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Is “the knowing of what one knows and what one does not know that one does not know” ever possible? And what is the benefit of that knowledge?

Profound Ignorance: Plato’s Charmides and the Saving of Wisdom by David Lawrence Levine (Lexington Books, 2016)

profound ignorancePlato’s Charmides is not one of the more famous dialogues or one often thought of as central, and it is not on the St. John’s reading list. The latter fact is probably irremediable; the former opinion is now, once and for all, remedied by Profound Ignorance.[1]

I’ve long had a fleeting intuition, which David Levine has now worked out deeply and extensively, that the Charmides is of all the Platonic dialogues, the one that most immediately bears on our own contemporary political condition, the one that most directly illuminates the root problems of modernity. The Table of Contents, in fact, signals his understanding of this dialogue as peculiarly future-fraught. There are ten chapters, all but the first of which are devoted to a lively and careful exegesis of successive sections of the text. The first chapter, however, is a retrospective of ancient tyranny from the viewpoint of the “mega-phenomenon” that is modern totalitarianism. It seems to me that, whereas in the Republic we are invited to analyze the full soul as writ large in an imagined city, in the Charmides we are bidden to focus on the shrunk soul of an actual tyrant-to-be in a real city. The tyrant’s actions are infinitesimal in murderous effect compared to those of recent totalitarian leaders, but by that very smallness possibly more comprehensible in their badness than is the all but incomprehensible evil of the last and this century. David Levine works out these comparative realities in the initial chapter. The surface differences between old tyranny and new totalitarianism are, in brief, “lawlessness and terror,” expressed in an untrammeled appetite, as against “criminal rationality” expressed in a brute ideology. But there is a root similarity: “profound ignorance.” It is most perfectly exemplified in Critias, the eventual main figure of the Charmides, as Charmides, the externally beautiful boy without a mind of his own, recedes—only to return at the end with ominous threats, boyishly delivered.

This first chapter further sets out the way of understanding the dialogue that is pursued in this book. We are asked to “remember” certain Socratic truths now mostly displaced, which will show, as the author puts it, not that antiquity prefigured modernity but that modern life “might not be so distinctively modern after all.” The central question of the dialogue is: What is sophrosyne?, which is here translated literally: “saving [sozein] thoughtfulness [phronesis].”[2] This excellence, this goodness, is one of Socrates’s four cardinal virtues, the one most expressive of Socrates’s unsettling claim that all genuine goodness is, rightly understood, not ethical but intellectual, that virtue is knowledge. This “saving thoughtfulness” is, of all the virtues, including wisdom, the deepest and most complex, the most humanly revealing and politically consequential of all the standard virtues or excellences in Socrates’s and his conversational partners’ lexicon. The Charmides is devoted to revealing what this virtue is, but beyond that what it means for human beings to lack it.

This is the moment to say that the book is copiously and interestingly annotated, and that the opinion of scholars is given its due in the notes. The Charmides exposes Socrates to the charge that he was party to the education of two of the most evil men known to Athenian history. Critias was the de facto leader of the “Thirty Tyrants,” an oligarchy that instituted a reign of terror in Athens, which, as I think of it, was not matched in history until the Nazi occupation of the city during the Second World War. There appears to be no relief here for admirers of Socrates, who agrees, under pressure, to “chant” over Charmides, Critias’s ward and cousin, that is, to accept him as a patient and companion.[3] —Socrates is either naïve as a psychoanalyst or dubious as a teacher. David Levine, however, will show that Socrates understands, both in bold strokes and in subtle elaborations, what is the matter with these two; Socrates does his best.[4]

Readers may have shaken their heads at my use of the modern, Freudian term “psychoanalyst.” It is, however, justified by a heading in the second chapter, where “psychoanalysis” is qualified by “philosophical.” I cite this rubric of “philosophical analysis,” the soul-stripping of a boy whose bared body is irresistible, because a consultation of its supporting footnote shows how in- dependent of conventional categories David Levine’s inquiry is. It turns out that this philosophical depth-analysis is conducted more through the surface phenomena than is the modern Freudian kind, which is indeed “skeptical of appearances.” Thus, “Doctor Socrates” (the title of the third chapter) shows Socrates presented with a boy who complains of a certain somatic heaviness or “weakness” of the head which, it is pretended, Socrates knows how to cure.

Once again the situation is unprofessional by our standards. Not only is Socrates merely a pretend-member of the physicians’ guild, but after Charmides’s cloak falls open—or is thrown open, Socrates is enflamed—or pretends to be. Socrates the soldier, just returned from a brutal campaign, immerses himself in his city with a whirl of protective pretense that signifies his non-naivety, his circumspection, in dealing with this future-burdened lot. He prescribes a thoroughly “alternative” cure, a talking cure (hence the Freudian analogy), which shifts the diagnosis from body to soul and readies it for remediation by engendering the virtue of thoughtfulness-saving sophrosyne.

