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.’ Thucydides provides us with what I take to be a paradigm for how ἀπράγμoσύνη, and by extension ‘minding one’s business’ (τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν), was received in the political arena: Alcibiades’ speech against Nicias in the ecclesia (c.421).2 In his pointed response to Nicias’ initial attempt to abrogate the military expedition to Sicily, the very Alcibiades whom Plato portrays as Socrates’ brazen interlocutor in Alcibiades I faults Nicias for his indolent, do-nothing policy (ἡ Νικίου τῶν λόγων ἀπραγμοσύνη) toward the Sicilians. Alcibiades claims immediately afterwards that any city adopting this kind of policy could not find a quicker way to destruction (παράπαν τε γιγνώσκω πόλιν μὴ ἀπράγμονα τάχιστ’ ἄν μοι δοκεῖν ἀπραγμοσύνης μεταβολῇ διαφθαρῆναι). For Alcibiades, and his supporters, the person or city that follows a quiet, unambitious life is the one that naïvely minds its business. As for Plato, he is quite aware of these sentiments. In the Statesman, the Stranger argues how those who are τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν are at the mercy of their enemies since they are “unwarlike” (307e).
Interestingly enough, we find a similar critical attitude towards τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν from Socrates himself in the Charmides. Socrates critiques Charmides’ suggestion that σωφροσύνη means τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν. Socrates even needles Charmides for it, calling him a fool (μιαρέ), as if he carelessly adopted it from Critias or “some other sophist” (Charm. 161b8-9). This is noteworthy. Socrates’ tone resonates with the general skepticism and disdain towards ἀπραγμοσύνη in the political arena. But, clearly, in the Republic, minding one’s business is justice. Why then does Socrates look disfavorably on what he unhesitatingly adopts later as the definition of justice in the Republic? Does Plato change his mind between the Charmides and the Republic? I suggest that the Charmides introduces ‘minding one’s business’ as a riddle that is answered proleptically in the Republic.
After Socrates rules out ‘respect’ (αἰδώς) as an adequate definition for σωφροσύνη (Charm. 161a11-b2), Charmides suggests ‘minding one’s own business’ (τὸ τὰ ἑαυτοῦ πράττειν, 161b6) as a viable candidate. Immediately, Socrates calls the very notion a riddle (αἰνιγματι), although this is unclear to Charmides. Socrates clarifies with an argument that reveals how in the process of minding one’s own business, one incidentally does another’s business as well. Socrates’ begins the argument (161d1-4) by implicitly distinguishing τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν from the pejorative use of ἀπραγμοσύνη that we see in places like Alcibiades’ speech against Nicias. Minding one’s business is not to do nothing—indolence—because, just as the Greek expresses, it is to do (πράττειν) something. It is to have some function or another—a τέχνη. For example, the grammarian’s activity is their own reading and writing. But, the grammarian also teaches (διδάσκειν) everyone to read and write not only their own name, but also names of both friends and strangers. Therefore, in one way at least, people are taught to do something that belongs to others (τὰ ὑμέτερά γε αὐτῶν ἐπράττετε) when they read and write each other’s names. While Charmides agrees at this point that this is not to be meddlesome (ἐπολυπραγμονεῖτε, 161d11), the contradiction is imminent. At 161e6-8, Socrates then assumes (δήπου, 161e7), admittedly without any obvious reason, that because each τέχνη is a sort of doing, all the other arts (ὁτιοῦν τῶν τέχνης ἔργων ἀπεργάζεσθαι) also appear to do another’s activity as much as one’s own. The implicit reason for this is, presumably, that if every τέχνη is like the grammarian, each technician teaches its skill to the effect that everyone is at least able to build their own houses, weave their own clothes, etc. In other words, a necessary condition to do something (πράττειν τί, 161e4) is the ability take up that ‘doing’ as a function, to learn a τέχνη. By virtue of the fact that everyone is able to learn a skill, then, each person can be a self-sufficient entity, taking up whatever function. A person may cultivate the same τέχνη that belongs to someone else in order to provide for his or her own needs.
Nevertheless, when extended to the whole city, as Socrates does, the situation worsens; Socrates and Charmides find themselves in a contradiction:

Socrates: “What then?” I said. “Does it seem that a city is well-governed by the law that requires each person to wash and weave their own clothes, bind their own sandals, oil-flasks, and scraper, and do every other [function] by relying on the same account by which one does not seek out what belongs to another, but each doing one’s own work?”

