By Jason St. John Oliver Campbell

Jason St. John Oliver Campbell, University of South Florida


In the Charmides, Socrates sets out to critique the Apollonian conception of self-knowledge, illustrated by Apollo’s precept, know thyself, inscribed on the portals at Delphi (164d4-164e2). Socrates cannot jeopardize his piety through mounting an attack directly against Apollo. Thus, the Socratic elenchus begins with Charmides and his mentor Critias discussing the nature of temperance (σωφροσύνη). The focus of this essay is to illustrate how Socrates is able to attack the Apollonian precept indirectly through syllogistic logic associating Critias’ reasoning with that of Apollo, then undercutting Critias’ argument, thereby indirectly undercutting Apollo’s precept also.

Charmides as the Exemplar of Sôphrosynê

The beautiful (καλός) form of the male physique enchanted the Ancient Greeks. 1 Likewise, Socrates, in the Charmides, enchanted with the defining characteristics of temperance, sets out to investigate the affairs of young men and philosophy (153d3-5). He arrives at the palaestra (wrestling school) after returning from battle and is greeted by Chaerephon, 2 who ventured to ask the Delphic oracle if any man were wiser than Socrates. 3 The duo exchange pleasantries wherein Chaerephon introduces Socrates to Critias, Plato’s mother’s cousin, and a group of men. The group’s attention, including that of Socrates, shifts, however, once Charmides, Plato’s uncle, enters the palaestra. Socrates, awestruck by Charmides’ beauty (155d-d4), retains his composure only through an investigation into the nature of temperance.

Plato has purposely selected allegedly the two most notorious members of his family as interlocutors, i.e., both Charmides, of whom this dialogue is entitled, and his mentor Critias were associated with the Thirty-Tyrants (c. 404-403 B.C.), established via the Spartan democracy, subsequent to Athens surrender to Lysander. 4 Moreover, Charmides, indicative of Ancient Greek psychological and physiological fascination with male anatomy, serves as the archetypical embodiment of both aristocracy and temperance. Therefore, Socrates rightfully selects him as an excellent candidate for a discussion of the nature of temperance.

The word ‘enchantment’ is appropriate in this analysis of the Charmides for two very important reasons. First, Charmides’ physique and beauty denote his embodiment of excellence 5 (ρετή), that is, the mere fact that he is so beautiful immediately necessitates him as an exemplar of sôphrosynê (σωφροσύνη), moderation, to the Ancient Greek, which Socrates clearly understands (157d5-8). And secondly, the connotative implication of the word ‘enchantment’ directly relates to the charm of Charmides, viz., his beauty, but also to the charm required to cure him of his headache—possibly alluding to a prior night’s excess. 6 Plato, then, has established that the direction of this dialogue will tend toward the charm necessary for the health of the soul rather than the charm, i.e., the appeal, of one’s body (158b-c).

The Socratic elenchus begins with Socrates asking Charmides to define temperance. Charmides has been sufficiently schooled under the apprenticeship of Critias and proceeds with extreme caution (158c6-d6). His response to the question that Socrates poses demonstrates a preoccupation with his appearance and with safeguarding the reputation of Critias. 7 Socrates, however, is unconcerned with this desire—the nature of the response, which escapes Charmides, relates to the knowable component of temperance with its identification and subsequent definition (158e10-159a4), that is, the nature of temperance in-and-of-itself. Charmides, as the embodiment of temperance, must be able to identify those aspects of his nature, which, when exhibited, induce others to identify him as temperate. The Socratic elenchus with respect to the Charmides concentrates on the epistemological justifications for (πιστήμη) knowledge claims pertaining to the nature of temperance and the self. Therefore, Charmides as the exemplar of temperance (157d5-8) must be able to articulate its nature with the necessary epistemological justifications to convince Socrates that he, in effect, possesses that which he is said to embody.

Four Levels of Socrates’ Attack on the Apollonian Conception of Self-Knowledge

In his 1896 article, “Self-Knowledge,” John I. Beare identifies Socrates’ apprehension about pronouncing the impossibility of self-knowledge as analogous with temperance—for such an act would indicate his impiety. 8 While Beare’s reasoning is correct, insofar as the dialogue ends in aporia, it would be literary negligence not to indicate the four levels of Socrates’ attack on the Apollonian conception of knowledge. They are as follows:

  1. Socrates’ initial attack on the Apollonian conception of epistemology.
  2. Socrates’ discussion of First-order sciences and their distinction from the science of the self.
  3. Socrates’ discussion of Second-order sciences and their distinction from the science of science.
  4. Socrates’ meta-justificatory argument against Apollonian epistemology.

