BMCR 1998.08.16

Plato’s Charmides and the Socratic Ideal of Rationality


The dialogue that Plato devoted to the discussion of sophrosune, the Charmides, has long been a relatively neglected part of the Platonic corpus. This book is a welcome element in what appears to be the current effort to repair this neglect. (Another is the fact that the Charmides forms, along with the Lysis and the Euthydemus, the focus of the upcoming Fifth Symposium Platonicum in Toronto, August 19-23, 1998.) Much of the voluminous philosophical work in English on the shorter, “Socratic,” dialogues in the past 25 years has been inspired by the work of Gregory Vlastos; the characteristic concerns of his work have tended to focus attention on other dialogues than the Charmides. This explains some of this neglect; the obscurity of some of the passages in the dialogue, and the difficulty of seeing how its disparate parts fit together, perhaps explain the rest. Indeed, most of the work that has been done on the dialogue tends to treat a difficult passage in relative isolation from its context. The book under review, only the third book-length treatment of the dialogue in English, is thus all the more valuable, since it sensitively addresses the various sections of the work within the context of a subtle and comprehensive interpretation of the whole. There is much to take issue with in the book, but it is an essential read for anyone working on the early Plato.

It should be said from the start that, in terms of the theoretically dubious but pragmatically useful opposition, or rather continuum, between philological and philosophical treatments of Plato, the present work falls decidedly on the philosophical side. S[chmid] has consulted traditional authorities (e.g., Jaeger’s Paideia, North’s Sophrosune) and a few more recent monographs (e.g., Krentz’s The Thirty at Athens) on the political and cultural history of Athens, and brings their contents to bear on the dialogue in a more thorough fashion than either of the two previous English-language books on the Charmides (Tuckey and Hyland); he makes no claim to add anything original on this score. Furthermore, although he makes occasional reference to the Greek text, he sticks too faithfully to the cumbrous and sometimes misleading West translation. Nonetheless, the actual errors of interpretation into which he is led by this are not numerous or great.

A few words are in order concerning the approach S. takes in his philosophical interpretation of the dialogue, an approach which he outlines in the preface and the acknowledgements, as well as in numerous methodological passages throughout the book. S. says that he has “drawn freely on both Anglo-American and Continental traditions of scholarship” (xiii). The distinction S. makes here is not so much one of language — other than English works he only cites a few written in German — but rather philosophical and methodological: scholars in the second tradition, who take their start from Leo Strauss or Hans-Georg Gadamer and, through them (in very different ways) ultimately from Heidegger, insist that the “dramatic” elements of the dialogue may seriously qualify the explicit upshot of the argumentative passages. Though S. does make frequent reference to the works of the Anglo-American tradition that tends to see the argumentative passages as more or less free of irony and intentional ambiguity (the work of Vlastos, Irwin, and their students falls into this camp), his own view falls more properly into the other tradition: he counts himself a “radical adherent” of the principle that “there is a far-reaching and intimate relationship between the drama and the argument, the logos and the ergon of the dialogue” (viii), such that the dramatic elements indicate a “level of meaning” that differs from the “surface level” (ix). By “radical” here I take S. to mean that the dramatic elements have a certain hermeneutic priority, and that only when we have seen their import can we proceed to interpret the arguments appropriately. As we shall see, S. does in fact base a general framework of interpretation for the dialogue on an analysis of various dramatic moments in it, and then consistently uses this framework in his analysis of the arguments. While the results, especially for the latter half of the dialogue, are not always convincing, they do constitute an interesting and consistent overall interpretation of the work.

