very strong here: Socrates feels a "wild-beast appetite" for Charmides, and is nearly struck dumb with nervousness when the young man finally comes over to speak to him. At the end of the dialogue, a curious exchange occurs in which Charmides both agrees to become Socrates's devoted pupil and tells him, "Do not resist me." The exchange seems to highlight the curious play of dominance and submission that desire injects into the dialogue, even as the return of the desired object (Charmides) into the dialogue seems to rejuvenate the promise of philosophy. In fact, the desire of an older man for a younger one was not separate, in ancient Athens, from a desire and duty to impart wisdom to the youth—this blend of the lover/beloved and teacher/student relationships frames Socrates's interaction with attractive young interlocutors like Lysis or Charmides. In any case, this dense network of interpersonal emotions and relations contrasts rather starkly with the fairly strict philosophical conversation (between Socrates and Critias, while Charmides remains silent) that occupies the middle sections of the dialogue. The contrast seems largely to balance out any assignment of value to one side or the other: the pure relationship of two men pursuing knowledge comes across both as an escape from base desire, but also as a dead end.

The elenchus and the philosophical process

Platonic dialogues that actually involve a significant amount of dialogue generally take the form of the elenchus—this is especially true of Plato's earlier dialogues. The elenchus is both a form of debate and a form of inquiry: by proposing and refuting hypotheses, two people proceed, primarily through negations, toward a positive knowledge (or at least toward an understanding that they do not know what they thought they knew. The elenchus ties the content of the Charmides to its form in a subtle but powerful way. Temperance as self-knowledge (the primary focus of the dialogue) must involve knowing what one does not know; elenchus (the form of the dialogue) is a process of proceeding toward knowledge through refutation, through a process of realizing what one does not know. In the end, the elenchus as philosophical process is one of the few things we feel we might be able to salvage from the "failure" of Socrates's and Critias's debate.