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In Charmides, Charmides and his uncle and guardian Critias propose a good half dozen different definitions of sophrosyne. Charmides' definitions, initially that it is a kind of quietness, afterwards that it consists of aidos or a sense of shame, are grounded in his upbringing1 and character2. My thesis here is that similarly Critias' definitions point to Critias the man, specifically that his ambition to rule Athens underlies all of his definitions3.

Critias' first definition, that sophrosyne is doing one's own things, is recalled by Charmides who reports having heard it said by someone. Socrates suspects that he heard it from Critias or some other sophist. Critias denies having said it. The notion that ta hautou prattein defined sophrosyne was apparently a commonplace of the time4. Why then deny saying it? This oddity calls for an explanation and ought not be passed over in silence as it has been5. Prudence would counsel denying authorship in public if Critias was actually thinking of the autocrat who does his own things by appropriating everyone else's things. There is a passage in Laws which supports such a reading. At 9.875b1-7 the Athenian Stranger describes the initially well-intentioned ruler who possesses the requisite political techne and knows that setting the public weal aright supercedes tending to one's private affairs. Yet when once he is "released from legal constraint and ruling the city as an autocrat" (see Greek above), he will not be able to avoid favoring his own interests before those of the public, for human nature (he thnete physis) will always impel him towards "grasping and self-interested action" (W.R.M. LAMB's translation6 of pleonaxian kai idiophragian). The elements of the compound idiopragia, an hapax legomenon, correspond to those of the phrase ta heautou prattein. The former's use as a pejorative suggests that the latter could be taken, in Critias' case correctly, as referring to the speaker's self-interest: motive enough to deny having said it.

Critias' discourse on the differences between poiein, prattein and ergesthai, which he learnt from Hesiod, lays the foundation for his second definition of sophrosyne, that it is the "doing of the good things". One of the opinions that he ascribes to Hesiod will presently be singled out by Socrates, that in contrast to one's own concerns, all the concerns of others are harmful (163c5-6: see Greek above). After Critias finishes, Socrates infers that Critias views his own affairs, exclusively, as constituting ta agatha: "Ah, Critias, I said, you had hardly begun, when I grasped the purport of your speech--that you called one's proper and one's own things good" (LAMB's translation, see Greek above). Critias' telling remark and Socrates' inference from it are aggregated and expressed with the same vocabulary in the Symposium. According to Diotima, human beings are willing to have their feet or hands cut off if they think them spoiled. She surmises that individuals do not warmly embrace the parts of their body per se, except in the case of those who identify the Good with their own and self and the Bad with the alien (205e7: see Greek above). For Critias, who shares this conviction, "doing the good things" is synonymous with self-interest.

Critias' third definition of sophrosyne is that it consists of recognizing oneself. He elaborates on this notion in a discourse on the Delphic inscription in which he unselfconsciously reveals his real attitude towards the others. As he understands it, Gnothi sauton is a greeting by the god to the men who enter (tous eisiontas) the sanctuary, whereas other inscriptions there, written by men who misunderstood the meaning of Gnothi sauton, were intended as useful advice (symbolai chresimous). Critias exchanges greetings with the men who enter the palaistra7 but it is not his custom to give them useful advice. Socrates' parenthetical aside, at 155d6 (see Greek above), characterizes Kydias' monitory poem as providing useful advice to anyone. Contrariwise, in counseling his nephew and ward Charmides to frequent Socrates, Critias is giving that useful advice to one of his own. Consider also the exchange at 166d4-6 in which Critias is asked to agree, before the others in the palaistra, to the proposition that every scrap of knowledge is a boon common to all men. Although his actual opinion is the opposite, his assent, like his denial discussed above, is forced upon him by the circumstances in which he has been placed.

Critias' fourth and final definition of sophrosyne, at 166e4-6, is that it is the episteme of itself and other epistemai, to which Socrates adds the proviso, accepted by Critias, that anepistemosyne is an additional object of this episteme. Socrates then solicits Critias to agree with a description of how a sophron man would utilize such an episteme. The received interpretation of 167a is that the sophron described is Socrates himself. That reading is based on the passages in the Apology in which Socrates says that his sophia consists of knowing that he is ignorant8. 167a merits our closest examination:

"Then only the sophron will recognize himself, and be able to discern what he really knows and does not know, and have the power of examining what other people likewise know and think they know, in cases where they do know, and again, what they think they know, without knowing it; no-one else will be able. And so this is being sophron and sophrosyne and recognizing oneself; to know what one knows and what one does not. Is that what you mean?"