S.’s (laudable) desire to position himself between the two traditions results in a oddly ambiguous relation to the two previous books in English on the Charmides. The book by Tuckey is very much in the Anglo-American tradition of near-exclusive emphasis on argument, while that by Hyland emphasizes the dramatic aspects of the work in the course of developing an explicitly Heideggerian interpretation. S. acknowledges that in method he stands closer to Hyland (180 nn. 3, 5), but maintains that “Tuckey’s [book] is preferable” (p. 170 n. 3). S.’s bald statement of preference here betrays, I suspect, anxiety about identification with an explicitly Heideggerian reading that was subject to bitterly hostile and somewhat unfair criticism from within the same general camp (Levine). For on a substantive point which S. himself characterizes as “the basic problematic of the dialogue, namely the incompatibility of Socratic sophrosune… with the technical-productive model of the knowledge of good and evil” (142), S.’s position contradicts Tuckey’s (as S. points out) and is close to that of Hyland, who writes: “what has been legitimately refuted is the possibility that sophrosyne can be a science…. What has not been refuted, however, is the possibility that sophrosyne is self-knowledge in the Socratic sense…” (Hyland 143). The rejection of a “technical” or “scientific” conception of moral knowledge is a hallmark of Plato interpretations of ultimately Heideggerian provenance. Nonetheless, S. has some justification in aligning his interpretation with Tuckey’s, and so with the family of interpretations in the Anglo-American tradition. For although these interpretations generally hold that the Platonic Socrates desiderates some such technical sort of moral knowledge, they also develop the notion of a tentative and self-critical relation to moral truth that is all Socrates has attained and may be all that is humanly achievable. S.’s interpretation thus has a number of points of contact with such views, and his book will therefore be of interest to philosophers of both the Anglo-American and the Continental traditions.

S. is conscious of the importance of the structure of a Platonic dialogue, and devotes his Appendix A to the structure of the Charmides. He argues that it has a “pedimental structure” such that the philosophically most important point is located at the center of the dialogue. (S. constructs his own book along similar lines, with his central chapter devoted to the statement of his view of the main teaching of the dialogue.) S. locates the center of the dialogue in the definition of sophrosune found in Socrates’ speech at 167a1-7, which ends with the words: “And that is what being moderate, and moderation, and oneself recognizing oneself are: knowing both what one knows and what one does not know” (West translation, with S.’s substitution of “moderate” for “sound-minded”). S. remarks on the resemblance between this definition and Socrates’ description of his mission in Apology 21a-23b, and uses both the drama and the arguments of the Charmides to develop an elaborate picture of all that is entailed in this knowing of what one knows and what one does not. We shall look at this picture below; here it is worth pointing out what S.’s comments obscure: the center of the dialogue is not in fact occupied by Socrates’ speech at 167a1-7, but rather by Critias’ long speech on the relationship between sophrosune and the Delphic inscription “Know thyself” at 164c7-165b4. This provides some reason for thinking that this speech is more important than S. recognizes, and its content not so thoroughly discounted by Plato as S. supposes.

The chapters surrounding S.’s central chapter follow the order of the dialogue. Chapter one deals with the dramatic prologue, while chapters two (“Traditional Moderation”) and three (“Self-Knowledge”) deal with the definitions of sophrosune up through the “Socratic” definition at 167a1-7. Chapter four (“The Socratic Ideal of Rationality”) is the central theoretical discussion, and the three substantive chapters that follow it (“Metaphysics”, “Knowledge of Knowledge”, “Utopia, Dystopia, and Knowledge of the Good”) address the convoluted and often baffling discussion that makes up the bulk of the second half of the dialogue. A brief epilogue (chapter eight) on the closing scene of the dialogue brings to a close the argument proper of the book. It is followed by three appendices: that on the structure of the dialogue (ἀ, a brief account of the relation between “The Charmides and the Republic” (β and a not very useful table dividing every action and speech of the dialogue into exercises of moderation or its opposite (C).

The account of Socratic sophrosune that S. ultimately constructs from the arguments and drama of the dialogue implies a psychology and a metaphysics that are both distinct from those of the classical “middle” dialogues such as the Republic, and, in S.’s estimation, “in some ways philosophically more attractive” than them (viii). The psychology S. finds implicit in the Charmides is fundamental to his interpretation of the dialogue. He begins elaborating this psychology in his discussion, in the first chapter, of Socrates’ account of his response to the glimpse of the insides of Charmides’ cloak. Socrates’ experience of erotic attraction, and his mastery of it, reveal the existence of two sorts of desires: a “first-order desire of immediate impulse” and a “second-order desire of the rational self” (10). Socratic sophrosune / self-knowledge, in action, consists in “preserving [one’s] rationality” (ibid.), which is a hard-won and recurring battle for the “reachievement of … personal identity” (9). As becomes clearer in his fuller account of this episode in his central chapter, for S. one’s “rational self and the values corresponding to it” (80, emphasis removed) must be distinguished from the self that chooses whether to cast its lot in with this rational self or the nonrational impulses. This volitional self, as we may style it, is “the agent and subject of second-order intentions, [it is] the self who says “yes” or “no” to acts of thought and desire…” (80). Though S.’s presentation is not free of obscurity, the general picture, which S. draws (with acknowledgement) from such contemporary theorists of free will as Harry Frankfurt (see 173 n. 18, 188 n.34), is clear and, allowance made for some exaggeration, almost commonsensical — although whether the notion of a volitional self would have been commonsensical to a fourth-century Greek is another question. Plato, of course, does not explicitly lay out this psychology in the Charmides or elsewhere; S. argues that it is implicit in Socrates’ narration of his reaction to Charmides and in various other dramatic episodes of the dialogue. It will seem to many, as to me, that these episodes do not imply such a specific psychological theory. Nonetheless, the interpretation of the dialogue that S. produces by applying this psychological theory to its argument and action is an interesting one, and well worth exploring. Before we see how S. interprets the dialogue in light of this theory, we need first to look more closely at its fuller exposition in chapter four.

