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.


20 thoughts on “Charmides Reading: First Session: beginning to 162b

  1. Tomorrow morning I am going to attempt an audio response to some of these questions. Hopefully it will be up by noon EST. But don’t let that keep you from commenting in the meantime.

  2. Did you mean “leave out” when you wrote “leave our”?


  3. Well I’m not entirely sure how participating in a reading of a Platonic dialogue in this manner best proceeds, but I’m supposing that participants are to make comments here and then others may comment on those comments or make comments of their own. And so I’m going to begin with a few thoughts I’ve been having about the very opening. I won’t say much to begin with, but just a little start here, just to see how things might proceed first (or not). I also see that it’s getting on, so perhaps this is the sort of thing that will roll over into other days. I’ll try to keep up if it does.

    Now when I read a Platonic dialogue, I try to forget a lot of what I already think I might know about it, doing my best to begin from the beginning each time as this often opens me up to new things. In the case of the Charmides this is very difficult for me because I’m deeply persuaded by Laurence Lampert’s interpretation (How Philosophy Became Socratic) of the opening exchange between Socrates and Chaerephon, that the exchange is intended to be heard by those schooled deeply in Homer, that the exchange identifies Socrates’ return from Potidaea as analogous to Odysseus’ return to Ithaca (and a long train that comes with that). Beyond that remarkable event, I wonder if we can take that a step further by taking a step back. I want, to begin with, to focus on Socrates’ first spoken (non-narrated) words: “Just as you see me.” That’s how he says he made out in the battle, and so a very literal reading could conclude that he’s saying he was physically unscathed, all his fingers and toes. Lampert shows that these words are the words Odysseus uses upon his return to Ithaca, but I want to pause for a moment and focus some special attention on those words, “Just as you see me.”

    There’s something really remarkable in that, it seems to me, because the dialogue is openly about a virtue that two of the main interlocutors lack, one of whom is of course said to be quite strapping. Charmides’ beauty is just as we see him and of course Socrates is said to have been physically unbeautiful. What I want to do is reflect on that: there’s something remarkable about (some?) human virtue in that it cannot be detected by sight alone (or at all). This is especially interesting for another reason because whereas Socrates’ virtues cannot be seen, some of the virtues of Plato’s text, which “looks” the same to everyone in that we all read the same words, may be hidden in plain sight, for instance the references to the Odyssey at the beginning (but also later as well). At any rate, there seems to sort of be this epistemological problem right at the outset that involves the difficulty of knowing: whereas knowledge of Socrates’ physical state after the battle can be known on sight, not all things can be known that way, so for some things, perhaps the most important things, just as we are seen is not enough. I’ll say one last thing and then I’ll click “Post Comment” and see what happens, see if a conversation gets going.

    The problem of sight also seems to be indicated at just this moment because of how Plato characterizes Chaerephon, in my translation as a “wild man,” and he goes on to describe how his behavior was sudden and animated. So we have Socrates’ opening words “Just as you see me” coming right on the heels of a visual spectacle of just how we are made to see Chaerephon. Given his “Odysseean” conversation with Socrates, he seems to possess sophrosune (though we don’t fully know what that could mean yet), but he’s depicted as performing immoderate behavior as we imagine him gesticulating and shouting across the square in his excitement. I’ve got more to say, even about just the very opening, but perhaps this is a good beginning. I’ll shut up now. Forgive me as some of this is probably too obvious, misguided and said poorly, but hopefully something lies beyond this poor first appearance, just as it is seen.

    • Dereck, I haven’t read Lampert’s book but I did touch on Odysseus in my audio talk about the 2nd Definition. Socrates quotes Odysseus there and I contextualize that quotation in Homer. If you listened, let me know if that is consistent with how you & Lampert think about the connection between Charmides and Odyssey.

  4. Dereck, thanks for the comment. I’m interested in what you say regarding how sophrosyne “looks” — or fails to look to sight. Don’t Charmides first two definitions point toward some visual clues? First definition: sophrosyne as “quietness” (hesychia): people with this virtue display a composure, a quiet cool. You suggest that Chaerephon displays sophrosyne, but he fails this test — he is anything but quiet and cool — whereas Alcibiades in the Symposium describes Socrates in battle as demonstrating such features. Visibly, yes?

    • Second definition: a sense of shame (aidios). This also has a visual marker — the blushing that we see from Charmides more than once.

      • Finally, what about how sophrosyne “looks” within the inner being? Consider the following passage:

        “Then start over again, Charmides,” I said, “and look into yourself with greater concentration, and when you have decided what effect the presence of temperance 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 does it appear to you to be?” He paused and, looking into himself very manfully, said, “Well, temperance seems to me to make people ashamed and bashful, and so I think modesty must be what temperance really is.” (160 d-e)

        Socrates seems to describe something like an inward gaze or vision. But that can only be in a manner of speaking, right? How do we “see” it?

  5. Socrates’ earlier instruction before Charmides gives his first definition is also telling (158e – 159a):

    “Well then,” I said, “in these circumstances, I think the following method would be best. Now it is clear that if temperance 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. Or don’t you think so?”

    Every phrase of that instruction fascinates me! So does that later instruction (160d) that I quoted earlier.

