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On Profound Ignorance - by Eva Brann

Plato’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...

On Profound Ignorance - The Imaginative Conservative

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