Charmides by Plato
This is the first dialogue in my collected works of Plato, so I have now officially embarked on my Life Quest (mentioned in an earlier post) to read the Collected Works of Plato. Fare forward, and all that.
The subject of this dialogue is a Greek word (which I cannot read (it’s all Greek to me)), which, according to Benjamin Jowett, translator of Plato par excellence, can be translated as Temperance, Moderation, Modesty, Discretion or Wisdom. In this dialogue, Socrates has a merry time (doesn’t he always?) asking people to define the term, and then watching as all the attempts at definition end up circular or absurd.
Obviously the people to whom Socrates is talk never played Dungeons and Dragons. If they had, then they would have never attempted to define “Wisdom.” When I was a lad and enamored of the game, I never did understand “Wisdom.” For those not in The Know—in that most intricate game, every character is defined by scores on 6 attributes: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution and charisma. Five of those are easy to define; wisdom is not. I never did figure out what wisdom was. Clerics have to have a lot of it, but they don’t have to be intelligent. Magicians have to be intelligent, but don’t have to be wise. So, wisdom is that thing which people to whom you might go to for advice have. And a person who has wisdom will be the sort of person of whom others ask advice. So, wisdom is what wise people have. Which is circular. And I realized this when I was 12.
Thus by the time I hit my teenage years, I would have never played Socrates’ game in this dialogue.
Now, however, I want to play it. It seems to me now that I do know what wisdom is. But, I still can’t come up with a decent definition of it. My dear friend, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, give this as the connotation of “wise”: “suggests great understanding of people and of situations and unusual discernment and judgment in dealing with them.” That sounds good. But, then I ask: how does one know if one has discerned and judged correctly? Who can evaluate wisdom? And the answer is obvious: wisdom is the ability to discern wisdom. And suddenly I am playing both Socrates and Charmides in my own mind.
I flip the question a bit. Suppose I wanted to become more wise. What would I do? If I read more, I can become more knowledgeable, but knowledge is not the same as wisdom. If I practice giving advice, that does not make me more wise unless I have the ability to discern whether my advice is wise or not, and I would have to be wise to know his. Solomon had to pray for wisdom, was given more wisdom than anyone in the land, and then went out and made some really stupid decisions. Socrates was declared to be the wisest man alive by the Oracle (in a dialogue I will get to eventually in my tour of Plato), but concluded that the only thing that made him wise was that he knew he wasn’t wise.
So here we have a desirable characteristic, something to which it seems everyone should aspire, and we can’t define it or figure out a way to acquire it. Puzzling to say the least.