  6. I’m really glad for your comments here. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to respond tonight, but will in the next day or so. But I wanted to express my thanks now, because I could do so quickly. I’ll be looking at these passages you’ve mentioned. And of course, if you “see” other things between now and then, please do post them as well. Until soon—

  7. I think that opening line of Socrates is key. There is a great deal about seeing in the text and how we see. Particularly the appearance of beauty in youthfulness which seems to be a commen Socratic issue. Haha. Though I always have inferred there is something more he “sees” in the flower of youth than mere sexual attraction as implied by the line that “almost all who have just reached maturity appear beautiful to (him)”. 164c

    In fact, up until the point Charmides blushes for the first time the dialogue seems possessed of two constructs, that of image and that of wholeness. There’s a witty banter about the external beauty of Charmides and why it should naturally be so which ends in 158a the line “so in regard to your visible looks…” This phrase draws our attention to the idea that something about his “Eidos” may not be visible. I’m not sure if that’s a direct contrast to Socrates “just so, as you see” but I think both point is to a problem with sophrosyne which is then illustrated by the first three rejected definitions: namely that it is difficult to see. All three of Charmides definitions are aspects we might expect to see in someone with sophrosyne but none are the thing itself, perhaps being visible attributes that get in the way of us seeing the invisible attribute.

    • David, I think you have your finger on something important — Socrates make the connection between beauty and wisdom as soon he is given the chance: “When they had had enough of these things, I in my turn began to question them with respect to affairs at home, about the present state of philosophy and about the young men, whether there were any who had become distinguished for WISDOM or BEAUTY or both.” (153d — emphasis mine) Why those two things specifically — wisdom and beauty? What is the connection?

  8. Woody asks us two deceptively simple questions: what is the soul and why does Socrates pretend to be able to administer this ‘charm’ (ἐπῳδή)? To point to some possible answers, let me draw attention to 157a3-6: “And the soul, he said, my dear friend, is cured by means of certain charms, and these charms consist of beautiful logoi (λογοῦς καλοῦς). It is the result of such logoi that sôphrosunê arises in the soul….” Notice Plato’s use of ‘beautiful logoi.’ I’m fascinated by its ambiguity. What are these ‘beautiful logoi’ that are supposed to cure the soul? Logos is unclear here. For a reason, I think. I suggest that we read it pertaining to both speeches/fables (i.e. myths) and rational accounts: i.e., to things that bring appropriate pleasure to the body and what organizes the soul, whatever they might be.

    Furthermore, since the charm can also mean a ‘song’ or ‘hymn’ [and it is worth noting the Pythagorean/shamanistic undertones, as Zalmoxis might have been a slave or at least an associate of Pythagoras according to Herodotus (Histories 4.95)], Plato reminds us that proper care for the soul is not possible without also paying careful attention to the bodily affections. Songs and hymns are logoi too, as they speak to the appetites; they give us great pleasure at times. This is not to say that the soul is healthy by means of the body; no, the soul is the principle of the body. A beautiful, well-ordered body is due in no small part to a beautiful, well-ordered soul. But as Woody points out in his audio, Plato has no interest in jettisoning the bodily passions. They are to be properly ordered, though.

    To this end, I suggest that these beautiful logoi are speeches/hymns/myths (whatever they are) meant to arouse in the body an eros for knowledge just as much as they are the rational accounts (whatever these are as well) in the soul by which we strive after knowledge. The ambiguity is essential here—possibly to express a tension between the body and soul. The dialogue is a striving after a knowledge of sôphrosunê, a desire for it, as much as it is a rational apprehension of it. Perhaps these are the same, even. It’s difficult to tell at this point.

    What then is the healthy soul? It is at least where we find beautiful logoi, where both myth and rational account intersect. A lie though it might be on Socrates’ part, the charm is to entice us to inquire.

    (Admittedly, I’m shooting from the hip—I thought it might be ‘enticing,’ however much I miss the mark.)

    • Joey, I too am interested in the nature of the charm. The word epode does have the root meaning of a “song” or “chant”. Remember that in the Republic that music was used to cultivate moderation in the souls of the guardians-in-training. On the purpose of music, Socrates says in Book III:

      “Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and [e] poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll [402] rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with himself.”

      Socrates concern for healing the whole of one’s being by ministering to the soul seems related to this role of music to (1) foster harmony and grace, and (2) become aware when something is missing. Aren’t these also the roles of what Eva Brann calls “Socratic music” — i.e. dialectic?

  9. I stopped short in my prior comments but am glad to see the construct of wholeness back in the discussion. Beauty or wisdom or both? I think there’s a real link between the talk about seeing/appearance/image and wholeness/harmony which is represented somehow in this incantation. I was unaware of the music aspect until now which makes perfect sense in terms of harmonizing many parts. And not just the sounds but also a harmony of language and thought. Musical harmony is multi-dimensional and I’ve long suspected something transcendent in music. Longings that can’t be expressed without it. A blending of the intellectual and emotional. There’s a wholeness in music I’m uncertain can be found anywhere else in human life.

    So seeing beauty, our erotic impulse is aroused and we begin to notice what is present or lacking. Those invisible qualities which are necessary to enjoy the “good life” and perhaps music/incantation/harmony is a tool both for understanding and even placing within us those invisible traits one of which is sophrosyne?

    • David, I agree with you if I understand you correctly. I think that beauty and wisdom are linked because they are both the objects of erotic longing. The discipline of the erotic longing for wisdom IS philosophy.

  10. I have one more question to ask you all before we move on to the next reading on Friday. Anais Nin wrote: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Is Nin right? And, given that the natures adapted to courage and moderation tend to differ radically from one another, does sophrosyne shrink or expand one’s life? (I suspect Nin would have suggested that it shrinks it, that as long as one lives a life of inhibition, one inhabits a smaller world.)

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