The Charmides provides our richest source for Plato’s thinking on the virtue of sophrosyne, yet a widespread historical misunderstanding has precluded a correct reconstruction of Plato’s theory on this point. Critias and Charmides, Socrates’ two interlocutors in this dialogue, are frequently reported to have both been members of the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchic government that controlled Athens upon its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. On the basis of this error about Charmides’ biography, there is an irresistible tendency to infer that Plato sought to expose a univocal character flaw, centering on a lack of sophrosyne, which leads both of these figures to commit atrocities against their fellow citizens. On this standard interpretation, we supposedly know that by the composition date, Charmides has opted for the depraved life represented by Critias, and so the dialogue depicts Charmides facing a stark choice between only two contrasting lives, exemplified by Critias’ bloodthirsty immoderation and Socratic sophrosyne.
Recent work by Nails has exposed this historical inaccuracy about Charmides, and thereby opened a new avenue for thinking about how the dramatic and historical aspects of this work interact with its philosophical content. Although Charmides was chosen by the Thirty Tyrants to be among the Ten governors of the Piraeus, he was not in fact himself a member of the Thirty. Charmides’ subordinate complicity has been exaggerated by Plato scholars into full membership in the Thirty, thereby conflating the two very different roles these interlocutors play in Plato’s dialogue. Correction of the historical record enables us to open a symbolic gap between Critias, leader of the Thirty, and Charmides, follower and subordinate. Thus there are two flaws being diagnosed in the Charmides: lust for domination and debilitating deference to authority. Investigating both shortcomings illuminates the conception of sophrosyne that motivates two related, yet logically distinct, criticisms of Charmides and Critias.
I contend that Plato defines sophrosyne as rational self-control. However, one remarkable feature of Plato’s account is that the lack of sophrosyne is not directly identified with behaving excessively or appetitively; rather, these are the indirect result of a more fundamental mental disorder. If sophrosyne is rational control of oneself, intemperance involves control of oneself by another. For Plato, the difference between sophrosyne and its associated vices depends on the source of the control, not on its presence or absence. Once we take external control to be the central idea behind Plato’s conception of intemperance, the roles of Charmides and Critias fall neatly into place—intemperance becomes a relational property, control of one person by another. It then follows that there are two vices associated with lack of sophrosyne, with distinct consequences for the dominant and subordinate partners. My evidence for this novel interpretation centers on the role of authority in the Charmides. The dialogue offers numerous examples that present a contrast between noble self-reliance (160e2-3, 164d4-165b5, 165c3), and debilitating dependence on others (161a2-3, 161b3-8). I closely examine both types of passage to reveal the conception of sophrosyne embodied by the former, and the two associated flaws described by the latter. Plato’s choice of two interlocutors for Socrates, though not unique to this dialogue, is thus essential to Plato’s exposition of intemperance. The difference in their ultimate careers is intended to focus attention on the asymmetric roles they play in the dialogue. My argument concludes by illustrating how this distinction between external control by authorities and internal control through one’s own reasoning ability goes to the very heart of the Socratic method. If external control is to be shunned as a vice, then we can appreciate why it would be of paramount importance for Socrates to goad interlocutors to think for themselves, while simultaneously resisting their demands that he simply reveal his own opinions on the matter.