BMCR 2019.11.12

Plato. Charmides

, , Plato. Charmides. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2019. xlii, 124. ISBN 9781624667787. $13.00 (pb).

1 Responses


Both in antiquity and today, the Charmides has been largely ignored as a text for classroom use. This is a shame, for the dialogue is one of Plato’s most enchanting and enigmatic creations. The availability of this new, inexpensive edition by Moore and Raymond may make it more attractive to teachers introducing students to Plato.

Moore and Raymond’s translation is probably now the best available, being more accurate and readable than both the 1973 version by Sprague (reproduced in Cooper’s Hackett Complete Works) and the Straussian version by West and West in the 1986 stand-alone Hackett edition of the dialogue. With respect to the elusive term σωφροσύνη that the dialogue’s participants seek to define, Moore and Raymond innovate by opting for “discipline,” which seems at least as good as the alternatives used elsewhere (“self-control,” “moderation, “temperance,” “sound-mindedness”). The rendering captures well the vaguely martial resonances of a virtue championed by conservative aristocrats, although it misses the cognitive nuance suggested by the Greek word’s etymology. While “discipline” can read oddly in the dialogue’s discussions exploring the possibility that σωφροσύνη is some kind of ἐπιστήμη, the other options do not fare much better in this respect. Raymond and Moore also produce a smoother text than their predecessors in the thorny second half of the dialogue by rendering γιγνώσκειν, εἰδέναι, and ἐπίστασθαι all as “know” and ἐπιστήμη as “knowledge” (or “kinds of knowledge” in the plural).1 The text used is Burnet’s, with a handful of wise but minor departures mostly based on the textual work of David Murphy.2

The translation itself is only 34 pages long. It is accompanied by a brief preface, a 27-page introduction, a 71-page “Analysis,” and a five-page concluding essay entitled “The Charmides in Reflection.” All this is additionally accompanied by a total of 364 footnotes. Assuming that undergraduates are a principal audience for Hackett’s inexpensive paperback editions, this strikes me as simply an excessive (undisciplined?) amount of commentary, liable to either overwhelm students or to preempt insights that they could have reached by reading and considering the dialogue on their own. The footnotes also reference a large volume of secondary literature (the bibliography runs to ten pages and includes many works not in English). The paratextual environment in which students encounter Plato matters, and that which Moore and Raymond provide unfortunately suggests that he must be approached with a forbiddingly extensive scholarly arsenal.

While overly prolix, the commentary material does make good points. In contrast to earlier translators, for example, Moore and Raymond in their introduction follow the current scholarly consensus in giving the dramatic date for the dialogue (based on Socrates’ opening reference to his return from Potidaea) as 429, not 432—meaning that the opening erotic banter and the ensuing conversation about σωφροσύνη must be imagined as taking place not amidst the heady optimism of the early days of the Peloponnesian War, but in an Athens already chastened by several major defeats and the onset of the plague. I also appreciate Moore and Raymond’s general approach to thinking about the relationship of argument and dramatic action in the Charmides. When Socrates’ method appears sophistic, they focus on why Socrates proceeds in the way he does and why his interlocutors accept it (if they do), i.e. what the exchange reveals about the participants’ underlying views and characters. For instance, Moore and Raymond interpret Socrates’ “feeble” refutation of Charmides’ proposed definition of σωφροσύνη as a kind of “shame” through an appeal to a line from Homer as primarily revealing something about Charmides himself, namely how his own sense of shame holds him back from criticizing traditional values and thus from adequately caring for his soul (64). Such an approach can become speculative, yet seems to me often productive of the kind of thoughts that the dialogue is intended to provoke.

The need to think about character as much as or more than about argument sensu stricto explains why using the Charmides in the classroom would be both rewarding and possibly daunting. Although it is often categorized alongside the Euthyphro as a “definitional dialogue,” the two texts are in fact very different in character: the Charmides cannot be read as offering a sequence of failed attempts that together build up a neat negative illustration of what a “Socratic definition” should be. But χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά, and students may benefit from first meeting Plato in stranger (and more charming) form.

[For a response to this review by Christopher Moore and Christopher C. Raymond, please see BMCR 2019.12.33.]


1. Sprague uses “science” and “sciences” for the noun, West and West “knowledge” and “knowledges”—in both cases with unnatural results. West and West also scrupulously distinguish γιγνώσκειν from other verbs of knowing by translating it as “to recognize,” resulting in the odd rendering of γνῶθι σαυτόν as “recognize yourself.” I do not mean to imply that nothing hangs on the variation between different verbs of cognition in the Charmides (perhaps part of the dialogue’s point is that “self-knowledge” by definition lacks the kind of technical systematicity possibly suggested by the term ἐπιστήμη) but the cost of literal fidelity in English is too great. Moore and Raymond in any case signal shifts between terms in the footnotes and discuss the issue the “Analysis” (see esp. 84-85), which seems to me the most elegant way of handling the problem.

2. There were, inevitably, instances where I thought that the translation missed the precise nuance (although the choice was often clarified in a footnote). These included: “think” for ἐννοήσας at 160d, “give a defense” for διδόναι λόγον at 165b (as if the Greek was ἀπολογήσασθαι), “have a hunch” for μαντεύομαι at 169b (missing the religious connotation), “was embarrassed” for ἠσχύνετο at 169c (obscuring the connection to 160e), and “impression” for προφαινόμενον at 173a (a surprisingly rare term).