Creating Statesmen, Part 2: Democracy, Oligarchy and Xenophon’s Depiction of Charmides

for David Sullivan and Joe Connole, with many thanks

Background: The Pelopennesian War, 431-404 BC, pit the Athenian democracy against the Spartan republic. Now Athens had not always been a democracy; once it was a kingship, and there were traces of noble lineage among the Athenians. One of the people of such descent was Plato (Wilson Carey McWilliams used to say Plato’s lineage was as if direct descendants of Hamilton and Jefferson had married). Athens at the time of the war also had a very active oligarchic class; richer citizens were responsible in large part for the excellent Athenian navy. These richer citizens, for quite obvious reasons, were not thrilled with the democracy’s bloodlust against Sparta. War was bad for business and they were forced to shoulder the burden of having to wage it to a greater degree than poorer members of the demes. Moreover, with ancestral ideas about what is noble floating around, children of the oligarchs wished to exercise power and rule themselves, paving the way for some who interacted with Socrates to take Socratic rhetoric, gain a following,  and attempt to be tyrants. Those noble ideas, after all, didn’t have much to do with respecting the wishes of the demos.

A slightly more mature gentleman named Charmides was a friend of Socrates. After the war ended and Sparta won, Sparta installed some of the oligarchic faction as rulers, and Charmides was one of the rulers. These rulers came to be known as the “Thirty Tyrants” and were notorious for murdering anyone and everyone. Socrates’ main interlocutor in the Republic, Glaucon, wanted to be a tyrant, but was dissuaded (Polemarchus, Lysias, Niceratus also in the Republic, died at the hands of the tyranny) – Plato seems to credit Socrates directly with Glaucon moving from a love of tyranny to something more docile.

But I don’t use “friend” lightly, although Xenophon would move us to not even consider Charmides an associate of Socrates in the Memorabilia. Since the Memorabilia is about Socrates’ justice, this consideration is given by Xenophon for two reasons: first, it would make Socrates look pretty guilty of some crime against Athens if it were mentioned loudly. Second, and far more importantly, Charmides never really listened to Socrates, not in the least. He kept his distance in a critical respect, as we will see below.

Charmides declares bitterly in Xenophon’s Symposium that he is most proud of his poverty:

So much, at least, every one admits, that assurance is preferable to fear, freedom to slavery, being the recipient of attention to being the giver of it, the confidence of one’s country to its distrust. Now, as for my situation in our commonwealth, when I was rich, I was, to begin with, in dread of some one’s digging through the wall of my house and not only getting my money but also doing me a mischief personally; in the next place, I knuckled down to the blackmailers, knowing well enough that my abilities lay more in the direction of suffering injury than of inflicting it on them. Then, too, I was for ever being ordered by the government to undergo some expenditure or other, and I never had the opportunity for foreign travel. Now, however, since I am stripped of my property over the border and get no income from the property of Attica, and my household effects have been sold, I stretch out and enjoy a sound sleep, I have gained the confidence of the state, I am no longer subjected to threats but do the threatening now myself; and I have the free man’s privilege of going abroad or staying here at home as I please. People now actually rise from their seats in deference to me, and rich men obsequiously give me the right of way on the street. Now I am like a despot; then I was clearly a slave. Then I paid a revenue to the body politic; now I live on the tribute that the state pays to me. Moreover, people used to vilify me, when I was wealthy, for consorting with Socrates; but now that I have got poor, no one bothers his head about it any longer. Again, when my property was large, either the government or fate was continually making me throw some of it to the winds; but now, far from throwing anything away (for I possess nothing), I am always in expectation of acquiring something.

– Charmides, in Xenophon’s Symposium, IV: 29-32, trans. O.J. Todd

It’s quite obvious what happened to Charmides – democracy was taken over exclusively by a populist movement and the resultant class warfare meant a neglect of the oligarchs’ rights and ended up costing him everything. It is not clear this is a bitterness which can go away; I probably would have burned the whole city with everyone in it if I got the chance to exact revenge after something like this. It is not for nothing Madison proclaims the problem of faction as arising out of unequal property distribution in Federalist 10, and emphasizes the need to prevent majority faction.

