A Life of Socrates – Wiggers 1840

A Life of Socrates

by Gustav Friedrich Wiggers (1777-1860)


Translated by

Smith, William, 1813-1893: A life of Socrates (Taylor and Walton, 1840),



Socrates was the son of Sophroniscus, a sculptor of considerable merit, and of Phaenarete , a midwife, who is called by Socrates, in the Theaetetes of Plato, a very noble-minded woman. He was born at Athens, on the 5th of the month of Thargelion, about the middle of April or May, in the year 469. b.c. (0l. 77. 4.) 1; and belonged to the tribe of Antiochis and the deme of Alopece.  His features, and indeed his appearance al­together, were anything but handsome, and seemed well adapted for the ironica1 character which he maintained.  Alcibiades, in Plato’s Symposiurn,2 compares him to the Sileni and to Marsyas, the Satyr : “And I may also com­pare Socrates to the Satyr Marsyas. As for thy appear­ance, thou canst not deny it thyself, Socrates; to what other things thou art like, thou shalt quickly hear.

“Thou art a scoffer, art thou not? If thou dost not willingly own it, I will bring forward witnesses.” One of the principal passage of the ancients, which bear on this point, is in Xenophon’s Symposiumn,1 in which Socrates engage in a playful dispute with Critobulus as to which of them is the handsomer. Socrates there tries to prove that his prominent eyes, his depressed nose, and his large mouth must, on ac­count of their greater usefulness, be the handsomer. Several other particulars, which however; may be exag­gerated, for the purpose of indicating the ugliness of Socrates, are mentioned in the same Symposium.2

Notwithstanding the limited means of his father,3 Socrates was educated according to the manner of the times. Music in the Greek sense of the word, i.e. music and poetry, and gymnastic exercises formed the principal part of the education of an Athenian youth ; and in these Socrates was instructed.4 In addition to which he received instruction in the art of his father; and if we may credit the report of Pausanias, who says that the three Graces* made by Socrates had found a place on the walls of the Acropolis of Athens, close behind the Minerva of Phidias, he must have made considerable progress in the art.-5

*(Beezone) – The Three Graces depicts the three daughters of Zeus, each of whom is described as being able to bestow a particular gift on humanity: (from left to right) Euphrosyne (mirth), Aglaia (elegance) and Thalia (youth and beauty). 

Crito, a wealthy Athenian, who subsequently became an intimate friend and disciple of our philosopher, having discovered the eminent talents of Socrates, induced him to give up the profession of his father.1 Various anecdotes preserved in Plutarch and Porphyry rest on too feeble historica1 evidence to throw any light on the history of Socrates. To this class belongs pro­bably the following story in Porphyry,2 who being attached to the new Platonic system which formed such a contrast to the society of the Attic sage, was an adversary of the latter. Socrates, we are told by him, was in his youth compelled by his father to follow the art of a sculptor (against his inclination, was very dis­obedient, and often withdrew himself from the paternal roof. In the same manner Plutarch,1  among other things , relates, that the father of Socrates had been warned not to compel his son to follow any particular pursuit, as he had a guardian spirit who would lead him in the right way.

Thus Crito was the first who raised Socrates into a higher’ sphere. Whether he had before this time en­joyed the instructions of Archelaus a disciple of Anaxa­goras, cannot be decided by historical evidence, although it is asserts by Porphyry that he was a disciple of Archelaus as early as his seventeenth year. The first study that engage the attention of Socrates, and to which he applied with great zeal, was that of physics “When I was young,” says he in Plato’s Phaedo,2 “I had an astonishings longing for that kind of know­ledge which they call physics.” He sought after wisdom where his fellow-citizens sought it; — in the schools of the vaunting sophists, and of the most celebrated philosopher of his age, as well as in the writings and songs of former sages. Parmenides, Zeno, Anaxagoras and Archelaus among the philosophers, Evenus of Paros, Prodicus and others among the sophists, are recorded as his teachers.3

