Socrates has returned to Athens from a battle at Potidaea and is introduced to the most handsome youth in the City who has all the other young men madly in love with him. His name is Charmides, and he is suffering from headaches. To successfully effect a cure, it must be judged if Charmides has sufficient health of soul, which is measured by his degree of self-control, which of course needs to be defined first.
This time I started straight into the dialogue without reading the editor’s introduction first, and I tried to read it slowly and carefully.
Socrates’ first comment before meeting Charmides is that to be totally irresistible, this boy must not only have a beautiful face and body, but also a fine soul (no argument so far). The next principle is that to cure one part of the body, a good doctor must apply the cure to the whole body (the invention of holistic medicine?) and then introduces the need to ensure that the soul (which provides self-control) is also healed, and indeed must be healed first before any charms and remedies can be successful to the body. So the argument becomes to define self-control, so that it can be ascertained if Charmides needs to receive a charm without which the cure is useless, or has sufficient health of soul (and therefore, self-control) to require only the cure.
The first definition proposed for self-control describes someone who acts with orderliness and quietness. Yet Socrates thinks of many physical and mental actions where a quick response is better than a quiet one (and no-one presents examples to the contrary, which is quite frustrating, so Socrates starts to build his ‘house of cards’!)
The second definition is based on modesty, but as self-control must be a good thing, and modesty is not always a good thing, this fails the test as well. The third suggestion seems to move further away in testing if self-control is “doing your own job” which Socrates argues is the same as “doing and making everything you need for yourself”. As craftsmen make things for others and yet can have self-control, the definition must be further refined. The fourth definition suggests that the “doing of good things” demonstrates self-control, until Socrates argues that therefore someone can be self-controlled without knowing it, as he can do good without being aware of it, to which his audience disagrees, blowing that definition out of the water.
It gets murkier with the fifth definition, that self-control is really knowing oneself, leading to some rather impenetrable arguments about the knowledge of knowledge which eventually through a long and tortuous route of ‘logic’ lead us to the belief that self-control, while admirable, cannot be beneficial!!!
If Charmides didn’t have a headache when this started, he probably does by now!
Critias sums up my thoughts pretty well
“But Socrates, your method of investigating the question is wrong. It isn’t like the other knowledges and they aren’t like one another either, but you’re conducting the investigation as if they were.”
Personal rating: I’ll give this one a 3
Next : Hippias Major and Hippias Minor, being again Socratic dialogues reported by Plato.