Platonic scholarship of the twentieth century rejected the ancient biographic tradition according to which Plato began to write his dialogues during Socrates’ lifetime. How can Platonic scholars view the Charmides as a dialogue written after the death of Socrates? Donald Watt writes in his ‘Introduction to Charmides’:
‘Charmides and Critias were not simply Athenian aristocrats but were, more importantly, members of Plato’s own aristocratic family. Charmides was his uncle on his mother’s side; Critias, his mother’s cousin. Both belonged to Socrates’ circle, though Critias had mixed with the sophists, and in this dialogue, to some extent, he represents their ethical standpoint and methods of argumentation.
Why should Plato have chosen these two members of his own family to be Socrates’ interlocutors in this dialogue? Why should he have honoured them with such praise of their noble ancestry, which was also his own ancestry, as he does at the beginning (157e-158b)? The answers lie in the two men’s subsequent careers. Critias went on to become the extremist leader of the Thirty Tyrants, who imposed a reign of terror on Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404-403, in their attempt to impose their oligarchy on the citizen body. Charmides too became one of the Thirty, meeting his death, with Critias, in battle against the democrats. Part of Plato’s purpose in this dialogue is to exculpate Socrates from any responsibility for the crimes of his former companions. Xenophon, in Memorabilia I. 2. 12 ff., also comes to Socrates’ defence against the same charge, stating that Socrates had taught Critias sôphrosunê in his youth and had spoken out so strongly against his later behaviour that he had taken grave offence. By showing Critias as both quite lacking in sôphrosunê and quite ignorant of its meaning beyond a superficial acquaintance with its conventional use within his aristocratic circle; by representing Charmides as equally unaware of its true purport, despite his possession of the natural sôphrosunê of youth, which he will lose when he reaches adulthood; and by portraying Socrates as trying his best to discover with them the true meaning of sôphrosunê, and as failing to elicit answer from them, though possessing the virtue himself – by all these means Plato is endeavouring to show that Socrates tried to educate Critias and Charmides in sôphrosunê, but failed. But by trying, he saved himself from any possible accusation of responsibility for their later crimes.’ (Plato, Early Socratic Dialogues, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 167.)
Donald Watt covers a lot of territory in these two paragraphs. In this post I shall limit myself to his question ‘Why should he have honoured them with such praise of their noble ancestry, which was also his own ancestry, as he does at the beginning (157e-158b)?’, and to his answer: ‘Part of Plato’s purpose in this dialogue is to exculpate Socrates from any responsibility for the crimes of his former companions’. Since the main purpose of my entries on Plato in this blog of mine is to view Plato in the looking glass of his texts, let me begin with his praise of Charmides in the Charmides.
Critias tells Socrates: ‘Well then, rest assured (Eu toinun isthi) that he is regarded as far and away the most self-controlled of the present generation (hoti panu polu dokei sôphronestatos einai tôn nuni) and, for his age, second to none in everything else too (kai t’alla panta, eis hoson hêlikias hêkei, oudenos cheirôn ôn).’ – In response, Socrates says to Charmides: ‘Indeed it’s only right (Kai gar kai dikaion), Charmides (ô Charmidê), that you should surpass the rest (diapherein se tôn allôn) in all things like that (pasin tois toioutois). I don’t think there is anyone else here (ou gar oimai allon oudena tôn enthade) who could easily point (ra̢diôs an echein epideixai) to any two Athenian families (poiai duo oikiai), apart from those from which you come, whose union might be expected to produce anyone better or more noble (sunelthousai eis t’auton tôn Athênesin ek tôn eikotôn kalliô an kai ameinô gennêseian ê ex hôn su gegonas). Your father’s family (hê te gar patrô̢a humin oikia), that of Critias (hê Kritiou), Dropides’ son (tou Dropidou), has been eulogized by Anacreon [‘A famous lyric poet, born in Teos c. 570’, notes D. Watt], Solon and many other poets (kai hupo Anakreontos kai hupo Solônos kai hup’ allôn pollôn poiêtôn enkekômiasmenê), and has been presented to us by tradition (paradedotai hêmin) as pre-eminent for beauty (hôs