The Real, Fascinating Lesson of the “Three Wise Monkeys”

You've probably already seen the famous image of the three wise monkey. But did you know what they really mean?

The classic story of the three wise monkeys from the Toshogu shrine involves a simple, timeless lesson: we must be careful what we say, what we hear, and what we see.

This famous shrine is in Japan. The carvings of the monkeys – one covering his mouth, another his eyes, and the last one his ears –  date back to 1636.

Few images have crossed as many borders and lasted for as many decades as these. Now, the three wise monkeys are are icon.

However, the meaning of this image slowly became lost with time.

The Japanese, for example, refer to a philosophic code of cautious conduct:

“See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

This is lesson that comes from the writings of Confucius. For many, it gives off a feeling of “surrender.”

However, historians see a parallel between the image of the three monkeys and the Socrates’s triple filters.

Thus, this iconic image can prove a much more useful message for our modern life. This image has nothing to do with ancient Eastern servility that was enforced by not seeing or hearing the injustice.

We invite you to reflect on these teachings.

Socrates’ triple filter test

To understand the similarity between the three wise monkeys and Socrates’ three filters, it’s helpful to first understand a story and a lesson:

A disciple came to inform Socrates that someone had been criticizing him.

Before the nervous student could even open his mouth, Socrates asked him these three questions. These are three filters that the disciple had to think about before addressing Socrates. They were:


  • Truth filter: Is what you’re about to say really true? Have you checked everything you’re about to tell me with skill, care, and restraint to ensure that it is true?
  • Goodness filter: Is what you’re about to tell me good or kind?
  • The necessity filter: Is what you’re going to tell me necessary? Is it useful or necessary to tell me?

These three filters act as guides to help us be more prudent, cautious, and critical of everything we say.

Many people see a relationship between this lesson and the three wise monkeys at the Toshogu shrine.

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The lesson of the 3 wise monkeys

Let’s take a closer look at this famous image.

The monkey covering his mouth: Iwazaru

Iwazaru is the little monkey that you see on the left.

For the Japanese philosopher, this figure represents the necessity of not spreading evil. It’s even associated with the recommendation to not express your own dissatisfaction or negative feelings.

Prudence is also a part of not letting your own emotional world show too much. It’s about being composed and restrained.

As for how it fits with the three filters of Socrates, it has a lot to do with the necessity of not gossiping.

That’s because rumors aren’t always true. They aren’t good, and it isn’t always necessary to say them out loud.

The monkey covering his ears: Kikazaru

Kikazaru is the monkey in the middle.

In Japan, people who spread rumors, criticism, or bad news are looked upon very negatively.

Thus, the Japanese believe it’s better to cover their ears to certain kinds of information in order to preserve their balance.

This traditional idea may sound a little shocking here in the Western world. After all, bad news, gossip, and criticism are constantly flying all over the place here.

However, if we apply Socrates’ three filters, we can see different shades of meaning:

  • Sometimes, we need to heanegative information because it’s useful information. For example, you tell your boss that her clients aren’t happy and that she should work to keep them.

However, if the information is not useful and is also harmful, then it’s time to follow the lesson of the monkey Kikazaru: cover your mouth.

The monkey covering his eyes: Mizaru

According to the philosophical and moral code santai, it is better to not see, hear, or speak of injustice. As we know, this idea doesn’t hold up in real life.

However, if we look at the image of the third monkey through the Socratic filters, we realize something. It’s a direct invitation to close our eyes to things that aren’t useful or good.

Close your eyes to darkness to lift your gaze to the brighter, more hopeful, and more meaningful side.

Overall, these three monkeys teach us about our own needs and to always be cautious and prudent, especially when it comes to harmful or negative thoughts.

“Watch your words. Cover your ears to anything that is not useful or helpful, and cover your eyes to anything that is harmful and makes you happy.”