Historical Context of the Charmides

NOTE: This is the 2nd 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 historical setting of the Charmides haunts the dialogue and its arguments. At the very least, the allusions to political events and persons emphasize what is at stake in the presence/absence of the virtue of sophrosyne. (English translations: moderation, self-control, temperance, continence, sound-mindedness) Three events in particular deserve special attention for the purposes of understanding the dialogue: (1) the battle and siege of Potidaea (432 to 429 BC), and by extension the entire Peloponnesian War (432 BC to 404 BC); (2) the reign of the Thirty Tyrants from 404 to 403 BC, of which Critias was a leader and Charmides at least a henchman; and (3) the execution of Socrates by the restored democracy in 399 BC. All three are consequences and examples of hubristic overreach and each demonstrates the felt absence of the virtue of sophrosyne.

(1) POTIDAEA: This battle/siege is emphasized in the very first line, as Socrates tells us that he had just returned from the fight at Potidaea after what was probably a three year absence. We can roughly think of Potidaea as three events: (a) the Battle of Potitaea that was won by the Athenians in 432 BC; (b) the siege of Potidaea, which lasted for the next three years; and (c) the return from Potidaea, with its often deadly skirmishes along the way back to Athens. Potidaea was one of the catalysts, similar perhaps to the German invasion of Poland in 1939, that turned an uneasy thirty-year peace into outright warfare between Athens and Sparta, which is why it functions as a synecdoche of the entire Peloponnesian War.
Beside the political implications, we can also think of the personal. What are the virtues required of a soldier in battle? At siege? In retreat? Where does sophrosyne (moderation, self-control) come to bear? We get a glimpse into these more personal stakes through the testimony of Alcibiades regarding Socrates’ behavior at Potidaea and beyond (Symposium, 219e – 221c, Perseus Project edition in public domain):

Now all this, you know, had already happened to me when we later went on a campaign together to Potidaea; and there we were messmates. Well, first of all, he surpassed not me only but every one else in bearing hardships; whenever we were cut off in some place [220a] and were compelled, as often in campaigns, to go without food, the rest of us were nowhere in point of endurance. Then again, when we had plenty of good cheer, he alone could enjoy it to the full, and though unwilling to drink, when once overruled he used to beat us all; and, most surprising of all, no man has ever yet seen Socrates drunk. Of this power I expect we shall have a good test in a moment. But it was in his endurance of winter— [220b] in those parts the winters are awful—that I remember, among his many marvelous feats, how once there came a frost about as awful as can be: we all preferred not to stir abroad, or if any of us did, we wrapped ourselves up with prodigious care, and after putting on our shoes we muffled up our feet with felt and little fleeces. But he walked out in that weather, clad in just such a coat as he was always wont to wear, and he made his way more easily over the ice unshod than the rest of us did in our shoes. The soldiers looked askance at him, thinking that he despised them. [220c] So much for that: but next, the valiant deed our strong-souled hero dared
on service there one day, is well worth hearing. Immersed in some problem at dawn, he stood in the same spot considering it; and when he found it a tough one, he would not give it up but stood there trying. The time drew on to midday, and the men began to notice him, and said to one another in wonder: ‘Socrates has been standing there in a study ever since dawn!’ The end of it was that in the evening some of the Ionians after they had supped— [220d] this time it was summer—brought out their mattresses and rugs and took their sleep in the cool; thus they waited to see if he would go on standing all night too. He stood till dawn came and the sun rose; then walked away, after offering a prayer to the Sun.
“Then, if you care to hear of him in battle—for there also he must have his due—on the day of the fight in which I gained my prize for valor from our commanders, [220e] it was he, out of the whole army, who saved my life: I was wounded, and he would not forsake me, but helped me to save both my armor and myself. I lost no time, Socrates, in urging the generals to award the prize for valor to you; and here I think you will neither rebuke me nor give me the lie. For when the generals, out of regard for my consequence, were inclined to award the prize to me, you outdid them in urging that I should have it rather than you. And further let me tell you, gentlemen, [221a] what a notable figure he made when the army was retiring in flight from Delium: I happened to be there on horseback, while he marched under arms. The troops were in utter disorder, and he was retreating along with Laches, when I chanced to come up with them and, as soon as I saw them, passed them the word to have no fear, saying I would not abandon them. Here, indeed, I had an even finer view of Socrates than at Potidaea—for personally I had less reason for alarm, as I was mounted; and I noticed, first, how far he outdid Laches in collectedness, [221b] and next I felt—to use a phrase of yours, Aristophanes—how there he stepped along, as his wont is in our streets, “strutting like a proud marsh-goose, with ever a side-long glance,” turning a calm sidelong look on friend and foe alike, and convincing anyone even from afar that whoever cares to touch this person will find he can put up a stout enough defense. The result was that both he and his comrade got away unscathed: for, as a rule, people will not lay a finger on those [221c] who show this disposition in war; it is men flying in headlong rout that they pursue.

Is Socrates’ behavior a consequence of his sophrosyne even though his behavior sounds more extreme than moderate?

(2) THE REIGN OF THE THIRTY — Critias and Charmides come from the same aristocratic family as Plato: Charmides is Plato’s uncle and Critias a more distant cousin. Critias would later become the leader of the Thirty, an oligarchic reaction against the prior democratic rule, a democracy humbled by the disastrous defeat to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. There is extant some innuendo that the oligarchy of the Thirty was a puppet regime of Sparta, but the evidence is not conclusive. The Thirty represented the reaction against the excesses inherent in democratic rule. As a reaction against excess however, the Critias-led oligarchy was even more excessive: more Athenians were killed in the 14 months of the Thirty’s rule than in the previous 25-30 years of fighting against Sparta and her allies, which is why the oligarchy later became known as the “Thirty Tyrants”. (I have written on the nature of tyranny earlier. What I wrote there is worth a look.) As the Charmides dialogue opens, we are placed in time before those terrible events. Even the phenomenon we now call the Peloponnesian War is in its infancy and its long history as yet unknown to dialogue’s characters. But the dialogue is written after those events, so Plato’s readers would have understood and anticipated future events into the dialogue’s dramatic setting. Alfred Hitchcock once described the dramatic tension that arises when you show the viewer a glimpse of the bomb about to blow as the characters carry on, oblivious to the danger that they are in. Plato knows that the reader is aware of the existence of those bombs, two of which we have discussed, the third to be mentioned now.

(3) THE EXECUTION OF SOCRATES — I won’t go into any details of this familiar event. But I do want to “show you the bomb” in this case, and at least mention that the execution of Plato’s mentor haunts all of his dialogues, including Charmides. How could the polis kill its best citizen? Well, just as the reign of the Thirty was a reaction against excess, so the state murder of Socrates can also be understood as a reaction against excess. Admit it: there is something more than a little excessive in Socrates, isn’t there? And as a questioning destabilizer of the traditions that grounds democratic Athens, couldn’t he have been judged a danger to its defenders? Couldn’t his provocations lead the city into another tyrannical reign?

**ASIDE: pay close attention this week, not just while reading this dialogue, but in the news, in daily affairs, in conversation and in your own personal experience, of this phenomenon of responding to excess with another excess, the cure ending up as bad or worse than the disease it aimed to counter.**

So those are the three historical bombs attached to the rafter beams of the wresting school — all the while ticking — as Socrates, Critias and Charmides discuss the virtue of sophrosyne. Perhaps the Charmides dialogue is a failed, but dramatic attempt, to defuse them. Are there similar bombs ticking under us in our moment? And how would we go about defusing them?


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