Posted by: religionthink | February 23, 2011

Assisting Socrates In Charmides

I was somewhat disappointed  arriving to the conclusion of Plato’s dialogue, titled Charmides, and finding that Socrates was unable to provide a concise and satisfactory definition of the virtue Temperance.  It is interesting that at times religious groups are also guilty of this oversight, failing to clearly define the principles they consider virtuous and simply leave it to the individual to decide for himself.

The apostle Paul lists a number of virtues described as the “fruits of the spirit” . However, according to early Christian theology,  a person who pursues such virtues but persists in his disbelief in the salvation of the soul through Jesus Christ does so for selfish reasons. His virtue amounts to nothing, and he is doomed to eternity in hell.  Later, more enlightened, christians amended this tenet of the church.  Non-believers were saved from the fiery pit by the creation of purgatory and limbo though still were barred from climbing the airy staircase of the highest forms of virtue.  Plato, being a philosopher, was a bit more diplomatic.  He taught that each person regardless of belief has the potential to realize the highest forms of virtue through mindful practice of said virtue.

Many of the questions put forward in the Charmides are put forward also in the texts of the Upanishads.  One example of such is on the topic of “knowing what you know and do not know.”  The following excerpt comes from the Kena Upanishad:

“If thou thinkest thou knowest It well, little indeed dost thou know the form of the Brahman. That of It which is thou, that of It which is in the gods, this thou hast to think out. I think It known. I think not that I know It well and yet I know that It is not unknown to me. He of us who knows It, knows That; he knows that It is not unknown to him. When It is known by perception that reflects It, then one has the thought of It, for one finds immortality; by the self one finds the force to attain and by the knowledge one finds immortality. If here one comes to that knowledge, then one truly is; if here one comes not to the knowledge, then great is the perdition. The wise distinguish That in all kinds of becomings and they pass forward from this world become immortal.”

The answer to Socrates’ question “What is temperance?” can also be found in the Upanishads, in the metaphoric text of the charioteer:

” ‘Know the Self to be sitting in the chariot, the body to be the chariot, the intellect the charioteer, and the mind the reins  ‘The senses they call the horses, the objects of the senses their roads. When he  is in union with the body, the senses, and the mind, then wise people call him the Enjoyer.’ ‘He who has no understanding and whose mind (the reins) is never firmly held, his senses (horses) are unmanageable, like vicious horses of a charioteer.’  ‘But he who has understanding and whose mind is always firmly held, his senses are under control, like good horses of a charioteer.’

– Katha Upanishad  3:3-5

Here is where Socrates may rest his mind on a definition of Temperance.  Any virtue, when placed as the charioteer, can lead the mind to understanding and rein in the senses. And we may be able to satisfy ourselves , for a time, naming temperance the charioteer.  Still however, I believe Socrates, being Socrates, would desire to further investigate this metaphor.   And I am more then willing to let him do so.

By A. D.  Wayman

Edited by Rachel Kopacz-Wayman

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