Charmides: “It wouldn’t,” he said.

Socrates: “And yet,” I said, “if a city is to be governed temperately, it must be governed well.”

Charmides: “How could it not?” he said.

Socrates: Then, if minding one’s business is σωφροσύνη, it cannot be meant in this fashion or be of this sort.

Charmides: Apparently not.

Were the city to require each person (ὑπὸ τούτου τοῦ νόμου τοῦ κελεύοντος) to be self-sufficient, regardless of their station or function in the city, each would have to “to rely on the same principle” (κατὰ τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον) by which any other person does their own work. The person who weaves their own clothes and builds their own house would have to do each activity in virtue of the same τέχναι by which another person weaves and builds by their own doing. This is absurd, though, for it only results in meddling in another person’s business. But, why is this the case? This is not apparent in the argument. In order for Socrates’ elenchus to work, he must assume that even though every person might be superficially able to take up one τέχνη or another, not everyone is able to do every function well. This is because of the classical Socratic assumption of expertise associated with any τέχνη. Tacit as it might be, the assumption is that a city wherein each individual is self-sufficient is not well-governed because not everyone is an expert in every τέχνη. Consequently, such a city cannot be governed well, if σωφροσύνη is to mind one’s business in this fashion and of this sort (τὸ τὰ τοιαῦτά τε καὶ οὕτω, 162a7-8). Notice, though, Socrates’ qualification at 162a7-8. Socrates does not outright reject the notion of minding one’s business. Socrates wishes to point out that τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν cannot be accepted “in this fashion and of this sort,” since it leads to a contradiction. As a result, this leaves open other senses which could be satisfactory.
Socrates’ qualification is crucial, as it brings us back to the riddle. In the Charmides, minding one’s business is a sort of aporia, and one that is propaedeutic. On one hand, it is not to do nothing—ἀπράγμoσύνη—since it to have a function. In doing something, though, one inevitably does another’s activity solely for themselves, since minding one’s own business assumes a sort of self-sufficiency that abrogates any reliance on others for needs. This leads to the contradiction, since doing another’s business is by definition being a busybody. Self-sufficiency is a type of πλεονεξία. So, if σωφροσύνη is ever to be associated with minding one’s business, let alone defined by it, then we must ask with Socrates: “In what fashion and of what sort?” What is it to mind one’s business without entailing either ἀπράγμoσύνη or πολυπραγμοσύνη? This is the riddle, I suggest. Charmides and Socrates are, admittedly, befuddled. As Critias comes onto the scene (162c-e), he agrees that minding one’s business pertains to one τέχνη or another. But, Socrates shifts the argument to the production aspect of τέχνη. Every τέχνη is done not merely for one’s self, but more so to produce something that benefits another. There is no problem with doing one’s own activity so as to make (ποιεῖν) something since it is for another. But, Critias disagrees with Socrates on this point. For Critias, πράττειν and ποιεῖν are not the same. According to Critias’ appeal to Hesiod,3 all work is admirable and useful, but not so for everything that is made, since the product can be used reproachfully (ὄνειδος, 163c1). The riddle remains unresolved, nonetheless, as Critias eventually shifts the discussion to the subject of knowledge, which occupies the remainder of the dialogue. As anticlimactic as this might be, the aporia left behind implicitly points to the account in Republic II. There, Socrates returns to tweak this notion of ‘minding one’s business’ as how is best able to contribute communally such that one produces not merely for one’s self, but for the entire community on account of one’s own nature.
The dilemma at Rep. II.369e2-370a4 returns to the problem of self-sufficiency that we see at the Charm. 161e-162a:

Must each of them contribute his or her own work for the common use of all? For example, will a farmer provide food for everyone, spending quadruple the time and labor to provide food to be shared by them all? Or neglecting the community, will each individual, alone by means of themselves, produce a fourth of the food in a fourth of the time, and spending the other three-fourths preparing their own home, weaving their own clothes, and making their own shoes, disassociating from the community and doing their own business by means of themselves (καὶ μὴ ἄλλοις κοινωνοῦντα πράγματα ἔχειν, ἀλλ’ αὐτὸν δι’ αὑτὸν τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν).

