Thoughts on Plato’s Charmides

Plato’s Charmides is a curious dialogue. Whereas the Republic considers the question of justice in the “city in speech”, the Charmides considers the question of tyranny within the city, or at least in the examples of Charmides and Critias.

Similar to the Republic, however, Socrates is the narrator of the Charmides and at least twice he breaks the fourth wall. While the Republic is told to an unknown audience the day after the discussion at Cephalus’s house actually took place, Charmides is presumably recounted many years later. Socrates was a young man at the time, freshly returning to camp from the battle at Potidaea, where he was praised for his courage. The timing of the Charmides dialogue occurs in 429 BC on the day before Socrates returns to Athens. Now time has passed and Socrates is set to return to Athens. He is curious to see what the state of philosophy is. Prior to leaving for the war, Socrates lived in Athenian splendor under Pericles. Now, he is returning to a war-torn and plague-ridden city. Explicitly the Charmides is a dialogue about the question of temperance, but covertly, it is a dialogue examining Socrates’s failure to teach Critias and the dangers of philosophy among those who use philosophy as an instrument of power -a la the tyrant. Critias was also a silent observer in the Protagoras dialogue. The full exposition of what Socrates has learned at Potidaea will not become apparent until his discussion in the Republic. 

Socrates first engages with Critias and Chaerephon in an exclusive setting. Chaerephon is a close follower of Socrates, and Critias is also a follower of Socrates but he is less temperate and philosophic (Critias later becomes a violent member of the Athenian Thirty Tyrants). Together Critias and Chaerephon praise the beauty of a young, up and coming man named Charmides. When Charmides approaches, all eyes are on him. Socrates says he first wishes to examine the soul of Charmides before judging whether or not he is beautiful. Charmides joins the men amidst great laughter.

Socrates begins to question Charmides and they proceed to examine the idea of temperance. Charmides tries to avoid the question, blushing (recall Thrasymachus’s famous blush in the Republic) but Socrates compels Charmides to give a definition of temperance. Charmides first says that temperance is a kind of orderly quietness (159B), however this definition is quickly dismissed by their discussion. Charmides gives a second definition: temperance is modesty. When this is also proven incorrect, Charmides gives a third and final definition that he once heard: temperance is minding ones own business (recall Cephalus’s definition of justice in the Republic). Unlike the Socrates of the Republic, Socrates in Charmides rapidly dismisses this definition, as well.

When Charmides fails, Critias takes up the argument but Socrates quickly compels Critias to admit the opposite of his initial claims, namely that he does not know what he is talking about with respect to temperance. The conversation begins to turn sharply toward the question of virtue. However, the most important part of the dialogue occurs at the conclusion wherein Critias, who has recently proven ignorant of his own claims, commands Charmides to undertake Socrates’s quest in finding an answer to the question of temperance, and as his tutor, Critias also commands Charmides to use force if need be. This is particularly notable as Charmides and Critias will soon join the thirty Tyrants in a violent coup of Athens, making the question of their intemperate nature all the more pressing. Socrates tries to dissuade the men from using force but ultimately he fails. The philosopher is compelled by the tyrant.

The character of Charmides is the one whom we are called to consider in the greatest detail. The dialogue takes his namesake. Upon first impression, we take note that Charmides is known for his beauty and well-born status, but he is also capable of and interested in the pursuit of philosophy. Like Thrasymachus he blushes, knowing that he is incapable of doing what Socrates asks of him. He does not wish to be put on trial and responds more to the forceful obedience of Critias, than to the open-ended exploration of Socrates. He is unsatisfied with hanging a question mark on the end of things, and instead he prefers to stamp the world with his own meaning, as Kant would put it. He is noble, yet a tyrant in his agitated soul, following in the footsteps of Critias.


For this reading I used the Rosamond Kent Sprague translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.

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