An important question that arises for any ethics that would make use of a psychological theory of the sort outlined above concerns the source of the values here ascribed to the “rational self”. S. follows the majority of writers on the Charmides in assuming the absence of any transcendent Forms as the source of value. Instead, and predictably, S. insists that the source of value resides in rationality itself. S. recognizes the manifest Kantian elements in his interpretation (elements present, but unacknowledged, in many interpretations of the “Socratic” dialogues); but since he argues that the rational self is necessarily social and part of a community, his interpretation also has its (acknowledged) Hegelian elements (190 n. 20). But the view S. finds in the Charmides is closest of all to the discourse ethics of Juergen Habermas, as the following quotation makes clear: On this view, Socrates’ ethics would emerge out of and reflect the practice of rational inquiry itself, the values of moral-philosophical discourse. His ethics may then be understood as the substantive embodiment of the formal principles of such discourse and mutual involvement…. Socratic ethics, on this view, is the idealized extension of the norms required by and created in the very practice of dialectic. (74, emphasis in original) Again, S. acknowledges his indebtedness to the German philosopher (181 n. 14, 187 n. 23).

It may be asked how a work of which the leading idea is drawn so directly from German philosophy can help elucidate a Platonic dialogue. But the work of interpretation requires some conceptual tools, and the only real proof is in the resulting eating of the pudding. Although I find S.’s Habermasian Plato implausible, S. nonetheless does an interesting job of interpreting the arguments and drama of the dialogue from this angle. And some of the insights to which he is led by it will prove fruitful for others who can only follow S. part of the way, if at all, in his broader interpretation.

I shall not discuss S.’s interpretation of Socrates’ discussion with Charmides other than to say that he treats Charmides as representative of the “heteronomy” of traditional society and its unreflective acceptance of norms (see 27). This view of Charmides is not unusual, nor is S.’s treatment of Critias as a product of sophistic who “identifies the good with what benefits himself, in the sense of a calculating, narrow egoism” (34). According to S., both Charmides and Critias refuse the Socratic invitation to rational self-examination, but in different ways. While Charmides defers to tradition and refuses to take on the burden of thinking for himself, Critias explicitly rejects the divine origin of traditional values and embraces a “calculating, dominating rationality” (35). S. supports his view of Critias’ atheism by reference to the famous Sisyphus fragment attributed to both Critias and Euripides (the case for Euripides has recently been well put by Kahn); he further follows West in the dubious suggestion that Critias’ recognition that the inscription “Know thyself” was erected by a human being indicates Critias’ atheism (Critias implies that the saying was “invented by a clever man who ascribed it to a god”, 38). Critias, according to S., has the erroneous, sophistic view that living life rationally means possessing and using a techne or science of how to get ahead. Since, apparently, there is no objective, masterable content for such a science, the sophistic conception leads to “science” as sheer self-assertion and self-certainty (see 38).

