Charmides Reading: Critias under examination

NOTE: This is the 9th of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

**This post was last revised on Sunday, June 14, 2015 at 4:45 pm EST. Scroll down to read the additions.**

Some friends and I gathered the morning of June 12th to continue our discussion of Plato’s dialogue Charmides.  I will be adding remarks to this post in the coming hours and days. Keep checking back, both in the comments and the body of the post for additional reflections.

Today we discussed 162c to 167a, from 162c (when Critias takes over from Charmides) to 167a (just before Socrates calls for a “third libation”). Along the way Critias gives several accounts of the nature of sophrosyne.) These definitions shade into one another, and it seems that Critias is convinced they are elaborations of the original definition. For the purpose of easy communication let me list the various versions of sophrosyne defended by Critias in our reading:

(1) minding one’s own business; doing one’s own thing (the definition he takes over from Charmides);

(2) the doing of good things (163e)

(3) knowledge of oneself (165b)

(4) knowledge of oneself and all knowledges and non-knowledges (166e)

(5) knowing what one knows and does not know (167a)

What do you think? Do you agree with Critias’ tacit assumption that these are all variants of one definition? How do these relate to your understanding of sophrosyne so far? Do they illuminate the issue at all? Are they consistent with the virtue we were considering when we discussed Charmides’ attempts**?

**Just to review Charmides’ definitions:

(a) a sort of quietness (159b)

(b) a sense of shame, modesty, respectfulness (160e)

(c) minding one’s business; doing one’s own thing (161b)

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(UPDATE on June 13, 2015 at 10:45 am EST.)

Let’s focus on one pivotal moment in the text, that of Critias taking over the argument from Charmides:

It had long been clear that Critias was anxious to contend and win honor before both Charmides and those present; and having held himself back with difficulty earlier, he now become unable to. (162c, West translation)

A few comments:

(1) There is an interesting irony in Critias’ being unable to control himself in his eagerness to explain what self-control (sophrosyne) is. This comes on the heels of the irony of Charmides offering the definition that sophrosyne is “doing one’s own thing” while reciting another’s definition. In both cases, there is a performative contradiction between utterance and the presuppositions implicit in the act of uttering it. Don’t think for a minute that Plato was unmindful of these ironies!

(2) Critias enters the fray from his eagerness to impress those present. Contrast that zeal to speak with the inhibiting modesty that Charmides asserted as sophrosyne in his second definition. The sensitivity to the gaze of others that I highlighted in my talk on the second definition of Charmides can take either of two aspects: inhibition or exhibition. Social inhibition surely has a important kinship with self-control, but what of this other aspect, the tendency toward exhibition?

(3) Socrates tells us that Critias was anxious “to contend and win honor” (ἀγωνιῶν καὶ φιλοτίμως) in order to impress Charmides and the others. Regarding this motivation of honor-loving: will Critias be more able to discover the meaning of sophrosyne or less? Do honor-loving and its twin, victory-loving, aid or arrest the movement of philosophy?

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(UPDATE on June 13, 2015 at 5:45 pm EST.)

In my last update, I touched on the issue of performative contradiction and mentioned that Plato does not slip that in innocently. I think there is a contradiction built into the virtue of sophrosyne itself that I would like to consider. Let’s begin with the concrete example of trying to be better sleepers. Our sleep habits are a good proxy for the presence of sophrosyne in our souls. In my early twenties I was a terrible insomniac, finding it difficult both to fall asleep and to wake on time. My time in the military cured me by forcing me to wake consistently at an uncomfortably early hour. This led me to an insight about myself with respect to proper sleep habits. I developed a maxim that one must always “wake a little before one wants to” if one is to become a self-possessed sleeper. I shouldn’t snooze or bargain — just wake to my alarm without negotiating. If I obey that maxim, I have no trouble sleeping. It is an ingrained habit now. Other maxims of a similar caste: stop eating before you want to stop eating; stop reading while you still have the desire to press on, etc. Take a closer look at these maxims. If I obey such a maxim, don’t I *want* to obey it and wake up? But I also *want* to keep sleeping. So WHO wants to keep sleeping and WHO wants to wake up? Can the “who” in each case be the same if each possesses contradictory desires? Do you see the problem inherent in self-control, in sophrosyne? Self-inhibition is by its very nature self-contradictory! No wonder self-help books don’t work!