Assists by these masters he made considerable pro­gress in mathematics, physics, and astronomy; the value of which he afterwards confined to very narrow limits.1 Some of his opinions in natura1 philosophy which Aristophanes distorts to suit his purpose must perhaps be referred to this early period of his life. In the instance in which the comic poet2 makes him say that the sky is a furnace, and men the coals in it, the real assertion probably was, that the sky was a vault cover­ing the earth —quite in accordance with the spirit of the cosmological systems of the time; and that he had studied the cosmological system of Anaxagoras with particular attention, is evident; for he himself3 tells us, that he hoped to find in it information concerning the origin of things. As Socrates himself gives us in this passage an explanation of the reasons, which afterwards induced him to think so little of this system, he shall speak for himself. “I once heard a person reading in a book which he said was written by Anaxa­goras, and saying that reason arranged all things and was the cause of them. With this cause I was much delighted, and in some manner: it appeared to me quite correct that reason should be the cause of all things, If it be true I thought, that reason arranges all things it arranges and places every things in the place where it is best. Now if any body wanted to find the cause by which every thing arises, perishes, or exists, he must find the manner in which a thing exists suffers or acts best. For this reason I thought only that investigation the object, of which is the most excellent and the best, to be adapted for man both for himself as well as other things; and he who succeeded in this must at the same time know that which is bad, for both are objects of the same science. Reflecting upon this subject, I was delighted, as I thought I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher after my own heart , who could open my eyes to the cause of things. Now he will first tell thee, I thought, whether the earth is flat; or round; and after he has done this he will also show thee the cause and the necessity of it, and whichever is the better he will prove that this quality is the better one for the earth. If he tell thee the earth is in the centre, he will at the same time show thee that; it is better foi it to be in the centre. I was willing, if he would show me this, not to suppose any other kind of causes, and hoped soon to receive information about the sun, the moon, and other stars, pointing out the mutual relation of their rapidity,—their rotation and other changes ; and how it was better that each should act as it acts, and suffer as it suffers. For as he said that they were arranged by reason, I did not think that he woud assign any other cause to things than that their actual qualities were the best;. As he assigned to all things their causes, and ascertained them in all things in the same manner, I thought he would represent that which is the best for each, as the good common to all.  I would not have given up my hopes for any thing ; with great avidity I took up his books, and read them as soon as I found it possible, in order that I might quickly learn the good and the bad. But, my friendI,1 I was soon disappointed in this hope; for in the progress of my reading, dis­covered that the man no longer applied his principle of reason, and mentioned no cause by which to classify things; but declared air, ether, water, and many other strange things to be causes. This appeared to me just as absurd, as if somebody should say, Socrates does every thing which he does, with reason; and afterwards endeavouring to point out the motive of every single action he should say in the first place that I am now sitting here because my body is composed of bones and of sinew,2 etc.  I should have liked very much to have obtained some instruction, from whomsoever it might have proceeded, concerning the nature of this cause. But as I did not succeed, and as I was unable to find it out by myself , or to learn it from any one else, I set out on a second voyage in search of the cause.” The rest are Plato’s own thoughts.

Besides this, Socrates was greatly attracted by the intercourse of women of talent, and courted their society for the higher cultivation of his own mind and heart. He, like that powerful1 demagogue on whom his con­temporaries bestowed the highest admiration for the power of his eloquence, was instructed in the art of speaking by Aspasia1 and Diotima of Mantinea taught him love;1 by which’ as Fr. Schlegel justly observe13»e we must not understand transient& pleasure, but the pure kindness of an accomplished mind; a circumstance5 which is of importance in forming? a proper estimate of many’ peculiarities in the doctrine and method of Socrates.


’ [More probably in b. c.468. See Clinton’s “Fasti Hellenici,” Vol. II. Introduction, p. xx.—Editor. ]

2 Page 215. ed. Steph.

‘V. §5.

  • 2. H ….., chap. II. 19.
  • 3. That his father was by no means a wealthy man is evident, from the fact that Socrates, though very economical, was always poor.
  • 4. Crito, c. XII *
  • 3. I. 22, and IX. 35. Compare Diog. II. § 19. and the

    scholiast to the Cloud:5 of Aristoph. p. 170. Timon, therefore, in Diogenes calls him with a sneer of contempt.