Plato’s incorporation of these four levels into the dialogue suggests that he implicitly attacks the foundational belief that knowledge, i.e., wisdom, and knowledge of self are synonymous (165a). Thus the enquiry into the nature of knowledge begins with the specific suggestion that knowledge is wisdom. 9  In no regard, however, is it my intention to assert that these four levels of the Socratic attack on knowledge—used to question the coherence of the traditional conception of knowledge—are in any respect exhaustive.

When scrutinized closely, the four levels of the Socratic attack on Apollonian epistemology provide a critique of the traditional conception of Ancient Greek epistemology. This would indicate that Plato’s Socrates, while not having the answer to the nature of temperance in-and-of-itself (165b5-165c) does recognize that the structure of the traditional theory of epistemology is fundamentally flawed in equating temperance with self-knowledge (165a). As in the Republic, Book IV (533c), the approach to a philosophical argument is to do away with any hypothesis and attack the premise. 10 Thus the four levels of Socrates’ attack on the Apollonian conception of the acquisition of knowledge are based on textual evidence and in no way formulated ad hoc.

An Analysis of the Syllogistic Argument

The portals to Apollo’s temple at Delphi bear the inscription, “Know thyself,” which serves as the foundation for pious epistemological claims (164d4-164e2). Critias agrees with the inscription as any pious citizen would, that to exercise temperance is to know thyself (165a). Furthermore, he continues to demonstrate his understanding of the historicity behind the inscription by explaining that citizens misunderstood the inscription to be an adage rather than a divine precept from the god Apollo (165a4).

Critias, associated with the bloodthirsty Thirty-Tyrants, explains to Socrates that temperance, which he (Critias) possesses, is self-knowledge. His justification for this claim is based on his own piety. Critias’ response to Socrates falls short of sufficiently demonstrating his knowledge—and this is Socrates’ concern, namely, how easy it is to profess knowledge without an understanding of the claim. Socrates’ attack on this epistemological premise is necessary in educating the citizens of Athens about the structure of knowledge, i.e., how it is that we come to know what we know. A direct attack on the incoherence of Apollo’s precept, however, would sufficiently demonstrate Socrates’ impiety. What Socrates will need to disprove is the incoherence of a transcendental method of self-knowing. 11

In depicting Critias, a tyrant, as agreeing with Apollo’s precept (165a), Socrates may now attack the traditional precept via an attack on Critias, without directly questioning Apollo’s divinity. Thus, if Critias’ view of epistemology is analogous to Apollo’s precept (165a) and Socrates demonstrates the incoherence of Critias’ epistemological claims (170c9-170d2), then Socrates has demonstrated, indirectly, the incoherence of the Apollonian method for the acquisition of knowledge. Although the dialogue does end in aporia, Socrates’ discussion with Critias and Charmides demonstrates to the reader that the Apollonian conception of epistemology is fundamentally flawed, while simultaneously conserving Socrates’ piety.

The First Level of Socrates’ Attack

The process by which Socrates unravels the inconsistencies within Critias’ argument for self-knowledge as associated with temperance unfolds over an intricate dialogue that prefaces the discussion of First and Second-order sciences. As in the Apology (22d), Socrates demonstrates that he is wiser than Critias for he does not claim to know what he does not know (165b5-165c), whereas Critias proclaims justification for his explanation of temperance by appeal to divinity (165a)—possibly, as Critias would venture to guess, trumping Socrates’ prior refutation (164c4). 12 This association of self-knowledge on the one hand, and temperance on the other, will be the undoing of Critias’ argument for the remainder of the dialogue. 13

The process, however, is superbly complex, as Socrates knows the paradoxical nature of associating temperance, as a form of science, with knowledge—for this would indicate that temperance is the science of a particular (165c4). If so defined, temperance cannot account for itself-as-such (170d). For example, the science of shape and form is justified by geometry, which justifies the geometrical claims that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle total 180° or the bisector of a 180° line divides such a line into two identical halves. 14 However, despite the fact that geometry can account for and justify such claims it cannot, within itself, justify the axioms used to justify those prior claims. Therefore, the science of geometry cannot justify those standards (axioms) that serve as the basis, i.e., justification, for all geometrical claims. This is a preface to the meta-justificatory argument against self-knowledge. Such an undertaking requires careful attention to detail, as I explain below.

