I don't know if this is the right place to post this question, but as I was reading Diogenes Laertius' 'The Life of Socrates', I came upon the following line:

"He recommended to the young the constant use of the mirror, to the end that handsome men might acquire a corresponding behaviour, and ugly men conceal their defects by education."

What does "corresponding behaviour" mean? Does it refer to the personality of a handsome man?

Here is the full paragraph of the statement:

On hearing the line of Euripides' play Auge where the poet says of virtue:

'Tis best to let her roam at will'

He got up and left the theatre. For he said it was absurd to make a hue and cry about a slave who could not be found, and to allow virtue to perish in this way. Some one asked him whether he should marry or not, and received the reply, "Whichever you do you will repent it." He used to express his astonishment that the sculptors of marble statues should take pains to make the block of marble into a perfect likeness of a man, and should take no pains about themselves lest they should turn out mere blocks, not men. He recommended to the young the constant use of the mirror, to the end that handsome men might acquire a corresponding behaviour, and ugly men conceal their defects by education.

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    – J D
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 17:53

3 Answers 3


I'm put in mind of Socrates' speech in the Symposium, 201d- 212c, expressed as the report of a discourse of Diotima, the wise woman from Mantinea. I summarise from W.R.M. Lamb, Symposium, Loeb: Harvard & London, 1961: 172-209.

To improve the soul, Diotima says, it is perfectly correct, indeed necessary, in early life to be acutely aware of bodily beauty in a particular person. But this is only the first step in a ladder of ascent. The next step is to recognise the beauty of many persons, in fact the beauty of all beautiful persons. In other, more modern terms, at this stage we recognise beauty as a universal present in all beautiful persons. The crucial next step is to realise that there is beauty of soul as well as of body and that there is no necessary correlation between beauty of body and beauty of soul. The beautiful body may be animated by an ugly, disordered soul; the ugly body, by a beautiful, properly ordered soul.

The continued ascent perceives beauty in activities and laws, then in the various kinds of knowledge, and terminates in knowledge of the very essence of beauty (ho esti kalon: 211d). In the language of the Republic this knowledge is of the Form of the Beautiful.

This maps roughly on to:

He recommended to the young the constant use of the mirror, to the end that handsome men might acquire a corresponding behaviour, and ugly men conceal their defects by education.

The correspondence is that handsome men should realise that their physical beauty is beauty of a lower order than beauty of the soul; and that ugly men should equally recognise that their lack of physical beauty is far less important than the beauty of soul which is within their reach.

  • +1 back atcha; I like this answer. Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 14:10

It seems that Diogenes Laertius' passage is not often commented into Socrates' literature.

If we try with different translations, we may say that Socrates recommends to take care of appearance:

"for handsome young men, to behave according to their appearance (i.e. to be virtuous ?), while for ugly men to hide their defects (the physical ones) with an educated behavior".

What is the "meaning" of this quote?

Is Socrates speaking about beauty or about virtue ?

Maybe about the importance of "proper behavior" for social relationships...

We have also to consider that Diogenes lived in 3rd century AD, around 600 years afetr Socrates' life: thus, without context and without further evidence about the correct attribution of the quote to Socrates, it is hard to speculate about it.

  • +1. Good answer, not least commendable for identifying the source of the quotation.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 10:52

Socrates, and ancient Greek thinking more generally put, used the concept of arete, which is a broad conception of excellence or virtue. One was encouraged to develop every capacity and skill, to achieve the most that one could across the scope of one's life. Socrates would have looked at our modern lives — with our tendency to narrow our expertise down to one particular thing at the expense of all else — with sadness and disdain.

This kind of narrowness is what Socrates is pointing at in this passage. He suggests that a sculptor should sculpt himself as much as he sculpts stone, in order to make himself into an ideal form. He wants young men to stare into mirrors, not to admire their own beauty or rue the lack, but so that can all see past the external form and develop their inner selves, either to match the outer beauty or compensate for its lack.

Socrates is really just railing a bit against shallow, superficial presentations of singular virtues. He wants virtue to be deep and pervasive in everyone.

  • +1. I'd take a different angle, still to be fully worked out, but this is v. evidently a good stab at an answer.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Feb 27, 2020 at 10:54

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