The fourth chapter presents a crucial soul-physician’s dilemma. Charmides, questioned about this virtue in himself, gets tied up in embarrassment; he blushes. For he can’t attribute sophrosyne, a kind of modesty, to himself in public without appearing immodest. That self-consciousness in turn presents his doctor with this dilemma, the “paradox of sickness”: If he confronts his patient with his defect he will seem offensive; if he desists he will seem irresponsible. Socrates finds a device. He levers the inquiry from a personal into a general inquiry: What is sophrosyne? The result is to display the boy as obtuse and other-dependent in his opinions. The yet implicit truth is that true sophrosyne is most particularly not a virtue you can have unawarely.

In the next chapter, Charmides’s “shamefacedness” (aidos, usually and less revealingly translated as “modesty”) undergoes examination. His final opinion, which he’s heard somewhere, is that sophrosyne is “doing one’s own affairs.” Johnnies will recall that this is the understanding of justice in the Republic, of which the boy is apt to have heard from his guardian, an occasional early associate of Socrates. The latter here exposes the selfish, anti-social meaning of Charmides’s version as compared to his own, political cohesion-producing intention in the Republic.

Charmides concedes that he just doesn’t know the meaning of his own putative virtue—but he snickers and looks to his cousin, his guardian. This elicits from Socrates the address “o miare,” an address as double-tongued as the mode he’s in. It is on occasion jokingly used, but literally it means “O Bloodstained One,” and that is how the author translates it. The occasion is a revelation about the boy; it displays his “profound ignorance” about himself, probably incurable. The “unreflective adoration” of such a potential leader by his followers, in youth or adulthood, is a devastating mistake to which a popular democracy is vulnerable, then and now.[5]

In Chapter Six, Critias, who has been growing increasingly antsy, lashes out, incited by his ward’s poor showing, not on behalf of the cousin he had earlier so extravagantly praised, but to shame this boy who has shamed his guardianship. Socrates now faces a much cleverer controversialist. What his ward is totally without, autonomy, his guardian has in terrifying excess. Doctor Socrates identifies it as “the principle of exclusive self-interest.” He is “a law onto himself,” self-legislating.[6] Here Critias reveals his future, as, in Xenophon’s words, “the most greedy, the most violent, and the most murderous” of the Thirty Tyrants. Here “philosophy becomes ‘prophetic.’”

Clever Critias’s opinions are not logically fallacious; they are ethically pernicious. In other words, Socrates opens up a distance between intelligence and goodness, without compromising his faith that, as virtue is knowledge, so vice is ignorance, and, of course, such “Ignorance is not simply erroneous, it is dangerous.” Acknowledged ignorance or ineptitude, however, such as Socrates deliberately displays before the two, is the very opposite—because it is self-knowledge.

Socrates incites Critias, as he did Charmides, to successive self-revelations—not to Critias himself but to us. Among them is the separation in Critias’s mind of a “knowledge that” from a “knowledge what.” The Critian man of sophrosyne knows that he is pursuing his own affairs, but he doesn’t know what he is doing. His is an ultimately insubstantial, all-subjective knowledge. Moreover, Critias has his own “liberation theology”: a god-like freedom for unrestrained self-expression. All this self-assertion makes Socrates, in contrast, now withdraw for a while to inquire within himself.[7]

What follows is an inquiry into Critias’s “proto-tyrannical” consciousness. Its main characteristic is an “extraordinary self-awareness” which is, at bottom, an empty self-involvement with its attendant “conceptual thicket…the problem of reflexivity,” that is, self-attention unmediated by an intentional object.[8] For Socrates, genuine knowing has an object, it is “of” something, namely the forms.

Critias has concocted a unique understanding of sophrosyne as a second-order knowledge that is practical in the sense of being utilitarian, universal in the sense of ruling over all other kinds of knowledge without being “of” them, and self-certified—the wisdom of self-interest, of political calculation, and of irresponsible domination.[9]

Chapter Seven and Eight are both devoted to working out the “Lesson of Ignorance.” It begins with Critias accusing Socrates of sophistry, because after all, every search, even if it has a real object, is self-interested—we want to be engaged.[10] Socrates’s nobility of inquiry is here delineated in terms of his personal qualities. But then a deeper difference, the central subject of the book, is broached: The emptily barren, assertively dominating, totalitarian knowledge that one knows takes over when what one knows lacks wholeness. This is the missing element in Critian self-knowledge: the knowledge of ignorance, in oneself and in itself. The exposition of the extendedly paradoxical nature of the knowledge of ignorance—a deeply subjective, yet impersonal, interpersonal, world-engaged kind of cognition—is, I think, not only the center but also the high point of Profound Ignorance.

