Book Club: Early Socratic Dialogues, 5, the Charmides and the nature of self-knowledge

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The Charmides, the next entry in our exploration of the early Socratic dialogues from the homonymous Penguin collection, is a big one. Its primary objective is an exploration of the concept of the cardinal virtue known as sōphrosunē. It is one of the four Socratic virtues found also in the Stoics, the other three being practical wisdom (phronesis, or prudence, from the Latin prudentia), courage and justice. But the dialogue is also about the “paradoxical” Socratic doctrine of the unity of the virtues, the idea that all individual virtues are really different aspects of one fundamental thing, wisdom.

The word sōphrosunē, etymologically, meant something like soundness of mind, but the popular usage in Plato’s time was akin to self-control, the same way in which the Stoics use it. In the Charmides, however, Socrates / Plato is giving it a far wider sense, closer to self-knowledge (from which self-control stems as a consequence). Needless to say, “know thyself” was the primary Socratic dictum, which Socrates inherited from the Oracle at Delphi, and the concept of self knowledge is central to Socratic philosophy.

It is interesting to note that the title character, Charmides, was a relative of Plato (his uncle on his mother’s side, as well as the son of Glaucon, who will play a major role in the Republic). Another major character, Critias, was a cousin of Plato’s mother. Both Critias and Charmides eventually became members of the Thirty Tyrants (indeed, Critias was their leader), who imposed terror in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. They both died in battle, while fighting against the democratic forces. Both Plato, in this dialogue, and Xenophon in his Memorabilia, try to show that Socrates attempted to educate Charmides and Critias in the matter of self-knowledge, but obviously failed.

Another interesting preliminary note is that at the beginning of the dialogue there is a brief appearance of a friend of Socrates, Chaerophon. He is the guy that was told at Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens.

We have seen while studying other dialogues that this sort of search is based on Socrates’ assumption that there is a ousia, an essence, to the definitions of the terms he is interested in. But they all end in a state of aporia, i.e., inconclusiveness, presumably because there is, in fact, no essence to any of these concepts — as Wittgenstein will remark more than two millennia later. That said, Plato was clearly aware of some of the limitations of Socrates’ approach, since even in this dialogue he has Critias articulate a general criticism of analogical arguments in dialectics.

In order to understand one of the main points of the dialogue, the one about the unity of virtue, we need to keep in mind that for Socrates the virtues were types of technē, i.e., skills or crafts, analogous to other technai like shoemaking and weaving. These were a body of precisely attainable knowledge (epistēmē), but there is a difference between knowledge of oneself and other technai: unlike the others, it does not seem to have a product (like shoes for shoemaking, baskets for weaving, and so forth).

The dialogue begins with Socrates saying that he just came back from the battle of Potidaea, which was fought in 432 BCE and was one of the catalysts of the Peloponnesian War. After exchanging some news related to the events, there is a shift to philosophy, and Socrates characterizes sōphrosunē — even before arriving at a definition of it — as “health of the soul.”

Critias tells Socrates that Charmides (who has not appeared yet on the scene) is exceptionally handsome and amazingly tall. To which Socrates responds:

“Goodness, how irresistible you make him sound, provided that he happens to have just one other little thing.’ ‘What’s that?’ asked Critias. ‘Provided that he happens to be endowed with a fine soul.’” (154)

When Charmides finally makes his entry, Socrates is duly impressed, and not by the youth’s fine soul:

“Everyone in the wrestling-school swarmed all round us. That was the moment, my noble friend, when I saw what was inside his cloak. I was on fire, I lost my head, and I considered Cydias to be the wisest man in matters of love.” (155)

Eventually, Socrates pulls himself together and gets around to inquire whether Charmides is equipped with self-control, and he is assured by Critias that he is indeed. But Socrates wants to make sure for himself:

“‘Well then, so that we can guess whether it is in you or not, tell me,’ I said, ‘what you say self-control is in your opinion.’” (159)

Charmides’ first attempt at defining sōphrosunē is pretty weak: he says that it is quiet conduct in society, an obvious result of his aristocratic upbringing. But Socrates dispatches of this pretty quickly, by pointing out that self-control is kalon (i.e., beautiful, admirable), while quieteness is not always kalon, therefore sōphrosunē can’t be quietness.

“But, my friend, if at the most there are in fact as many quiet actions which are more admirable as there are vigorous and quick ones, it still wouldn’t mean that doing things quietly would be self-control any more than doing them vigorously and quickly would.” (160)

Charmides then moves to a second definition, shifting to the description of an inner condition that manifests itself outwardly as modesty. But Socrates will have none of that either, since self-control is not just admirable, but also good. Modesty, by contrast, is not always good, from which it follows that self-control is not modesty.

