A work written by Plato that examines the idea of caring for the soul and the virtue of temperance. The work is a discussion between Charmides and Socrates, the former being Plato's uncle on his mother's side. In the piece, Charmides is depicted when he was a teenager talking with Socrates, who has just returned from the battle at Potidaea 1 which started the Peloponnesian War.

Participants in the dialogue:

In the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates proposes that having a beautiful body and a good-natured soul are what make a good human being, and he offers to examine Charmides' soul by conversing with him and discovering what is like. According to Socrates, being commited to philosophical inquiry is one of the most important things that makes the soul good. In the dialogue, then, Socrates focuses on examining the virtue of temperance, 2 using the character of Charmides as an example and as a means of discovering its definition. He goes on to work towards a specific definiton with Critias. Charmides offers several definitons:

  • Temperance is doing everything in an orderly and quiet manner 3 : Socrates rejects this definition. He argues that since all actions that are temperate must be good, and that very few quiet actions are more admirable than strong ones, then temperance must not follow this definition. 4
  • Temperance is modesty 5 : Socrates repudiates this explanation, quoting the Odyssey: "Modesty is not a good mate for a needy man." Charmides agrees with this statement from Homer, and Socrates says then that temperance would appear to be both good and bad
  • Temperance is doing one's own job 6 : Socrates rejects this definition as well. He argues against Charmides in the following manner:

"Well then," I said, "do you think a city would be well governed by a law commanding each man to weave and wash his own cloak, make his own shoes and oil flask and scraper, and perform everything else by this same principle of keeping his hands off of other people's things and making and doing his own?"
"No, I don't think it would," he said.
"But," said I, "if a city is going to be temperately governed, it must be governed well."
"Of course," he said.
"Then if temperance is 'minding your own business', it can't be minding things of this sort and in this fashion." 7

Upon the rejection of these arguments, Socrates, Charmides and Critias make no greater definitive progress towards a definition of temperance. Socrates concludes the dialogue in much the same manner as he does many of the others in which he is a participant:

"I am very vexed indeed, if, with ... a most temperate soul, you should derive no benefit from this temperance nor should it be of any use to you in this present life ... because if you do have it, my advice to you would rather be to regard me as a babbler, incapable of finding out anything whatsoever by means of argument, and yourself as being exactly as happy as you are temperate." 9

1 Plato. Symposium. tr. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Stephanus p. 220 e. : In the battle at Potidaea, Socrates reportedly saved Alcibiades' life: " ... Socrates single-handedly saved my life! ... He just refused to leave me behind when I was wounded ..."
2 gk. sôphrosunê : The English translation of this term is widely contested. However, to gain a greater understanding of this virtue in terms of Plato's work, it is discussed in much greater detail in The Republic. Particularly, I've noted, throughout Stephanus pp. 430 c - 432 b.
3 Plato. Charmides. tr. Rosamond Kent Sprague. Stephanus p. 159 b.
4 Stephanus p. 160 c.
5 Stephanus p. 160 e.
6 Stephanus p. 161 b. This is the exact definition that Socrates offers for the virtue of justice in The Republic, Stephanus p. 433 b.
7 Stephanus p. 164 d.
8 Stephanus p. 162 a.
9 Stephanus p. 175 e.