However, Charmides does seem to enjoy himself genuinely in other moments of the Symposium, and I think we can safely say that Socrates did have a moderating effect on Charmides behavior. To see why Socrates did not keep Charmides away from the dark deeds he was responsible for later, we turn to the Memorabilia, Bk. III, Chapter 7. I have reproduced the chapter from the Amy L. Bonnette (a University of Dallas graduate, *applause*) translation in full below, with my comments coming at times I feel they are relevant —

Memorabilia III:7

(1) When he [Socrates] saw that Charmides, the son of Glaucon, was a man worthy of note and far more able than those engaged in political affairs at that time, but was hesitant to approach the demos and to attend to the city’s affairs, he said, “Tell me, Charmides, if someone should not want to compete in the contests whose prizes are garlands – although he is competent to win the victory in them and, on account of that, be honored himself and enhance the reputation of his fatherland in Greece – what sort would you hold this man to be?”

“That is clear,” he [Charmides] said, “soft and cowardly.”

Comment on III.7.1 – As Joshua Parens has noted, the problem with Charmides in the Platonic dialogue of the same name is his immoderation. We have noted Charmides’ own speech above, where he demonstrates how central wealth is in his life – it is so central that even the lack of it produces happiness. Now a garland is nothing but leaves; all that matters is honor for oneself and one’s country. It is true the winners of athletic contests get lots of material rewards later, but Socrates has purposely kept the issue narrow here, and the opposite of striving for honor is being a coward according to Charmides. Point of all this: Charmides has already been caught in a trap by Socrates – Socrates is going to hold him to the standards of honor and courage, not wealth and calculation, by Charmides’ own admission.

(2) “And if someone,” he [Socrates] said, “who is able, by attending to the city’s affairs, to enlarge his city and on account of that to gain honor for himself, should hesitate to do this, wouldn’t he plausibly be held a coward?”

“Perhaps,” he [Charmides] said. “But with regard to what are you asking me these questions?”

“The fact,” he [Socrates] said, “that I think you hesitate to attend to them, though you are able and they are matters in which it is necessary for you to participate, since you are a citizen.”

Comment III.7.2 – Our traditions emphasize private enterprise, even our Founding documents seem to suggest government is a necessary evil (Federalist 51: “If men were angels…”). This keeps some of the best people out of government even without open class warfare like Athens. Charmides at least has the excuse that the democracy has abused him, and that he’s made a few enemies among the oligarchs probably. We, on the other hand, can’t even be exhorted to be courageous for public service is looked upon by us as a refuge for scoundrels, although honors among the nations are justly won by those competent.

(3) “In what sort of work have you observed this ability of mine so as to form these judgments about me?” said Charmides.

“In your associations in which you keep company with those who engage in the city’s affairs,” he said. “For in fact whenever they consult with you on some matter I see you advising them nobly and, whenever they err in something, censuring them correctly.”

(4) “It is not the same thing, Socrates,” he said, “to converse in private and to compete among the multitude.”

“And yet,” he [Socrates] said, “he who is able to count, counts no worse among the multitude than when he is alone; and those who play the cithara best when they are alone prevail also among the multitude.”

Comment III.7.3-4 – We hire consultants and have government work – including intelligence work, military operations – done by private companies. So what’s wrong with Charmides staying private? Why must he of necessity be public?

Socrates’ proof looks like utter nonsense. Counting is too easy, and playing an instrument is hard – many of the best mess up when they’re in front of too many people.

The issue is “no worse” and “best.” Counting is certain, no one will ever dispute it if done correctly. Playing an instrument is a matter of charming an audience; one is never going to cast a spell on everyone at once, but getting as many as possible to experience awe is the task of a musician whether he is playing for himself, a few people, or a massive crowd. The certain things are lower than the things which hold generally. There is a certainty in privacy which allows one to think playing an instrument is as simple as counting – a lack of any criticism would lead one to believe his playing is just as good as his ability to count, no matter how horrible it was.

In moving to “music,” therefore, Socrates is forcing Charmides to take stock of his advice. In a way, it is like counting, since he knows what he is talking about. In another way, it is most certainly not, and Charmides is publicly accountable even at this stage without knowing it.

(5) “But don’t you see that awe [Strauss: shame] and fear,” he [Charmides] said, “have natural roots in human beings and that they come to one far more in crowds than in private company?”