[Charmides] “Well, I think that self-control makes a man feel shame and be bashful, and that self-control is the same thing as modesty.” (160)

[Socrates] “Self-control can’t be modesty, if it really is a good thing, and if modesty is no more a good thing than a bad one.” (161)

The third definition proposed by Charmides is that self-control is akin to doing one’s job well. Which Socrates rejects along similar lines as before: self-control is good, but sometimes doing one’s job properly is not good, so self-control is different from doing one’s job well. Socrates then turns to Critias, who proposes the fourth definition: self-control is the doing of good things.

Socrates then investigates whether it is possible to be self-controlled without knowing it, by presenting the following argument: (i) self-control is doing what one should; (ii) doing what one should is doing good; therefore: (iii) self-control is doing good; but (iv) one may do good without knowing it; therefore: (v) one may be self-controlled without knowing it.

[Socrates] “‘So sometimes,’ I said, ‘the doctor does something beneficial or harmful without knowing which he has done. And yet, according to what you say, in doing what is beneficial, he has done what is self-controlled. Wasn’t that your point?’”

[Critias] “Yes, it was.” (164)

Socrates aint’ happy with this:

“If you think that that must follow as a result of what I admitted earlier, I’d rather retract part of that admission – and I’d not be ashamed to say that I was wrong – than ever allow that a man who does not know himself is self-controlled.” (164)

The fifth definition proposed is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of oneself. But Socrates attempts to deny this too, by pointing out that sōphrosunē does not seem to have a product, unlike, say, knowledge of medicine, which produces health (and so it is not a type of knowledge). Critias rightly responds that other kinds of knowledge also lack a product: arithmetics, for instance. Socrates says that while this is true, it is also the case that arithmetic is knowledge of numbers, but numbers are not arithmetic itself. At this point, the definition of sōphrosunē is modified to knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self, that is, knowledge of knowledge.

[Critias] “Indeed, I’d almost say that is what self-control really is, knowing oneself. I agree with the man who dedicated the inscription to that effect at Delphi.” (164)

[Socrates] “If indeed self-control is knowing something, it will obviously be a knowledge and a knowledge of something, won’t it?”

[Critias] “‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Of oneself.’” (165)

[Critias] “‘But Socrates,’ he said, ‘your method of investigating the question is wrong. It isn’t like the other knowledges, and they aren’t like one another either; but you’re conducting the investigation as if they were. For tell me,’ he went on, ‘what is the product of the art of arithmetic or geometry.” (165)

[Critias] “‘That’s just it, Socrates,’ he said. ‘You’ve come in your investigation to the question of what the difference is between self-control and all the other knowledges. You’re trying to find some similarity between it and the others. There isn’t any. All the others are knowledges of something else, not of themselves. Self-control alone is the knowledge both of the other knowledges and of its own self.” (166)

Socrates attempts again an argument from analogy, in this case with vision. Vision sees color, but it does not see itself. Similarly, desire desires pleasure, it does not desire itself. And so on.

[Socrates] “It would appear we’re saying that there is some such knowledge, which is the knowledge of no branch of learning, but is the knowledge of itself and the other knowledges?” (169)

Interestingly, at this point Socrates grants the possibility that sōphrosunē is knowledge of knowledge, but points out that then it follows that in order to know other things, for instance that an alleged doctor is actually a quack, one needs a different kind of knowledge, namely knowledge of medicine. It would seem, then, that one must possess both sōphrosunē (knowledge that one knows) and technē (professional skill).

[Socrates] “Supposing there is a knowledge of knowledge, will it be able to determine anything more than that one thing is knowledge and another is not?”

[Critias] “No, just that.”

[Socrates] “Is it the same thing as knowledge and ignorance of what is healthy? Is it the same as knowledge and ignorance of what is just?”

[Critias] “Not at all.’’ (170)

[Socrates] “How will he know by that knowledge what he knows? For example, he knows what is healthy by medicine, not by self-control; what is harmonious, by music, not by self-control; what makes a building, by the art of building, not by self-control; and so on. Doesn’t he?”

[Critias] “So it seems.” (170)

[Socrates] “So the man who is ignorant of that won’t know what he knows, but only that he knows.”