The sophron's activities are described in three clauses followed by a recapitulation of the principles underlying such activities. Believing that he himself practices the Delphic maxim, Critias readily agrees, as the first clause has it, that the sophron will recognize himself. However, nowhere in Charmides or anywhere else does Socrates claim to be able to do so; on the contrary, at Phaedrus 229e5-6, he specifically denies it: "I am not yet able, according to the Delphic inscription, to recognize myself" (see Greek above).

In the second clause, the sophron will be able to discern what he really knows and does not know. Later, Socrates will argue against the very possibility of second-order faculties. However, there is a dramatic detail at the beginning of the dialogue which shows that every man is able to discern what he does not know. Socrates relates how he returned from the military campaign in Potidaia, repaired the next day to the palaistra of Taureas, and upon entering came upon many people, some of them unknown to him, but most of them known9. When recognizing someone one knows, recognition takes place immediately. On the other hand, a failure to recognize someone involves the epistemological paradox which Socrates describes hyperbolically at 175c5-6, at the end of the dialogue, as impossible and maximally illogical: "to know in some way or another what one absolutely does not know" (see Greek above). Paradoxical or not, it is the case that in failing to recognize someone, all men discern what they do not know. The general ability to discern what one does and does not know is a necessary condition for engaging in the activity described in the next clause.

In the third clause, as specified by the phrases "only sophron" and "no-one else", the sophron will unilaterally examine the thoughts of the others. It is not obvious why the sophron as sophron will do this. I propose that Critias' ambition to rule Athens is the key to its meaning: the sophron autocrat that he intends to become will examine the thoughts of his subjects in order to preserve his rule10. Socrates, on the other hand, famously shared his thoughts. As it is, he has just mentioned his practice of doing so, saying at 166d3-4 that he is "scrutinizing the argument mainly for my own sake, but perhaps also for the sake of the others, (scil. my) acquaintances" (see Greek above). The antinomy between unilaterally examining the thoughts of the others and sharing one's thoughts with the others indicates that the sophron of 167a is Critias.

Socrates goes on to argue that knowing what one knows and does not know is impossible, and even if it were possible, that it would be useless. He gets Critias to accept for a time that the first-order episteme of good things and bad should be the arbiter of one's actions. However, Critias' remark at 174d8-e1, at the end of their discussion, shows that he still harbors his ambition to rule Athens in the light of an epistemology which Socrates has attempted to refute11. Sadly we are reminded that the tyrannical impulse is not amenable to dissuasion.

Michael Eisenstadt


Translations of the Greek are my own except where otherwise indicated.

1Walking and talking slowly, Charmides' instances of quietness, exemplify the demeanor cultivated in his aristocratic family.

2Charmides' blush at 158c5 is a sign that he possesses the aidos typical of a boy of his age.

3In the view of G. SANTAS, Socrates at Work on Virtue and Knowledge in Plato's Charmides, in Exegesis and argument; studies in Greek philosophy presented to Gregory Vlastos, E.N. LEE, A.P.D. MOURELATOS, R.M. RORTY (editors), Assen 1973, 107, there is nothing of Critias in any of his definitions: "Critias . . . is older, more experienced, and also versed in literature, philosophy, and especially sophistry and semantics. Above all, he is motivated by a desire to distinguish himself before the company, and not be bested by Socrates by being reduced to aporia--puzzlement (169C). The content of the definitions he offers can hardly be explained by reference to his character and motivation [my italics] . . .". According to D. A. HYLAND, The Virtue of Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato's Charmides, Athens, Ohio 1981, 72, Critias' first definition is to be understood in terms of his ambition to rule Athens: "Critias seems to advocate that the individual citizens be sophron-mind their own business, or, to put it more bluntly, know their places. But he is silent on this as a principle of justice because it is not at all clear that he would want this applied to political rulers, such as himself, whose 'business' he conceives as minding everyone else's business. That is, as a tyrant, he wants others to mind their own business-his version of being sophron-so that he can rule". HYLAND, though, sees no specific reference to Critias in Critias' other definitions.