The references to the Charmides are palpable. Socrates repeats the same τέχναι that we see in the elenchus at Charm. 161e—housebuilding, weaving, and shoemaking. As much as these τέχναι are tropes throughout the Platonic dialogues, the context is the connection to Socrates’ concern about self-sufficiency at Charm. 162a: is the orderly city one wherein each person does their own work for the common good (κοινωνία) or does each person take up as many functions as needed to provide for only one’s self despite the community? Notwithstanding the reiteration of the dilemma, it is crucial to see that there is, again, no rejection of ‘minding one’s business.’4 The problem with which Plato is wrestling is, in fact, how to reinterpret τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν in such a way that solves the riddle in the Charmides. While Adeimantus explicitly claims that the former is “easier” to do than the latter, Socrates proceeds by giving an account of the intersection between τέχνη, πράττειν, and φύσις (370a-d). This shift to natures is how Socrates tacitly turns the dilemma on its head.5 For the farmer to provide food for everyone effectively, they must focus solely on their own proper activity—their τέχνη. That is to say, an individual is to act within the strictures of their own τέχνη not apart from the community, but to the benefit of it. Notice that Socrates’ returns to the theme of his initial discussion with Critias. Indeed, a τέχνη is, by definition, to the benefit of another.6 However, each τέχνη requires a natural capacity, a φύσις, and not everyone has the same one (370a7-b2). To perform a τέχνη well requires that an individual to know and to cultivate what they are naturally able to accomplish, and by implication, not to take up another function that naturally belongs to another. So, as it turns out, acting by means of one’s own nature seems to be what it means to ‘mind one’s own business on account of one’s self’ (αὐτὸν δι’ αὑτὸν τὰ αὑτοῦ πράττειν), for this is how each τέχνη is practiced excellently with respect to the whole community. The nature of a τέχνη is the identity of one’s doing and making, contra Critias, because fruitful production part and parcel to performing a given function excellently. The farmer does its job well when both it and the whole community have a sufficient food source. For this reason, what someone is by nature determines the activity upon which they are to focus so as to benefit the whole. But, this brings us back to the dilemma. At first glance, Plato’s use of αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτόν in the second horn is to reinforce the same difficulties of minding one’s business as we see in the Charmides. The self-sufficient citizen builds houses, makes shoes, weaves, and farms ‘by means of one’s self’ (αὐτὸν δι’ αὑτόν). When interpreting αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτόν in this fashion, self-sufficiency is to be rejected, since it is to the detriment of the community. Again, self-sufficiency is a sort of πλεονεξία. However, shortly before the construction of the city, we see Adeimantus implore Socrates thrice (367b4, 367d3, 367e3) to give an account of justice ‘itself on account of itself’ (αὐτὴ δι’ αὑτήν) apart from rewards and reputation, using precisely the same locution with which Socrates qualifies τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν at 370a.7 In which respect, then, are we to read αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτόν? I submit that we read it both ways, since αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτό is intentionally ambiguous at 370a. Initially (1) we are to read it as superficially indicating self-sufficiency so as to remind the reader of the riddle in the Charmides; but after further consideration, (2) αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτό means more significantly that each person must contribute to the whole community on account of one’s own nature. What marks their difference is the individual’s orientation to the whole community in relation to one’s own nature. Plato argues that an individual’s specific nature governs how and why one ought to act with respect to one’s self and others in the community (Rep. 370a7-d4). One person does one activity (εἷς μίαν, 370b6) because of their own nature. When Socrates asks Adeimantus (370b4-5) whether an individual (τις εἷς) performs better (κάλλιον πράττοι) by doing multiple jobs (τις εἷς ὢν πολλὰς τέχνας ἐργαζόμενος) or when one person does one function (ὅταν μίαν εἷς), Socrates frames the question metaphysically as a one-many problem. When Socrates asks ‘is it better to do one thing or many?’ he is essentially asking ‘is it better to be one or many?’ Because ‘doing’ pertains to a τέχνη, and because τέχνη is governed by a nature, what an individual does is on account of that very nature. But, because φύσις is tantamount to reality (τά ὄντα), an individual’s doing is, therefore, at least isomorphic with its being, if not altogether identical. To do what is by nature is to be what one ought to be. Furthermore, because being and unity go hand-in-hand, one individual does one activity because the doing is according to a single nature.8 Therefore, the doing itself is on account of itself—αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτό—not out of selfish motives, but for the benefit of the whole.
Socrates’ appeal to how natures govern τέχναι, again in terms of some expertise, reveals how the use of αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτό at 370a4 reflexively turns the dilemma on its head: the community is best served when each individual acts in accord with their own nature, which means to be αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτό. This subtle reinterpretation of τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν on metaphysical grounds is to avoid the problems of self-sufficiency that results in the riddle in the Charmides. One does one’s own activity on account of their own natural capacity in order to contribute to the whole community. In other words, Plato, in Republic II, tacitly reinterprets the notion of minding one’s business because of his metaphysical commitments to being and unity. Doing one’s own activity entails neither the naïve ἀπράγμoσύνη with which it is associated in the political sphere, nor the contradiction the results when minding one’s business means self-sufficiency—πολυπραγμοσύνη—as seen in the Charmides. It is, therefore, with the first iteration of ‘minding one’s business’ at Rep. 370a that marks the ingress to metaphysical motivations behind τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν. But, as the ultimate aim is to secure the unity of the soul, it is for this purpose that in in Republic IV, Plato adopts a metaphysical interpretation of τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν to make sense of justice in soul.