[Critias] “It would appear so.” (170)

[Socrates] “So he won’t be able to distinguish the man who pretends to be a doctor, but isn’t, from the man who really and truly is one, or indeed to distinguish any other of those who know from any other of those who don’t.” (170)

If sōphrosunē doesn’t help us with deciding things like whether an alleged doctor is a quack, what is it good for? Well, it is a kind of super-knowledge, which presides over the performance of the other kinds of knowledge, insuring their correct functioning. While a good practitioner of any skill (like medicine) will require the pertinent technical knowledge, technical knowledge by itself is not a guarantee of a good and happy life.

[Socrates] “Does knowing knowledge and ignorance, which is what we are now discovering self-control to be, bring the following advantage, that the man who possesses this knowledge will more easily learn whatever else he learns, and everything will appear clearer to him inasmuch as he will see, in addition to each thing he learns, its knowledge?” (172)

Critias now suggests that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. Socrates is skeptical, however, that this sort of knowledge can be beneficial, again because unlike other forms of knowledge, it doesn’t produce a product. Here, however, it seems like Socrates is getting a bit stubborn and even sophistic, while Critias’ position, though not necessarily logically airtight, is more sensible. Consider this exchange:

[Critias] “‘Why wouldn’t self-control benefit us?’ he asked. ‘If self-control is in the fullest sense the knowledge of knowledges and presides over the other knowledges too, it would certainly govern the knowledge of good too and consequently benefit us.’”

[Socrates] “‘Would it make us healthy too,’ I asked, ‘not medicine? Would it make the products of the other arts, instead of each of them making its own? Weren’t we solemnly declaring all this time that it was knowledge only of knowledge and ignorance and of nothing else? Isn’t that so?’”

[Critias] “Apparently.”

[Socrates] “So it won’t be the producer of health?”

[Critias] “Certainly not.” (174)

But Socrates/Plato is going somewhere with this. While the dialogue ends in the usual aporia (inconclusiveness), with no clear winning definition, Socrates does say that sōphrosunē is beneficial, he just can’t prove it, blaming his own shortcomings as a philosopher for that. The translator of the dialogue takes this, rightly I think, to be a strong hint that the preferred definition is that sōphrosunē is knowledge of good and bad. This, however, would be a definition not of a specific virtue, but of virtue itself, which means that — as in the Laches — Socrates is arguing for the unity of virtue. It also follows that virtue is a type of knowledge, a famous Socratic paradox (meaning “uncommon opinion,” not a logical contradiction).

(next: the Hippias Major on what it means when something is “fine”)

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Categories: Ancient philosophy

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32 replies

  1. Massimo,

    In Indonesian translation of Charmides (by Setyo Wibowo) the word ‘sophrosune’ = ‘keugaharian’ (self-control, moderation). Anyway, thanks for writing this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Socratic,

    On the noble lie issue, I understand that virtue ethics is more situational than deontology, which isn’t at all, basically. But … it’s not as situational as utilitarianism, is it?

    hmm, good question. I don’t think of utilitarianism as a type of situational ethics, because it is guided by a universal rule (the maximization of the happiness function), while virtue ethics has no rule of any sort (unless you want to count “be virtuous” as one).

    potential overindulgence of a noble lie risks getting onto various slippery slopes. Modern Straussian political philosophy is an obvious example, at least to the great number of we non-Straussians

    Of course, but that’s why one of the four cardinal virtues is practical wisdom, the knowledge of what truly is good or bad. The Straussian, in the Socratic scheme, is “ignorant,” meaning that he lacks wisdom.

    Socrates could counter that the depth of human ignorance is sometimes great. I would rather counter that the depth of human psychology is great, including how it can be both well-informed and perverted.

    There is no contradiction, there, I think. Remember that ignorance means lack of wisdom, not just lack of information.

    ultimately, his use of the veil of ignorance and its removal stem from his beliefs in reincarnation

    No, I don’t think so. I see no evidence that Socrates believed in reincarnation (Republic is already far from Socratic thinking), and certainly the Stoics didn’t.

    As with nuancing some areas of volition, will, and consciousness with Massimo, though we still have areas of disagreement, I honestly like the back-and-forth

    I have no doubt about it, and I was teasing you about the handle.

    Robin,

    Is that his point? But why would you ever need to explain to someone, something they already knew? Wouldn’t you just need to help them recollect?

    That isn’t the point of the current dialogue, but it is an epistemic position that pops up in several others. And yes, that’s why Socrates thought of himself as a philosophical “midwife”: he wasn’t teaching others, as much as helping them recollect.

    I can’t see that Plato felt that there was a definite definition for these concepts or that one was needed, if people knew what friendship and courage were and could recognise them when they saw them

    The textual evidence points toward Plato strongly thinking that we need clear definitions. Yes, people use them, but that’s the point: if you use a tool without understanding it properly, you are labile to use it incorrectly.

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