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 dialogue and at least twice he breaks the fourth wall. While the Republic is told the following day after the discussion at Cephalus’s house, Charmides is presumably recounted many years later. Socrates was a young man freshly returning to camp from the battle at Potidaea, where he was praised for his courage. This occurs somewhere in 429 BC on the day before Socrates returns to Athens. Recall that Critias was a silent observer in the Protagoras dialogue, and now that 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 resided 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. 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 away from the others. Chaerephon isa close follower of Socrates, and together Critias and Chaerephon praise the beauty of a young, up and coming man named Charmides. When Charmides approaches, all eyes are on him and 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 word temperance. Charmides tries to avoid the question, blushing (recall Thrasymachus’s famous blush) but Socrates compels Charmides to give a definition: he first says that temperance is a kind of orderly quietness (159B), however this definition is quickly dismissed by their discussion and again Charmides gives a second definition: temperance is modesty. When this is also proven incorrect, Charmides gives a third and final definition that he had once heard -temperance is minding ones own business (recall Cephalus’s definition of justice in the Republic). Unlike the Socrates of the Republic, he rapidly dismisses this definition, as well.

When Charmides fails, Critias takes up the argument but Socrates 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, 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 later joined the thirty Tyrants who took over Athens, post Peloponnesian War, making the question of their intemperate nature all the more pressing. Socrates tries to persuade them against using force but ultimately fails, as the philosopher is compelled by the tyrant.

The character of Charmides is the one whom we are called to consider in the greatest detail, because the dialogue takes his namesake. Upon first impression, we take note that he 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 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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