Critias’ critical error was his association of temperance with self-knowledge, as I have suggested above. In making this association, he may have intended to bolster his argument by appeal to an accepted definition, established as a precept from the god Apollo at the portal to the Delphic oracle, which should have conquered Socrates’ former refutation. The introduction of Apollonian epistemology offers Socrates the opportunity to spearhead a philosophical attack, however, not only on Critias but more importantly on those citizens who blindly swallow divine doctrine and profess knowledge of that which escapes them (Apology 22d). Therefore, the first level of Socrates’ attack on traditional epistemology concludes once he identifies the paradoxical association of self-knowledge with temperance.

The Second Level of Socrates’ Attack

The second level of the Socratic attack on the Apollonian method for the acquisition of knowledge appears with the discussion of First-order sciences. First-order sciences are the sciences of, as Socrates demonstrates repeatedly (166a3), e.g., the science of health (165c11), the science of building houses (165d4), the science of art (165d6), and, notoriously, the science of the self (165d7). Critias, fueled with unbridled determination, scolds Socrates for not conducting the investigation of temperance in the appropriate manner (165e3-166a2) and challenges Socrates to offer a geometrical analogue to the correlation of house and house-building (165e5). Surprisingly, Socrates agrees that he can furnish no such instance (168a3). Nevertheless, in later passages Socrates does succeed in doing just this, though indirectly. 15 What is Socrates trying to do? Socrates needs first to explain the relationship between any science and that of which it is a science.

Critias is looking for a relationship in the science of geometry analogous to the association of a house to house building (165e5) which Socrates will not directly provide (168a3). I offer the following as such an analogy: A house is to house-building as an isosceles triangle is to triangles. What is Critias seeking? He is seeking an association of a particular (a house) to the science governing, i.e., justifying that particular (house-building). The association of a geometrical particular (a particular isosceles triangle) to the science governing it is provided in the example. The axiomatic principles of triangles indicate that all triangles are defined (a priori) as three sided enclosed figures with interior angles totaling 180°. A particular isosceles triangle is justified as such—by the axiomatic principles of triangles, just as a particular house is justified by the science of house building. 16

Socrates asks Critias to identify what it is that temperance is the science of, other than itself (166b4). Critias replies that it is, exclusively, the science of itself and other sciences (166c2). In other words, temperance has progressed from the science of self (165e) to the science of itself (166c2). This implies that temperance is both the particular and the whole (the justification for the particular) simultaneously. This seems correct, but where does it leave us? The answer is surprisingly redundant: ρ→ρ/ρ ρ, which Socrates later proves (170d). 17 Critias is correct, however, in distinguishing the First-order science (of) from the Second-order science (itself).

Critias, believing that he has stumbled onto an important development, augments his prior formulation of temperance to include the science “which is not of anything except itself and the other sciences and that this same science is also a science of the absence of science” (167b10-167c2). In a two-part rebuttal (168a5 and 170c9-170d2), Socrates demonstrates sufficiently that if Critias were to possess such knowledge it would equate merely to knowing that he knows.

To clarify, I turn my attention, briefly, to the history of philosophy. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum in-and-of-itself, without the proof of the external world or God, simply states that he knows that he knows, despite any secondary forces acting against him. This is by no means a trivial point for Descartes’ meditations. Not until idealistic metaphysics culminate with Hegel’s Aufhebung, 18 however, does the philosophical community realize the importance of history in defining the self. It would be a travesty for me to criticize Critias with such an anachronistic attack. My intention is not to do so. For Socrates to say that Critias’ argument condenses to knowing only that he knows involves immense foresight. He has demonstrated that the First-order science equating the science of self with temperance—justified via the science of itself—leaves the knower knowing only that he/she knows, which has been shown to be redundant.