4 cf. Timaeus 72a4-6: see Greek above ("it is well said of old that to do one's own things and to recognize oneself devolves on the sophron alone"). The remark conflates Critias' first and third definitions.

5Exceptionally, M.-F. HAZEBROUCQ, La folie humaine et ses remedes; Platon Charmide ou de la moderation, Paris 1997, 41, n. 3, notes the difficulty without, however, proposing an explanation of it: >>Il est difficile d'expliquer pourquoi Critias refuse aussitôt la paternité d'un tel énounce : il est vrai que dans les écrits qui nous restent de lui, cette conception de la moderation n'apparait pas<<.

6W.R.M. LAMB, Charmides of Plato, Loeb Classical Library, vol. XII, Cambridge, Mass. and London 1986.

7cf. Socrates' remark at 153c8: see Greek above.

8M. POHLENZ, Aus Platons Werdezeit, Berlin 1913, 53-54, after quoting 167a comments >>Daß diese ideale Schilderung nach einem ganz bestimmten Modell entworfen ist, liegt auf der Hand. Es ist Sokrates selber, wie wir ihn aus der Apologie kennen, wie er umhergeht und die Menschen prüft und eine große Menge findet ???µ???? µ?? e?d??a? t? ?????p??, e?d?t?? d? ????a ? ??d?? (Ap. 23c)<<. According to T.G. TUCKEY, Plato's Charmides. Cambridge 1951, 40, who cites Pohlenz, ". . . it is enough at this stage to say that the passage is clearly intended to remind us of the historical Socrates . . . ". R.K. SPRAGUE, R.K. Plato's Philosopher-King, Columbia, S.C. 1976, 36, compares 167a with parallel passages in the Apology, writing that "Plato's purpose in shifting the characteristics of the art to the person possessing that art will become strikingly clear if we consider whether he may not be directing our attention to some particular person. A moment's reflection tells who that person is: Socrates himself". D. A. HYLAND, The Virtue of Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato's Charmides, Athens, Ohio 1981, 106, says "It [scil. 167a] is a description of Socrates' own philosophic enterprise as he describes it in the Apology, and elsewhere". Likewise W.T. SCHMID, Plato's Charmides and the Socratic Ideal of Rationality, Albany, N.Y 1998, 59: "The definition of sophrosyne that Socrates and Critias formulate at the midpoint in the inquiry, then, is ambigious, and these ambiguities will affect the entire remaining discussion. But despite this fact, it is also evident that the definition refers to Socrates, and specifically to his self-description in the Apology".

9The nominals agnonta and gnorimous are reused in a discussion of the same subject at Republic 2.375e1-3. According to Socrates, the phenomenon of recognizing and failing to recognize others may be observed in spirited dogs by their mild behavior towards those whom they know and by their fierceness towards strangers.

10Conspiracy against them by their subjects is a constant danger to rulers. cf. Symposium 182c1-6 where Pausanias says "For I consider that it is not to the advantage of rulers to have grandiose thoughts engendered in their subjects" (see Greek above). He goes on to cite the example of the Athenian tyrants, who learnt this lesson in real life when the association in love and friendship between Aristogeiton and Harmodius grew to be so steadfast that it dissolved their rule (katelusan ten archen).

11Despite all of Socrates' counterarguments, Critias still expects that his sophrosyne, which is an episteme of the epistemai, i.e. a second-order knowledge of the first-order contents of his own mind and that of others, "might yet preside over the other i>epistemai, i.e. over those of the tradesmen and professionals and others, "and even rule over the episteme of the Good, and thus benefit us" (see Greek above). The plural "us" may be meant to foreshadow the collective nature of the rule of the Thirty (cf. Epistle 7.324c-d). Envisaging his own episteme as superceding the episteme of the Good is of a piece with the opinion expressed in the satyr play Sisyphus, written by the historical Critias, fragment B 25 [Diels-Kranz], that the theodicy of the Greeks is no more than an invention by some wise man to frighten with divine retribution those who would practice secret injustice.