diapherousa kallei te), virtue (kai aretê̢) and everything else that is called happiness (kai tê̢ allê̢ legomenê̢ eudaimonia̢). The same is true of your mother’s family too (kai au hê pros mêtros hôsautôs): no one in the continent of Asia is said to have been considered more handsome or taller than your uncle Pyrilampes [‘A friend of Pericles, famed for his breeding of peacocks, who became Plato’s stepfather’, notes D. Watt] (Purilampous gar tou sou theiou oudeis tôn en tê̢ êpeirô̢ legetai kalliôn ê meizôn anêr doxai einai), whenever (hosakis) he went as ambassador to the Great King or anyone else in the continent (ekeinos ê para megan basilea ê para allon tina tôn en tê̢ êpeirô̢ presbeuôn aphiketo). That whole side of the family (sumpasa de hautê hê oikia) is in no way inferior to the other (ouden tes heteras hupodeestera). So it’s natural that, coming from such people (ek dê toutôn gegonota), you should be first in everything (eikos se eis panta prôton einai). Now, from what I’ve seen of your looks (ta men oun horômena tês ideas), dear son of Glaucon (ô phile pai Glaukônos), I don’t think you fall short of any of your forebears in anything (dokeis moi oudena tôn pro sou en oudeni hupobebêkenai); and if you are sufficiently endowed with self-control and the other qualities, as Critias maintains (ei de kai pros sôphrosunên kai pros t’alla kata ton toude logon hikanôs pephukas), your mother bore a blessed son in you, my dear Charmides (makarion se, ô phile Charmidê, hê mêtêr etikten).’ 157d6-158a4, tr. D. Watt)
I do not see how this eloquent praise of Charmides’ and Critias’ noble ancestry can be viewed as part of Plato’s purpose to exculpate Socrates from any responsibility for the crimes of his former companions. Written in the early days of the aristocratic revolution, when Plato hoped that the Thirty would ‘so administer the State as to lead it out of an unjust way of life into a just way’ (ek tinos adikou biou epi dikaion tropon agontas dioikêsein dê tên polin, Seventh Letter 324d4-5), the praise expresses Plato’s hope, if not confidence, that this is how the Thirty ought to act, true to their vocation as aristocrats. That he was not sure about it can be inferred from the words that follow: ‘so I focussed my mind on them very closely to see (hôste autois sphodra proseichon ton noun) what they would do (ti praxoien, Seventh Letter 324d6).
At this point it could be argued that the same explanation, with added force, could be proffered by Donald Watt and by all those who view the dialogue as written after Socrates’ death: With his praise of Charmides’ and Critias’ noble ancestry Socrates did his best to compel them to become worthy of their noble ancestry, of which they in the end proved to be unworthy.
Against this explanation militates the closing section of the dialogue, to which I devoted the preceding post, and from which I shall now quote only the closing exchange between Charmides and Socrates.
Charmides realizes that he needs to be charmed by Socrates every day. Critias tells him that this is the best proof that he is wise, that he has sôphrosunê, and he commands him to be true to his resolve and not to disappoint Socrates in any way. Charmides promises to obey his command. At this point Socrates addresses Critias and Charmides: ‘What are you two plotting to do (Houtoi, ti bouleuesthon poiein;)?’ – Charmides: ‘Nothing (Ouden), we’ve done our plotting (alla bebouleumetha).’ – Socrates, addressing Charmides: ‘Are you going to resort to the use of force (Biasê̢ ara), without even giving me a preliminary hearing (kai oud’ anakrisin moi dôseis)?’ – Charmides: ‘I certainly am (Hôs biasomenou), since Critias here orders me to (epeidêper hode ge epitattei) – which is why you should plot what you’ll do (pros tauta su au bouleuou hoti poiêseis).’ – Socrates says to Charmides: ‘But there’s no time left for plotting (All’ oudemia leipetai boulê). Once you’re intent on doing something (soi gar epicheirounti prattein hotioun) and are resorting to the use of force (kai biazomenô̢), no man alive will be able to resist you (oudeis hoios t’ estai enantiousthai anthrôpôn).’ – Charmides: ‘Well then (Mê toinun), don’t you resist me either (mêde su enantiou).’ – Socrates closes the dialogue by answering Charmides: ‘I won’t (Ou toinun enantiôsomai, ‘I won’t resist you then’).’ (176c5-d5, tr. D. Watt)
If I were to view the Charmides as written after the death of Socrates, I could not see it otherwise than as an attempt to make Socrates responsible ‘for the crimes of his former companions’, as Watt puts it.