If we naively accept Critias’ contention that sophrosyne has itself as object, we becomes mired in performative contradiction. We have to want to inhibit what, by its nature, doesn’t want to be inhibited. And Critias would have us believe both sides are the same. Bernard Lonergan states the problem precisely, a problem endemic to all self-directed growth:

“Present perceptiveness is to be enlarged, and the enlargement is not perceptible to present perceptiveness. Present desires and fears have to be transmuted and the transmutation is not desirable to present desire but fearful to present fear.” — Bernard Lonergan, Insight, p. 473

Socrates mention that sophrosyne, to be knowledge, must be “of something” (165c) touches on the necessity of difference in self-reflective concern. The exception that Critias wants to make in the case of sophrosyne, that it alone of among the knowledges is a knowledge of itself (166b-c), elides the problem of critical distance that Socrates introduces. There is a strange duality present in self-reflective knowing, when the knower and the known are the same. (Reflect a little about this yourself.) In later contributions I want to consider this duality in more depth.

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(UPDATE on June 14, 2015 at 4:45 pm EST.)

To explore the contradiction between knower and known in self-knowledge, first consider Socrates’ various instructions to Charmides:

Now it is clear that if sophrosyne is present in you, you [159] have some opinion about it. Because it is necessary, I suppose, that if it really resides in you, it provides a sense of its presence, by means of which you would form an opinion not only that you have it but of what sort it is….[Tell] us what you say sophrosyne is in you opinion. (158e – 159a)

“Then start over again, Charmides,” I said, “and look into yourself with greater concentration, and when you have decided what effect the presence of sophrosyne has upon you and what sort of thing it must be to have this effect, then put all this together and tell me clearly and bravely, what [e] does it appear to you to be?” (159d – e)

In both of these instructions, Socrates asks Charmides to state verbally the product of reflective self-observation. Assuming the stated opinion that follows after this inward look is an accurate expression of the opinion (i.e doxa: “seeming true”) found there, then does that mean the result is necessarily self-knowledge? Is self-knowledge the ability to give a faithful report of one’s own interior perceptions?

In any case, Socrates is asking Chamides to give his “own” opinion, which he seems to attempt in the first two definitions but fails to do in the third. There he claims to have heard from another that sophrosyne is “doing one’s own things” and Socrates takes him to task for having heard it from someone else. This opinion, and the way it is introduced by Charmides, makes it evident that the third definition is not “his own thing”. But do the opinions we reveal by taking a good look into ourselves really “belong” to us in the deep sense required for self-knowledge? This question is important and the problems it raises are at the heart of the meaning Critias gives to “one’s own” as doing “good things”. For instance, can we own a false opinion since its falsity will stem from a lack of self-knowledge? No, we cannot knowingly own a false opinion; we can only self-knowingly own good (i.e. true) opinions. So it seems that Critias’ equation of goodness and “own-ness” has some merit. An implication is that all knowledge requires self-knowledge.

Notice later that Socrates asks Critias for NOT to claim ownership of his stated definition of sophrosyne:

“Pluck up courage then, my friend, and answer the question as seems best to you, paying no attention to whether it is Critias or Socrates who [e] is being refuted. Instead, give your attention to the argument itself to see what the result of its refutation will be.” (166d-e)

Do you sense another contradiction here? Socrates is adamant that Charmides state his *own* opinion and equally adamant that Critias should *disown* his. What is going on with this!?

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Check back here later in the weekend for further observations, but feel free to comment on anything from the beginning of the dialogue up to 167a.