The Third Level of Socrates’ Attack

The discussion turns toward the Second-order sciences in a very unassuming manner. Socrates asks Critias by which science a man is made happy (174a8) to which Critias, after some inquiry, asserts that a man is made happy through the knowledge of good and evil (174b11). It is as though an epiphany dawns on Socrates (174b12) once he realizes that Critias is not arguing for the knowledge of all sciences, or for an amalgamation of particular sciences, as the definition of temperance—but simply for the knowledge of this particular science, namely, the science of good and evil. If Critias is correct, the governing Second-order science of good and evil will account for, i.e., justify, those First-order sciences mentioned earlier in this discussion. A house derives its characteristics from the science of house building, just as an isosceles triangle derives its characteristics from the axiomatic principles of geometry. Thus, the science of good and evil must be the science whereby all other sciences derive their characteristics (174c9). If individuals attain knowledge of a First-order science, it follows that they could have done so due only to the governing Second-order science of good and evil. No person could make epistemological claims in the absence of the Second-order science of good and evil. For Critias, then, it is the Second-order science of good and evil which remains constant throughout the plethora of First-order sciences. This argument may seem coherent, but as Socrates will demonstrate, it is riddled with inconsistencies.

The Fourth Level of Socrates’ Attack

Socrates’ rebuttal of Critias’ equation of temperance with the science of good and evil is the last level of his four-part attack on the Apollonian conception of the acquisition of knowledge. Socrates’ final question, leading to the final destruction of the traditional conception of Apollonian epistemology, is whether the science of medicine, rather than the art of medicine, would make us healthy (174e2). Clearly, Socrates understands the function and the limitation of Second-order sciences, for he has challenged Critias to demonstrate how it is possible for the science of science to create anything, if its sole role is foundational.

I have suggested here that the science of geometry is analogous with a Second-order science because it governs, through axiomatic principles, shapes and forms, which would serve as analogies for First-order sciences. 19  Furthermore, I have suggested that the truths of Second-order sciences are known a priori. For example, the fact that all triangles are defined (a priori) as three sided enclosed figures with interior angles totaling 180° and that the bisector of a 180° line divides such a line into two identical halves are known independently of observation. Our epistemological claims necessarily begin, however, with a posteriori observations of particulars that occupy space and time, in most instances, unlike the divine. Thus, Socrates concludes, we come to know the world through a posteriori observations, which are justified by Second-order sciences; however, in–and-of-itself, Second-order science, that is, the meta-science, cannot lend itself to knowledge of anything concrete because Second-order science is limited to the knowledge of the a priori. Therefore, temperance as synonymous with Second-order science is useless; it remains an abstraction without observable features. Socrates concludes, then, that temperance will be of no use when it is the craftsman of no useful thing (175a5).


It has been my intention to elucidate those processes by which Socrates develops his attack on traditional Apollonian epistemology without committing an impious act, thus sufficiently safeguarding his sôphrosynê. He demonstrates Critias’ post hoc ergo propter hoc formulation of knowledge claims as deriving from the god Apollo. From this starting point, the Socratic attack on traditional epistemology catalyzes once it is demonstrated that Critias has associated self-knowledge with temperance. After demonstrating the inconsistencies that emerge from the postulated equivalency of temperance and self-knowledge, Socrates begins a multifaceted attack on the sciences and (alleged) justifications for them that, as Socrates concludes, cannot account for knowledge. It is, therefore, through his meta-justificatory argument for Second-order science that Socrates is able to detail the limitations of the Second-order science by proving that the sole role of Second-order science is as a justification for the First-order science. Therefore, temperance could never be a Second-order science since it is of this world.

Works Cited

Beare, John. “Self-Knowledge.” Mind. New Series 5.18 (1896): 227-235.

Flanagan, Joseph. Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan’s Philosophy. Buffalo: Toronto UP, 1997.

Matthews, Gwynneth. Plato’s Epistemology. New York: Humanities Press, 1972.

Moline, Jon. Plato’s Theory of Understanding. Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1981.

Runciman, W.G.. Plato’s Later Epistemology. New York: Cambridge UP, 1962.

Plato. Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.

Plato. Laches and Charmides. Trans. & notes Rosamond Sprague. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. & notes Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.

Waugh, Joanne. “Questioning the Self: A Reaction to Carvalho Press and Schmid.” Does Socrates Have a Method? Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State UP, 2002. 281-297.