So Socrates opposes to Critian’s sophrosyne a more complete virtue in the service of the self, a second sophrosyne, now a virtue in the service of self-knowledge. This is then the dual enigma: Is “the knowing of what one knows and what one does not know that one does not know” ever possible? And what is the benefit of that knowledge? Charmides, who is, after all, the patient here, is to be involved in the inquiry.

The nature of psychological reflexivity and logical privation, deep features of thought and of things, is now at issue. Here David Levine injects two digressions. One recounts Hegel’s history of self-consciousness, in which Socrates is given the crucial role of rescuing the suspect subjectivity of the sophists by insisting on the “‘inherent independence of thought’ from private and particular determinations.” The other digression recounts some extreme scholarly opinions reluctant to credit ancient Socrates with making full self-awareness thematic.[11] And if he is born too soon for fully reflexive self-knowledge, then, too, he cannot know his ignorance. —But, Profound Ignorance proves, the dialogue says otherwise: Socrates achieves a profound self-knowledge which includes the knowledge of his ignorance.

The profoundest perplexity is that of reflexivity, the soul’s power of self-relation, of which self-knowledge is a complexly perplexed part: Socrates cannot “confidently affirm” whether a knowledge of knowledge—and of ignorance—can come about. That disaffirmation itself is knowledge of ignorance. The profound enigma behind the latter is the above-mentioned notion of privation (that is, the deprivation of all positive qualities) and the consequent unspeakability of the “not” in ignorance; its knowledge would be the knowledge of a nothing. Such knowledge would then be described as the knowing of not-knowing, which, if it isn’t straight self-contradiction, comes close to it. All this ontological logic is way above the pair’s heads, but that need not preclude admission of one’s own ignorance—the doctor’s prescription for Charmides. Moreover, ontological perplexities aside, there is a brutally practical problem with this crucial kind of self-knowledge: Some soul types just lack the “prior Socratic reflective reflexivity” that is needed.

Having set out this discouraging preliminary, the author now reports Socrates’s challenge to Critias, which is to show that his second “Socratic” sophrosyne, which he has so easily adopted, is beneficial. Socrates reports that it throws Critias into “incapacitating confusion,” rather than into an enabling perplexity. This could be a moment of self-discovery; Critias’s defective soul, however, is not turned upward but forced “back on itself in shame.” He is, to be sure, self-oriented (reflexive), but not self-knowing (reflective); he lacks that “prior Socratic reflexivity.” Critias has not “reflected on the nature of beings” enough to be thinking about sophrosyne. His thinking is an empty totalism. He is stuck in his incapability, but we, listening, have indeed had actualized in us the knowledge of another’s ignorance. So that much is possible.

We now come to the two concluding chapters. Critias’s reflexivity did not lead him to the knowledge of his own ignorance, but now Socrates wants him to recognize that his self-cognition, which does not include knowing what, is over-generalized, “abstract,” to the point of vacancy: vacant self-assertion. Particularly as a political virtue, substantial knowledge of content-imbued expertise is necessary. A reference to the hitherto unsatisfactorily settled question “What is the benefit of sophrosyne?” is implied. Socrates begins to dream, a dream of the—political—benefits of his sophrosyne. It is but a dream, since for these two rulers-to-be complete self-knowledge is not possible.

What is Critias really after, since the knowledge delineated by him has proved empty? Critias says, out of the blue: The knowledge that makes one happy is that of good and bad. For the second time Socrates addresses one of this pair, now Critias, as “O Bloodstained One.” What is so terrible here? Critias is shown by Socrates to have implied that sophrosyne is a ruler’s peculiar virtue, entitling one to rule who knows nothing substantial but has this master-knowledge: How to get his own good out of what people know how to do. He has claimed a “primordial ruling knowledge that would subordinate the good to some yet more primordial sense of ownness.” It is indeed the notion of a man who will be bloodstained.

In this last dialectic passage with Critias, Socrates comes off almost deflatingly aporetic, perplexed, about knowledge in general and goodness in particular. Critias, in contrast, is self-confident without doubt. Though he has some beginnings in common with Socrates, such as the primary importance of the good life and the centrality of self-knowledge,[12] finally, in this dialogue, Socrates is, in contrast to Critias, profoundly ambiguous about “human intentionality and intelligence.” Moreover, he is overtly deflating about his own dialectical participation in the search, which was indeed, as David Levine says, both “over-involved to the point of being opaque” and forgetfully simple- minded. But that was intentional; the purpose was to let Critias reveal his profound ignorance.

In the ultimate chapter, Doctor Socrates turns back to Charmides, his reluctant patient, who declares that he—still—doesn’t know whether he has sophrosyne and—still—depends on the grown-ups to tell him. However, he now enrolls himself as Socrates’s willing patient. Indeed, the two incipient evil-doers verbally coerce a by now reluctant Socrates to take the boy on. Charmides’s external beauty cloaks an internal violence.

