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)


(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?


(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.


(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!?


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.

4 thoughts on “Charmides Reading: Critias under examination

  1. I stumbled across the following link about a new book called “How to Keep Sane”. Since one of the root meanings of sophrosyne can be translated as “sanity” I thought it would be worth passing on. I am not endorsing the book, since I haven’t read it, but the article about it looks interesting. To what extent is this project of self-narration useful for cultivating sophrosyne? Here’s the link:

  2. Perry’s comments about optimism, that it be necessary to cultivate optimism while not ignoring reality, reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s Will to Meaning where he instructs us to hold firmly the bad thing while recognizing whatever good is in it. If you can’t draw up the list of goodness while keeping the list of the bad present, you’ll fall into despair and lose meaning. And without meaning, one cannot live the good life, the happy life.

    As to this instruction to Charmides to express his self-knowledge while instructing Critias to repudiate his, is something like this ability to seek out optimism and acknowledge reality simultaneously. Sophrosyne requires us to express our self-knowledge and, at the same time, test it. Perhaps we could even say it is the power to test our self-knowledge?

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