    • II. 20. ” Demetrius of Byzantium says that Critic, attracted by the charms of his mind, withdrew him from the workshop and instructed him.” Suidas, Tom. II. under Crito, p.377.1 do not think that there is any reason for disbelieving this account. Meiners, indeed, (Geschichte der Wissenschaften‘, &c. Vol. II. p. 354.) considers this to be a mere calumny of Aristoxenuis; but it is Demetrius and not Aristoxenus, who is mentioned by Diogenes his authority.
    • His charges against Socrates he derived from Aristoxenus* a disciple of Aristotle. Aristoxenus himself could not deny that Socrates had been obedient: to the laws, and had always been just, yet he accuses our philosopher of being guilty of violent anger and shameful dissoluteness. The most unobjectionable evidence of the most credible contemporarie sufficiently refutes such calum­nies. A detailed examination and refutation of the charges of Aristoxenus will be found in Luzac’s Att. edited by Sluiter, Leydei 1809. p. 27. foil. But why Aristoxenus brought these charges against: Socrates, will be seen from our subsequent description of the character of the latter.


  • De genio Socratis. Franefort, 1620. Tom. II. p. 889.
  • Page 96. A.
  • Zeno of Ele; i , about the year 460. c., at the age of about 40, undertook with his teacher Parmenides: 9 , a journey to Athens, for the purpose of meeting Socrates. Whether Socrates ever heard Anaxagous:’ himself, or only studied his writings, cannot be asserted with historical certainty. That he heard Archelausis attested by Cicero, TuscuI. V. 10. Evenus of Paros instructed Socrates in poesy . Compare Fischer’s remark on the 5th chapter

    of Plato’s Apology. He had also read the writings of Herac­litus. “ What I did understand, was excellent ; I believe also that to be excellent which I did not understand.: Diof Laert. H. 22. Plato, Cratylus, p. 402. A. fol1. Prodicus taught him the art of speaking;. Plato. Meno, p. 96. D. Aeschineis III. C.: K.,,,,,,, (reminis­cences). A long register of teachers of Socrates which, however, must not be taken strictly, occurs in Maxim. Tyr. Diss. XXII. [It would appear, however, from a statement in Xenophon’s Symposiun, that : Socrates never received any direct instruction in philosophy; since Socrates is introduced as saying to Callias, who was a great friend and patron of the sophists 3 Symp. I. 5-Ed.]

    • Mem. IV. 7.
    • Clouds, 94.
    • Phaedo, p. 97. B. foil.



  • He is speaking’ to Cebes.
  • Ntvpa with Plato does not mean nerves – which signification it only received through Galenus


1 Plat. Menex. p. 235. E. She is also said to have written a poem to Socrates. Athen V.p. 219.

[It is doubtful whether any historica1 weight can be attached to the passage in the Menexemus. The whole may probably be looked upon as a fiction ; although it can hardly be supposed ac­cording; to Ast, that Plato meant to deride Pericles and Aspasia. Plato’s real object appears to be to ridicule those demagogues, who think themselves equal to Pericles, although they cannot compose a speech for themselves, and are obliged to learn by heart such as have been composed for them by others. All the other passages of the ancients, in which Socrates is said to have learned the art of speaking from Aspasia1, are probably taken from this passage of the Menexemus, and therefore prove nothing. Reiske, on Xenophon1‘s Memorabilia, II. 6. § 36, likewise con­siders the statement in the Menexemus to be made ironically ; in which opinion he is supported by Stallbaum and Loers , the late editor of the Menexemus. As for the influence Diotima is said to have had over Socrates, it seems just as uncertain. It is only mentioned by Plato, and those who copied from him, and is probably of the same nature as the story about Aspasia.— Ed.]



‘Plat. Symposia. p.201.D.. That  Diotima is not to be ranked among the iraipow, has been shown by Fr. Schlege1 Griechen und Romer.

2 Griechen und Romer, p. 254.