The latter half of the dialogue, in which Socrates and Critias examine, and transform, the definition of sophrosune as self-knowledge that Critias introduced in the speech on the Delphic inscription, contains some of the most difficult argumentation to be found in the Platonic corpus. In accordance with his idea of the pedimental structure of the dialogue, S. holds that “the dialogue reaches a peak with the [Socratic] definition [of sophrosune ] at 167a1-7, and the rest is a descent” (85). This has the consequence that the ultimate appearance of the knowledge of good and evil at 174b10, generally seen as an indication of the direction Socrates and Plato would want the discussion to go, represents rather the nadir of the discussion. S. endorses this position, arguing that the dialogue “associat[es] that ideal [of a techne of the good] with the figure of Critias and expos[es] him as a man of tyrannical aspirations” (144). S.’s argument that Critias is associated with this ideal is convoluted, and not particularly convincing. S. never explains why an episteme of the good may not possess something of the open-endedness and self-reflectiveness that he associates with Socratic self-knowledge. Indeed, when he contrasts the position of the Charmides with that of the Republic, S. suggests that the latter dialogue, in recognizing something like a science of the good, embraces a certain sort of “epistemic closure” that the Socratic ideal of the Charmides avoids (159, and Appendix B generally). But the position of the Idea of the Good as “beyond being” and “surpassing knowledge and truth in beauty” (509ab) suggests that there will be, even in the Republic, an open-ended aspect to the science of the good. Although S. seems to acknowledge the possibility of such a reading of the Republic (see 183 n. 29, 184 n. 34), he does not see how such a reading could lead to a more nuanced reading of the end of the Charmides.

S.’s view of the latter half of the dialogue as a battle royal between an empty sophistic “science” of self-assertion and a (to my mind almost equally empty) discursive self-examination produces a number of instances of convoluted interpretation. However, S. is surely right in making the point that the arguments of the latter half of the dialogue implicitly treat at least two distinct conceptions of self-knowledge, a Socratic one and a Critian one. S. suggests that the different formulae for self-knowledge that Socrates and Critias develop in the course of the discussion should be identified with these different conceptions, with “knowledge of itself and other knowledges” standing for the Critian notion, “knowing what one knows and does not know” for the Socratic notion, and “knowledge of knowledge and ignorance” acting as an ambiguous formula applicable to either. S. interestingly relates the existence of two distinct conceptions of self-knowledge to the peculiar doubling of arguments that occurs repeatedly here (e.g., 170a6-e3 and 170e3-171c9; 171d1-172c2 and 172c4-173e10), and although his interpretation of them is not always convincing, it seems to me that he has made a start in understanding the perplexing structure of the latter half of the dialogue.

In sum, then, S. has developed a framework for the interpretation of the Charmides from a construction of the import of various dramatic moments of the dialogue, especially Socrates’ response to his erotic attraction to Charmides. Although these dramatic moments certainly do not compel the construction S. puts upon them, the framework which he develops does allow him to produce a unified reading of the dialogue that contains provocative interpretations of some very obscure arguments. His discussions contain some genuine insights, and will doubtless spark more in readers who work through them. Although far from the last word on this perplexing dialogue, S.’s book is a better and more thoroughly worked-out treatment of the whole dialogue than any other currently available in English.

T.G. Tuckey, Plato’s Charmides (Cambridge, 1951); D.Hyland, The Virtue of Philosophy (Athens, Ohio, 1981). T.G. West and G.S. West, trans., Plato. Charmides (Indianapolis, 1986). An example: 100 (with 190 n. 22). One example where S. rightly takes issue with the West translation: 192 n. 4. He makes occasional reference to E. Martens, Das selbstbezügliche Wissen in Platons Charmides (Munich, 1973) and B. Witte, Die Wissenschaft von Guten und Bösen (Berlin, 1970). He does not seem to know of the useful works of B. Dieterle, Platons Laches und Charmides (Freiburg i. Br., 1966) and G. Bloch, Platons Charmides (Tübingen, 1973). For a helpful account that traces the lineage of Gadamerian and Straussian approaches to Plato back to Heidegger and, indeed, Nietzsche, see C.Zuckert, Postmodern Platos (Chicago, 1996). Plato scholars in this tradition that are of particular importance for S. include: S.Benardete, “On Interpreting Plato’s Charmides,Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 11 (1986) 9-36; C. Bruell, “Socratic Politics and Self-Knowledge” Interpretation 6 (1977) 141-203; D. Roochnick, Of Art and Wisdom (University Park, PA, 1996). D. Levine, “The Tyranny of Scholarship,” Ancient Philosophy 4 (1984) 65-72. S. says that Critias’ speech “occurs more or less in the middle of the dialogue” (37); on three other occasions he puts 167a1-7 at the center of the dialogue: vii (the first page of the preface), 14, 40. “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment,” Phronesis 42 (1997) 247-262.