Some postscripts articulate David Levine’s deepest intentions: To recall to use a generally unremembered dialogue, the Charmides, that itself memorializes a great event; to recommend to us a guide, Socrates, who can take the measure of a human soul; and, of course, to reveal behind both dialogue and character an author, Plato, who writes inexhaustibly interpretable texts. Socrates’s very last words are: “I will not oppose,” and this apparently willing submission to a future of blood has troubled interpreters; is it craven? However, not only has Socrates’s conduct of the conversation been the opposite of complicit, but David Levine shows that “sophrosyne is the better part of valor”—that is, real sophrosyne: discretion, circumspection. Accordingly, Socrates has conducted a complex, ad hominem conversation receptive to two principles of interpretation: “integrated wholeness” (nested, sometimes circular development) and “dramatic argumentation” (implicit deeds, sometimes countermanding the words). In this conversation he has disjoined the assumed virtue of the boy from its ordinary meaning: control of appetites, moderation, temperance, and continence. He has instead attached it to self-knowledge thoughtfully understood. To be sure, Socrates’s “therapeutic thinking in the service of higher ends is transmogrified [by Critias] into calculative thinking serving baser ones.” But he has tried. This is the answer to the troubled interpreters: Socrates has “circumspect courage.” On campaign he is a staunch warrior saving his comrades; in the city he is a canny lover of wisdom, protecting the truth-effort.

The book ends with David Levine’s own brief interpretative synopsis of his book.

I want to emphasize once more what a curtailed report my chapter-by-chapter sketch is. Moreover, I’ve not engaged the author in critical debate. The reasons are the same for both deficiencies: The devil (meaning the subversions of the book) is, as they say, in the details, which are wittingly and intricately worked out. To take issue with them would be more the matter of a conversation than of a written report. Moreover, David Levine is alive and well and lives in Santa Fe; go and talk to him. For my part, it seems to me that what he says is profoundly right: Socrates has a close and knowing relation to his own ignorance and that is his most telling virtue, his sophrosyne, his deep discretion, while the future tyrant is profoundly ignorant of his ignorance. Here is my own ultimate question: Is profound ignorance morally imputable badness or psychologically hopeless insanity? –To me, it’s the question concerning evil.

I also want to say a word of the uses to which this book might be put: A senior might find it inciting to an unusual senior essay; a tutor would find it encouraging to a rarely offered preceptorial; any reader will find it illuminating in thinking about all sorts of totalitarianisms.

In sum, Profound Ignorance: Plato’s Charmides and the Saving of Wisdom is a book that shows what a Platonic dialogue is and what a reading of it can be.

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the author from The St. John’s Review (Volume 58, No. 1, 2016).


[1] It is an informal rule that a tutor proposing an addition to our seminar list should also suggest the reading to be eliminated. Since every book is loved to an over-my-dead-body point by somebody, changes are hard to achieve—as they ought to be.

[2] Or “sound [sos]-mindedness.” The author’s etymology promotes, as is perfectly permissible, his interpretation of the dialogue.

[3] Socrates’s inner forfender, his daimonion, would sometimes intervene to prevent unsuitable associations. Here’s a question: Why not this time, since pedagogic failure is, on the basis of this conversation, a foregone conclusion?

[4] He fails with these ambitious, politically involved “followers,” but of his narrower inner circle, according to Xenophon, not one ever incurred censure for immortality.

[5] I can’t resist a comment, seriously meant. One difference between the tyrannical natures of antiquity and totalitarian types of our times is that the former were beautiful. To wit, Charmides and Alcibiades versus Hitler and Stalin. I ask myself whether it is to be considered as a deep or a superficial distinction between antiquity and modernity, that moderns are more ready to adore physically unattractive demagogues—a problem worth reflection.

[6] David Levine refers, without naming him, to Kant’s morally opposite notion of autonomy: Our will is to free itself from all passivity, all passion, to be fully active in accordance with its own nature as “practical reason”—meaning that it makes only universalizable decisions, that it subjects itself to its own law-giving, without self-indulgence.

[7] As he does on other occasions, e.g., Phaedo 95e7.

[8] An “intentional object” is what cognition intends, what thinking is “of” or “about.”

[9] To me these passages, to the exegesis of which in Profound Ignorance I’ve not done justice, are the high point of the dialogue, since they throw a lurid light on philosophy’s main preoccupation in modern times, epistemology, the knowledge of knowledge.

[10] Every teacher knows that this is an honest problem peculiar to adolescents: Every way of being unselfish is selfish because we take pleasure in self-denial. In older people it’s contentious, since it muddies commitment before completing the analysis.

[11] To me these digressions are the more interesting for touching on a question that ought to be everyone’s preoccupation: Can chronology preclude some thoughts from being thought by those caught in its frame?

[12] And, I would add, the identification of virtue with a knowledge.

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