Plato Project #2: Charmides

What the internet calls “an image of pederastic courtship”


[Next Week – Crito]

I’d never read “Charmides” before, so I’ll just share my first impressions.

The first and most striking feature of this dialogue, for me anyway, is that it’s narrated in the first person, by Socrates himself.  I really haven’t read very many of the off-the-beaten-path dialogues, so maybe this is a common aspect of them.  It reminded me a bit of one of the much later Sherlock Holmes stories that is narrated by Sherlock himself, instead of Watson – “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” during which Holmes confesses that he shouldn’t have given Watson so much trouble about his prose style, having discovered that it is more difficult to compose a story than he thought.

Socrates’ narration isn’t always just “he said” and “I said”; some physical descriptions and even some psychological observations creep in, viz: “His approving answers reassured me, and I began by degrees to regain confidence…” (156) And later “Critias had long been showing uneasiness, for he felt that he had a reputation to maintain with Charmides…” (162).

The dialogue begins “Yesterday evening I returned from the army at Potidaea…” So again we have Plato establishing context by referring to events of the Peloponnesian War, and Socrates’ participation in one of its important battles.  He says he met a physician there – a court doctor of the Thraciain king Zamolxis, who talked to him about the relationship between care for the soul and care for the body, noting that the great mistake of Greek medicine, according to this Thracian doctor, is their insistence on separating the mind from the body.

After this military context is established, through, it seemed odd to me that the dialogue then moved towards flirtation directed towards  Charmides, an apparently attractive young man –  Socrates confesses to the reader that he “caught a sight of the inwards of his garment, and took the flame.” The Jowett translation reeks of high-Victorian euphemism, but I think the sense is clear enough.

One random question I had here – Socrates spends the opening pages discussing a “charm,” and Charmides’ name begins with the same letters, at least in English.  I didn’t know if there is an equivalent pun/interrelationship in the Greek, i.e., whether this was an intentional parallel, or just a coincidence of English that has no significance in the underlying Greek.

Charmides is Socrates’ primary interlocutor, but Critias is also there, and Chaerephon, whom Nates points out was the friend who told Socrates to seek on the oracle, also briefly comes up.   He’s the one that gets Socrates to tell his story of the war.

The topic for discussion is Temperance, which obviously is closely related to the pederastic stuff (though more ambiguously so towards the war setting).

We get more of the “Socratic method” here.  Charmides presents three main definitions – the first is “modesty,” the next is “doing one’s own business,” and the last ends up in the interlocutors developing and questioning a tripartite equivalence – wisdom, self-knowledge and temperance someone come under the same heading.  Each definition fails and gives way towards the next, but not in quite the dialectical fashion seen elsewhere.  Charmides seems just to present new thoughts that don’t necessarily follow from the previous ones.

The dialogue’s longest the wisdom/self-knowledge/temperance equivalence, and Socrates expresses quite a bit of ambivalence about whether there can be a “science of science,” and if so, how it could develop knowledge, and whether any good could come of it.

Things wrap up with more cryptically sexualized remarks between Socrates, Critias and Charmides.

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