  1. Plato, Symposium, trans. Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989) 210b. In Ancient Greece, homosexual relationships were commonplace. It was understood that intelligence and strength were characteristics of men (Symposium 181c4). And, therefore, the greatest expression of love would be that of a lover (erastēs), usually an older man for his adolescent beloved (erōmenos). The mere structure of a man’s physique served as justification of his excellence.
  2. Chaerephon, Socrates’ disciple, makes only a brief appearance in the Charmides. At the time of Socrates’ trial, in the Apology, Chaerephon has already died.  
  3. Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981) 21a3.
  4. Jon Moline, Plato’s Theory of Understanding (Madison: Wisconsin UP, 1981) 48. In the siege of Athens in c. 404 B.C., Sparta conquers Athens wherein Lysander empowers the oligarchic rule of the Thirty Tyrants, with which both Critias and Charmides were affiliated.
  5. It is stated in the dialogue (159a) that if temperance were present in Charmides he should have no qualms with explaining its definition. However, if he were unable to do so, his lack of ability would sufficiently demonstrate its absence in him.
  6. Joanne B. Waugh, “Questioning the Self: A Reaction to Carvalho Press and Schmid,Does Socrates Have a Method? (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State UP, 2002) 290. Waugh implies that Charmides’ headache may indicate his participation in a night’s excess. However, Charmides’ sôphrosynê remains unaffected.
  7. Plato, Charmides, trans. Rosamond Sprague (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992) 158c6-159d6. Charmides has identified that the circumstance in which he is involved leaves him in a precarious situation. If, on the one hand, he professes his temperance, he demonstrates the lack thereof. If, however, he denies his temperance, he makes Critias a liar.  
  8. John I. Beare, “Self-Knowledge,” Mind, New Series 5.18 (1896): 227-235.
  9. W.G. Runciman, Plato’s Later Epistemology (New York: Cambridge UP, 1962) 10-11. The interchange between knowledge and wisdom is simply one of preference. This is not the case, however, if we are equating wisdom with the knowledge of self. Furthermore, this would also indicate that knowledge, as mentioned, in not synonymous with self-knowledge either.
  10. Gwynneth Matthews, Plato’s Epistemology (New York: Humanities Press, 1972) 118.
  11. Joseph Flanagan, Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan’s Philosophy (Buffalo: Toronto UP, 1997) 231. Flanagan is discussing the association between the religious experience and the acquisition of knowledge. The knower transcends his/her former conceptions of truth to realize greater truths. Flanagan’s explanation of the transcendental method of self-knowledge is similar to Critias’ formulation, both relying on the metaphysical realm for justification of epistemological claims.
  12. This is an attempt by Critias to appeal to the authority of Apollo’s precept. He explains to Socrates that at the entrance of the temple Apollo’s reminder to remain temperate greets its visitors, (165a) which establishes a foundation for his revised definition of temperance as a science of some sort (165c).
  13. Once Critias has connected temperance with the sciences, he has inadvertently categorized it as either a First-order science or a Second-order science, each of which has its limitations. If in fact temperance is argued to be a First-order science, the complication arises as to how is it justified (by what standard of justification). If, however, Critias argues that temperance is a Second-order science, which he inevitably does, the complication that arises is the following: what use can it possibly serve as an a posteriori phenomenon, if by definition it is the justification for observation through a priori principle? As the discussion progresses, this inconsistency will be further clarified.
  14. This example is intended to demonstrate the distinction between the science of, as distinct from the science which. If temperance is the science of, it cannot account for itself—for to be the science of, it must be a science of particulars. Moreover, if the question of justification arises, as it usually will, the fundamental problem of begging the question destroys the argument. Thus the justification must come from outside of the science itself, and, therefore, the science in-and-of-itself cannot account for itself.
  15. See Plato, Charmides 170c-d.
  16. The following figure depicts the analogy between the relation of a house to house-building and the relation of particular shapes and forms to geometry.

  17. Plato, Charmides 170d. To know what one knows but does not know = to know that one knows but does not know. The only difference between these two statements is that, in the first instance, one knows what one knows, but this insight does not advance my philosophical investigation.
  18. The notion of Aufhebung implies a culmination or pinnacle of metaphysical idealism, enveloping all natural and metaphysical sciences.
  19. See note 16 on the association of shape to geometry.

Jason St. John Oliver Campbell

Jason St. John Oliver Campbell graduated Florida International University (FIU) Spring 2002 magna cum laude with a B.A. in philosophy. A member of Phi Sigma Tau international Honor Society in Philosophy, he has published numerous short stories and poems, including "Veranda Days" as the featured poem in The International Library of Poetry's Eternal Portraits Series. Currently a second year graduate student at the University of South Florida, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. His philosophical interests include philosophical psychiatry, philosophy of mind and epistemology. He expects to complete his MA thesis entitled “From Plato to Lacan: A Psychoanalytic Investigation of Moderate Self Mutilation” by Fall 2004.