ABSTRACT

What is it to read a Platonic dialogue about Socrates and his ideas about virtue; and to engage with them as if they were set out for us yesterday? What is it to read a Platonic dialogue as if this Socrates were a real person, offering us real moral insight, rather than a figure of Platonic fiction? (See Gaita 1991: 14, 22; Gaita 1999: 208-13.) Are we – here and now – to take the figure of Socrates into any account? In what follows I focus on the contrast between the particularity of the

dialogues and the generality of the philosophical theory they are often thought to expound.2 A test case, I shall suggest, for how we are to understand this contrast is provided by the running theme of self-knowledge in the Platonic dialogues. For self-knowledge is both essentially general, if it is to be knowledge, and essentially particular, if it is to be knowledge of some particular self. Indeed, self-knowledge, as Plato represents it, is a central feature of the development of the virtuous person, of the individual struggle to learn to be good. In the ‘Socratic’ dialogue Charmides, which takes self-knowledge as a central puzzle, I shall argue that Plato gives us a view not only of how the particular self is connected to the general, but also how knowledge is to be integrated into the lives of individuals. He does so not as mere ‘Socratic intellectualism’, but in ways that show what it might mean for an individual to take the moral life seriously.