[ADDENDUM: It is worth noting ‘quietness’ (ἡσυχία) was sometimes used euphemistically by Plato’s political contemporaries like Thucydides and Xenophon to indicate ‘indolence.’ It is closely tied to ἀπραγμοσύνη, the apolitical life, which in the context of the Peloponnesian War was synonymous with what Charmides suggests in the third definition–minding one’s business (τὸ τὰ ἑαυτοῦ πράττειν). In short, isolationism. I think Plato is trying to break away from this association, however, in order to reclaim it for later use in the Republic. In this respect, quietness in first definition goes hand-in-hand with the third. Minding one’s business is neither indolence/quietness nor the kind of self-sufficiency that results in meddlesomeness (πολυπραγμοσύνη). What is minding one’s own business, then? This is the riddle we are left with at the end of the third definition.]


(1) Hist. 6.87.3.

(2) Hist. 6.18.6-7. Commentators generally agree that amongst Plato’s contemporaries, τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν is practically synonymous ἀπράγμoσύνη. See Ehrenberg, op. cit., pp.60-61; Adkins, op. cit, pp. 302-304 and 325-27.

(3) Opera et Dies 311.

(4) Brian Donovan, “The Do-It-Yourselfer in Plato’s Republic,” The American Journal of Philology 124 (1), pp. 3-7 is right to argue that what we find at Rep. 370a is tantamount to what we find at Charmides 162a, calling it the “do-it-yourself” form of specialization. But, he (p. 3) is mistaken, I think, to take this as evidence that Rep. 370a is entirely distinct from the definition of justice at 433a. This is because both Charm. 162a and Rep. IV.433a are actually reinterpretations of τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν and πολυπραγμοσύνη.

(5) Cf. Donovan, op. cit., p. 10 where he argues that Socrates rejects the “do-it-yourself” or the “economic self-sufficient” sense of τὸ αὑτοῦ πράττειν in favor of “ethical self-sufficiency.”

(6) See also Socrates’ second objection to Thrasymachus (Rep. I.341a-342e).7 Followed by the accusative, διά may be read causally, something along the same lines as how κατά functions in αὐτὸ καθ᾽αὑτό. Had Plato wanted to reinforce only a sense self-sufficiency, either in manner or instrumentally, it is likely that he would have used διά with the genitive, αὐτὸ δι’ αὑτοῦ, as he does twice at Theaet. 185e1-6 concerning the soul’s exclusive access to the commons (γένη). See also Statesman 274a6 and Laws VI.763a4.8 The brevity of Plato’s syntax at 370b5-6 might also be indicative of this: …ἢ ὅταν μίαν εἷς; Ὅταν…εἷς μίαν. The brachylogy, here, could be for the purpose of alerting to the reader that unity is very much at issue. Not only does “one person do one activity,” but more metaphysically, “one [is] one.”


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

  1. Did you mean “apolitical quiet life” (you wrote “quite life”)


  2. Is there an easy way to make all the greek words show up anglicanized for those of us whose brains aren’t yet learned?

    • No easy way. I would have to plug through and transliterate word by word. In the same amount of time, you could learn to read Greek script. Just learn the lower case. Most letters look like their English equivalents. Others you know from math class. It will take you 20 minutes, tops. Easier than you think.

  3. Joseph, would you say that “one’s own” (tou heautou) is equivalent to “in accordance with one’s nature”? Or at least do you think that is what Plato is suggesting in both the Republic and Charmides?

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