“In fact I have set out to teach you,” he [Socrates] said, “that you, who feel no awe of those who are most prudent and no fear of those who are strongest, are ashamed to speak among those who are both the most senseless and the weakest.

(6) “Is it the fullers among them or the shoemakers or the carpenters or the smiths or the farmers or the merchants or those who barter in the agora and worry about what they can buy for less and sell for more whom you feel more shame before? For it is from all these that the assembly is composed.

Comment III.7.5-6 – So now Charmides, who professed before that people who don’t serve the city when they can bring it and themselves honor are “soft and cowardly,” complains that Socrates doesn’t understand the impact of “shame and fear.”

Socrates appeals to Charmides’ contempt for the demos to make him participate in politics – he should not be afraid of the “most senseless and weakest.” This looks like an indictment of Socrates, given that Charmides eventually joins up with the tyrants and persecutes the demos.

But remember: Socrates is telling Charmides to get involved in politics at this very moment. He’s telling Charmides to go deal with the assembly and participate fully with the democratic element. This is anything but an indictment – this is how democracy is supposed to work, people shouldn’t be afraid to be themselves and deliberate well.

The middle of the list in verse 6 is “smiths.” In another work of Xenophon’s, an interlocutor who loves noble things thinks that work indoors makes one feeble. So Socrates throws the idea of “smiths” at him and the interlocutor completely misses the irony that “smiths” are people built up in private to physical excellence and not to be messed with by some hotshot warrior who thinks he’s pretty strong.

(7) “In what, do you think, is what you are doing different from fearing the amateurs even though one prevails over those who are in training? For, although you easily converse with those who have first place in the city (some of whom have contempt for you), and although you far surpass those who attend to conversing with the city, you hesitate to speak among those who have never yet worried about political affairs and who do not have contempt for you, because you are afraid of being ridiculed.”

Comment III.7.7 – Socrates reveals his assessment of the democracy here: the democrats are learning to be statesmen. They can use Charmides’ help in getting confidence and understanding what they know and don’t know. He also points out that maybe Charmides’ fear of the demos is a bit exaggerated; after all, if he demonstrates himself to be someone to be reckoned with, he might find those who do not hate him already to be sympathetic and willing to take up his cause.

(8) “What about this?” he [Charmides] said. “Don’t those in the assembly frequently, in your opinion, ridicule those who speak correctly?”

“In fact so do the former,” he [Socrates] said. “Therefore I also wonder if you, who handle those with ease whenever they do this, think that you will be able to find no way to approach the latter.

(9) “Do not be ignorant of yourself, good fellow, and don’t err the way most do: for the many, having set out to examine the affairs of the others, do not turn to taking themselves under review. So don’t be easygoing about this, but rather exert yourself to pay attention to yourself. And don’t neglect the city’s affairs, if due to you they can be in a somewhat better state. For when these things are going well, not only the other citizens but also your friends and, not least, you yourself will benefit.”

Comment III.7.8-9 – Charmides hits Socrates back with the accusation that truth can almost never be recognized by the masses and it is a waste to share it with them. This accusation has an ironic power: Socrates isn’t well-known for his public pronouncements (see Plato’s “Cleitophon” for an example contrary).

However, it is the case those who are “prudent” and “strongest,” some of whom “have first place in the city,” ridicule those who speak correctly too. (For those of you familiar with Xenophon and Strauss’ commentary on his works – I take this to be literal, that prudence is indeed lowered by Xenophon here. The issue of Socrates’ prudence is the issue of how he appears to the city.)

Socrates ends with an exhortation to self-knowledge – he has told Charmides to be bold, now he encourages him to reflect as he embarks on this more courageous enterprise. Invoking “the many” makes it clear that the quest for self-knowledge is a teaching with political implications; a people that truly knows itself would be far more moderate, it seems. As an aside, almost, he brings up the issue of the city’s affairs again. We’ve moved then from courage to moderation and now to prudence. One might think Charmides’ last question ticked Socrates off, and that the exhortation to self-knowledge/moderation (cf. Plato, “Alcibiades”) was grafted on. But I think the safer argument is that we are being taught how to be a gentleman in a democracy – moderation, more than anything else, characterizes the truly prudent, the ones that might actually be wise.

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