Charmides reading: the Third Definition of Sophrosyne

NOTE: This is the 8th of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

In an earlier post, I posted recordings of talks (each about twenty minutes in length) on Charmides’ definitions of sophrosyne. I just recorded the third of these talks.

To listen to my discussion of the third definitionclick on this link. Here Charmides defines sophrosyne as “doing one’s own things” or “minding one’s own business”.

In case you missed the earlier talks:

To listen to my discussion of the first definition, click on this link. Here Charmides defines sophrosyne as “a certain quietness”.

To listen to my discussion of the second definition, click on this link. Here Charmides defines sophrosyne as “bashfulness.”

My sense is that there is something present in the voice that is not present in text and I am hoping that, by providing audio, something can be added that is lost in written text. But I will let you adjudicate whether this is helpful or annoying. Please comment and let me know either way. I can put up transcripts later if you are having problems with these.

Please also feel free to comment on the content of this audio.

Charmides reading: on “doing one’s own things”

This is the 7th of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. The text of this post is a contribution of Joseph Carter, adapted from an excellent paper he delivered at the International Plato Society at Emory University in March. The topic of the paper was the meaning of the phrase to ta heautou prattein, which the Thomas and Grace West translate as “doing one’s own things”, Sprague translates as “minding one’s own business”, which in the Republic is given as the definition of justice and — most importantly for our purposes — which Charmides gives as his third definition of sophrosyne. (Thanks, Joey!)

Plato’s account of sophrosyne in the Charmides cannot be read not in vacuo; its provenance is, is large part, Athenian politics. Plato adopts terminology from an already existing register of political and poetic sources that, more or less, portray Athenian ambition as meddlesome (polypragmon). For instance, in his retelling of Euphemus’ speech to the Camarinaeans, Thucydides reports Euphemus heralding Athenian interventionist foreign policy as a way to enjoin the Camarinaeans to strike against the Syracusans.1 As for the poets, their criticisms of πολυπραγμοσύνη are keener, and in ways, compliment Plato’s perspective. Even though Euripides never uses πολυπραγμοσύνη explicitly, there is a notable fragment where he employs its functional equivalent, ‘busyness’ (πολλὰ πράσσειν), to say that “the busiest of mortals misses the mark the most” (ὁ πλεῖστα πράσσων πλεῖσθ’ ἁμαρτάνει βροτῶν, 576 Nauck). So, whether praised or admonished, we can see that πολυπραγμοσύνη was largely prized in the Athenian political consciousness.
Contrary to πολυπραγμοσύνη is the apolitical, quite life that keeps to one’s self—ἀπράγμoσύνη, ‘one who does nothing.’ (more…)

Charmides reading: the First and Second Definitions of Sophrosyne

NOTE: This is the 6th of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

The following is an experiment, so I would appreciate feedback to let me know if it works for you. I am recoding talks of less than twenty minutes on Charmides’ definitions of sophrosyne.

To listen to my discussion of the first definition, click on this link. Here Charmides defines sophrosyne as “a certain quietness”.

To listen to my discussion of the second definition, click on this link. Here Charmides defines sophrosyne as “bashfulness.”

My sense is that there is something present in the voice that is not present in text and I am hoping that, by providing audio, something can be added that is lost in written text. But I will let you adjudicate whether this is helpful or annoying. Please comment and let me know either way. I can put up transcripts later if you are having problems with these.

Please also feel free to comment on the content of this audio.

Charmides Reading: First Session: beginning to 162b

NOTE: This is the 5th of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides and the first in which we will be discussing the actual text. This post and the comments session will be for the purpose of discussing this week’s session, beginning to 162b, so make sure you read that first. To view previous posts in the series that deal with some of the background, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

Some friends and I met this morning to discuss the first part of the Charmides dialogue.  I am experimenting with opening up this discussion to those of you in far-flung places who would also like to participate.This will work best if each of you will follow Socrates’ injunction to tell us all “bravely and clearly” (160 d-e) what seems to you to be correct  — to take an active role in the proceedings. I will try to write up some of the things we talked about later, but want to begin with the questions that arose, whether directly or tacitly, in our discussions. You don’t have to answer all of these questions. Indeed, you may have your own unstated question that you would like to consider. But be courageous and try to respond to at least one of them in the comments or ask your own!

