Saturday, August 29, 2009

More thoughts on Plato's "Charmides"

The Charmides was one of the first of Plato's dialogues that I ever read, and I have to admit that I have not had much occasion to return to it over the years. But as I searched for a proper starting point for Plato for Pagans I kept going in circles until it occurred to me to start with Laches and Charmides. My main reason for doing so was that these dialogues meet two very attractive criteria for an introduction to Plato: (1) they are traditionally considered to be among Plato's early and more accessible works, and (2) they are both clearly datable in terms of the precise time in Socrates' life in which they are set, and they also correspond to important events in the history of the city of Athens.

Since chronological specificity was a major reason for choosing these two dialogues, I had little choice but to put Charmides before Laches, since the Charmides takes place in 432 BC, when Socrates is 37 years old, and the Laches takes place eight years later. (The kind of dating I am talking about is often referred to as the "dramatic date" of a dialog. All of Plato's dialogues were written well after Socrates was dead, but they are all set dramatically during Socrates' lifetime.) One often finds the two dialogues presented in the opposite order. This is the case, for example, in Charles Kahn's Plato and the Socratic Dialogue as well as in the Rosamond Kent Sprague's single volume translation of both dialogues.

As I already alluded to, many years had passed between my first reading of Charmides and the time, very recently, when I began to look at it again more closely. When I did this I was shocked at the depth and complexity of this "early" dialogue! Not only are the arguments presented at times quite convoluted (enough so that contemporary scholars differ widely even on the gist of what Plato is trying to say), but the themes that are addressed are among the most weighty in all of Greek philosophy. What is knowledge? What is wisdom? What is the nature of the soul? How should we live our lives?!

And yet I continue to believe that this is an excellent starting point for Plato. But the Dear Reader must be forewarned - this will not be a matter of dipping a toe cautiously into the water, it will be much more like jumping in head first!