Content created: 2011-09-07
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This brief and much abridged extract from Plato’s dialog Charmides (Χαρμίδης) illustrates Socrates’ famous method of using seemingly innocent questions to lead people to realize their logical inconsistencies. Teaching in this way is still referred to as the “Socratic method.” (It also illustrates his famous delight in handsome young men, which was controversial in his own day and for which academic writers have felt obliged to make excuses ever since.) This passage can be usefully compared to the beginning lines of The Republic (link).
I have made a small number of modifications in Benjamin Jowett’s venerable but century-old translation, mostly having to do with punctuation. However three major changes have been made:
As the scene opens, Socrates has returned from service in the army to revisit his old haunts, beginning at the “Palaestra of Taureas.” (A palaestra , part of a gymnasium, was a kind of porticoed courtyard where wrestlers trained.) There he meets his old friend Chaerephon and his affable uncle Critias.
Critias proposes to introduce him to his young cousin Charmides (pronounced KAHR-mid-dase or KAHR-mid-deeze in English), whom Socrates had last seen as a precocious child, but who has now become one of the handsomest men in Athens (and who is still precocious).
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Socrates (addressing the reader): … almost all young persons appear to be beautiful in my eyes. But at that moment, when I saw him coming in, I confess that I was quite astonished at his beauty and stature; all the world seemed to be enamoured of him; amazement and confusion reigned when he entered; and a troop of lovers followed him. That grown-up men like ourselves should have been affected in this way was not surprising, but I observed that there was the same feeling among the boys; all of them, down to the very least child, turned and looked at him, as if he had been a statue.
Chaerephon: What do you think of him, Socrates? Has he not a beautiful face?
Socrates: Most beautiful.
Chaerephon: But you would think nothing of his face if you could see his naked form: he is absolutely perfect.
Socrates (addressing the reader): And to this they all agreed.
Socrates: By Heracles, there never was such a paragon, [at least] if he has only one other slight addition.
Critias: What is that?
Socrates: If he has a noble soul; and being of your house, Critias, he may be expected to have this.
Critias: He is as fair and good within as he is without.
Socrates: Then, before we see his body, should we not ask him to show us his soul, naked and undisguised? He is just of an age at which he will like to talk.
Critias: That he will, and I can tell you that he is a philosopher already, and also a considerable poet, not in his own opinion only, but in that of others.
Socrates: That, my dear Critias, is a distinction which has long been in your family, and is inherited by you from Solon. But why do you not call him, and show him to us? Even if he were younger than he is, there could be no impropriety in his talking to us in the presence of you, who are his guardian and cousin.
Critias: Very well, then, I will call him. [He turns to the attendant.] Call Charmides, and tell him that I want him to come and see a physician about the illness of which he spoke to me the day before yesterday. [He turns back to Socrates.] He has been complaining lately of having a headache when he rises in the morning. Now why should you not make him believe that you know a cure for the headache?
Socrates: Why not? But will he come?
Critias: He will be sure to come.
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[Charmides comes, and Socrates tells him that he can easily cure the headache using a kind of leaf, but a leaf that works only with the recitation of a charm, and he asks Charmides if he is willing.]
Socrates: … Such, Charmides, is the nature of the charm, which I learned when serving with the army from one of the physicians of the Thracian king Zamolxis, who are said to be so skilful that they can even give immortality. This Thracian told me that in these notions of theirs, which I was just now mentioning, the Greek physicians are quite right as far as they go; but Zamolxis, he added, our king, who is also a god, says further, that “as you ought not to attempt to cure the eyes without the head, or the head without the body, so neither ought you to attempt to cure the body without the soul; and this,” he said, “is the reason why the cure of many diseases is unknown to the physicians of Hellas [Greece], because they are ignorant of the whole, which ought to be studied also; for the part can never be well unless the whole is well.”
For all good and evil, whether in the body or in human nature, originates, as he declared, in the soul, and overflows from thence, as if from the head into the eyes.
And therefore if the head and body are to be well, you must begin by curing the soul; that is the first thing. And the cure, my dear youth, has to be effected by the use of certain charms, and these charms are fair words; and by them moderation is implanted in the soul, and where moderation is, there health is speedily imparted, not only to the head, but to the whole body. And he who taught me the cure and the charm at the same time added a special direction: “Let no one,” he said, “persuade you to cure the head, until he has first given you his soul to be cured by the charm. For this,” he said, “is the great error of our day in the treatment of the human body, that physicians separate the soul from the body.” And he added with emphasis (at the same time making me swear to his words), “Let no one, however rich, or noble, or fair, persuade you to give him the cure, without the charm.”
Now I have sworn, and I must keep my oath, and therefore if you will allow me to apply the Thracian charm first to your soul, as the stranger directed, I will afterwards proceed to apply the cure to your head. But if not, I do not know what I am to do with you, my dear Charmides.
Critias: The headache will be an unexpected gain to my young relation, if the pain in his head compels him to improve his mind: and I can tell you, Socrates, that Charmides is not only pre-eminent in beauty among his equals, but also in that quality which is given by the charm; and this, as you say, is moderation?
Socrates: Yes, so I said.