Our questions, in no particular order:

1. What kind of answer is Socrates looking for in asking his question “What is sophrosyne?” And why does he dismiss Charmides’ answers so quickly? In what respects are Charmides’ answers correct? Why doesn’t Socrates at least touch on their correctness before refuting them?

2. What is the soul and what does Socrates mean by his claim that it is necessary to treat the soul, and by extension the whole body, before treating a part? What is “the soul” (psyche) as Socrates is using it?

3. Why does Socrates pretend to be a doctor administering a charm? Why does he resort to lying?

4. Does Charmides exhibit sophrosyne in the course of his conversation with Socrates?

5. Socrates narrates the dialogue in the first person? Who is he talking to? Why does he leave out crucial elements, like what questions he was asked regarding the battle he just returned from and how he answered them?

6. FIRST DEFINITION (159b) — What is meant by “quietness” in Charmides first attempt at a definition? How is “quickness” its opposite? What can we learn about sophrosyne from this interchange?

7. SECOND DEFINITION (160e) — In 161a, Socrates quotes Homer: “Well then, I said, are you not convinced that Homer is right in saying—’Modesty, no good mate for a needy man?‘” (Another translation of the relevant line from Homer: ‘Beggars should not be shamefaced.‘) The word (aidos) translated “modesty” and “shamefaced” is the same word that Charmides gives on his second attempt to say what sophrosyne is, claiming that it is a sense of shame or decorum.  But what is the force of the Homer quote? Is it just an appeal to an authority or something more? The quote is from Odyssey, Book 17 by the way, if you want to explore this one more.

8. THIRD DEFINITION (161b) — Why does Plato have Charmides (in his third attempt) borrow Critias’ definition of sophrosyne, “doing/minding one’s own thing business”? Critias will eventually take it over, but why does it first come from Charmides mouth? And why does Charmides/Critias give as a definition of sophrosyne what was the definition of justice given in Book IV of the Republic?

9. What exactly *is* sophrosyne?

Later I will discuss some of the ways we responded to these questions this morning over breakfast. But take advantage of the gap between now: Post your own comment! That would be a gift to all of us. If any of you who were present this morning would like to add to or correct what I have written, I encourage you to do so.

Charmides reading: the Etymology of Sophrosyne

NOTE: This is the 4th of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

I would like to attempt an etymology of the word sophrosyne. Although there is scholarship enough to make my attempt  plausible, I do not think it is altogether necessary to get the philology right. The purpose of my etymology is opening up understanding rather than nailing down the actual trajectories of word. (Plato wrote an entire dialogue, Cratylus, based on playful etymologies.) Take all this with appropriate moderation!

Sophrosyne is compounded from two Greek roots, sophron and syne.

Let’s begin with the suffix, since it is easier. Adding “syne” to the end of an adjective turns that adjective into an abstract noun. So dikaios (just) + syne = dikaiosyne (justice). Sophron (sound-minded) + syne = sophrosyne (soundminded-ness). So -syne (more…)

Charmides reading: Is sophrosyne untranslatable?

NOTE: This is the 3rd of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

In my last post, I mentioned the historical context of the Charmides, a context that Plato would have assumed all of his Greek readers would have readily have understood. But in addition to this assumption by Plato of his reader’s already understood background, there is also the simple fact that a Greek reader would already have a working understanding of the word sophrosyne. Our situation is a little more complex. Most of us must labor with translated equivalents, which are imprecise at best and misleading at worst. I have noticed a (more…)