Socrates: … If to beauty you add moderation, and if in other respects you are what Critias declares you to be, then, dear Charmides, “blessed art thou, in being the son of thy mother.” And here lies the point; for if, as he declares, you have this gift of moderation already, and are moderate enough, in that case you have no need of any charms, whether of Zamolxis or of Abaris the Hyperborean, and I may as well let you have the cure of the head at once; but if you have not yet acquired this quality, I must use the charm before I give you the medicine. Please, therefore, to inform me whether you admit the truth of what Critias has been saying; have you or have you not this quality of moderation?
Socrates (addressing the reader): Charmides blushed, and the blush heightened his beauty, for modesty is becoming in youth; he then said very ingenuously, that he really could not at once answer either yes or no to the question which I had asked:
Charmides: If I affirm that I am not moderate, that would be a strange thing for me to say of myself, and also I should give the lie to Critias, and many others who think as he tells you, that I am moderate: but, on the other hand, if I say that I am, I shall have to praise myself, which would be ill manners; and therefore I do not know how to answer you.
Socrates: In order, then, that I may form a conjecture whether you have moderation abiding in you or not, tell me, what, in your opinion, is moderation?
Socrates (addressing the reader):At first he hesitated, and was very unwilling to answer: then he said that he thought moderation was doing things orderly and quietly, such things for example as walking in the streets, and talking, or anything else of that nature.
Charmides: In a word, I should answer that, in my opinion, moderation is quietness.
Socrates: Are you right, Charmides? No doubt some would affirm that the quiet are the moderate; but let us see whether these words have any meaning; and first tell me whether you would not acknowledge moderation to be of the class of the noble and good?
Socrates: But which is best when you are at the writing-master’s, to write the same letters quickly or quietly?
Socrates: And to read quickly or slowly?
Charmides: Quickly again.
Socrates: And in playing the lyre, or wrestling, quickness or sharpness are far better than quietness and slowness?
Socrates: And the same holds in boxing and in the pancratium [boxing and wrestling contest]?
Socrates: And in leaping and running and in bodily exercises generally, quickness and agility are good; slowness, and inactivity, and quietness, are bad?
Charmides: That is evident.
Socrates: Then in all bodily actions, not quietness, but the greatest agility and quickness, is noblest and best?
Charmides: Yes, certainly.
Socrates: And is moderation a good?
Socrates: Then, in reference to the body, not quietness, but quickness will be the higher degree of moderation, if moderation is a good?
Socrates: And which is better, facility in learning, or difficulty in learning?
Socrates: Yes, and facility in learning is learning quickly, and difficulty in learning is learning quietly and slowly?
Socrates: And is it not better to teach another quickly and energetically, rather than quietly and slowly?
Socrates: And which is better, to call to mind, and to remember, quickly and readily, or quietly and slowly?
Charmides: The former.
Socrates: And is not shrewdness a quickness or cleverness of the soul, and not a quietness?
Socrates: And is it not best to understand what is said, whether at the writing-master’s or the music-master’s, or anywhere else, not as quietly as possible, but as quickly as possible?
Socrates: And in the searchings or deliberations of the soul, not the quietest, as I imagine, and [also not] he who with difficulty deliberates and discovers, is thought worthy of praise, but he who does so most easily and quickly?
Charmides: Quite true.
Socrates: And in all that concerns either body or soul, swiftness and activity are clearly better than slowness and quietness?
Charmides: Clearly they are.
Socrates: Then moderation is not quietness, nor is the moderate life quiet — certainly not upon this view; for the life which is moderate is supposed to be the good. And of two things, one is true either never, or very seldom; do the quiet actions in life appear to be better than the quick and energetic ones? Or supposing that of the nobler actions, there are as many quiet, as quick and vehement: still, even if we grant this, moderation will not be acting quietly any more than acting quickly and energetically, either in walking or talking or in anything else; nor will the quiet life be more moderate than the unquiet, seeing that moderation is admitted by us to be a good and noble thing, and the quick have been shown to be as good as the quiet.
Charmides: I think, Socrates, that you are right.
Socrates: Then once more, Charmides, fix your attention, and look within; consider the effect which moderation has upon yourself, and the nature of that which has the effect. Think over all this, and, like a brave youth, tell me: What is moderation?
Socrates (addressing the reader): He paused for a moment, in which he made a real manly effort to think.
Charmides: My opinion is, Socrates, that moderation makes a man ashamed or modest, and that moderation is the same as modesty.
Socrates: Very good; and did you not admit, just now, that moderation is noble?
Charmides: Yes, certainly.
Socrates: And the moderate are also good?
Socrates: And can that be good which does not make men good?
Charmides: Certainly not.
Socrates: And you would infer that moderation is not only noble, but also good?
Charmides: That is my opinion.
Socrates: Well, but surely you would agree with Homer when he says, “Modesty is not good for a needy man?”
Charmides: Yes, I agree.
Socrates: Then I suppose that modesty is and is not good?
Socrates: But moderation, whose presence makes men only good, and not bad, is always good?
Charmides: That appears to me to be as you say.
Socrates: And the inference is that moderation cannot be modesty, if moderation is a good, and if modesty is as much an evil as a good?
Charmides: All that, Socrates, appears to me to be true; but I should like to know what you think about another definition of moderation, which I just now remember to have heard from someone, who said, that “moderation is minding our own business.” Was he right who affirmed that?
Socrates: You monster! Is this what Critias or some philosopher has told you?
Critias: Someone else; for certainly I have not.
Charmides: But why does it matter from whom I heard this?
Socrates: It doesn’t, for the point is not who said the words, but whether they are true or not.
Charmides: There you are in the right, Socrates.
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