10

This seems widely circulated. I've seen it intended as a serious text:

In ancient Greece (469 - 399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom.
One day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said, "Socrates, do you know what I just heard about Diogenes?"
"Wait a moment," Socrates replied, "Before you tell me I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Triple Filter Test."

'Triple filter?" asked the acquaintance."That's right," Socrates continued, "Before you talk to me about Diogenes let's take a moment to filter what you're going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?" "No," the man said, "Actually I just heard about it."

"All right," said Socrates, "So you don't really know if it's true or not. Now let's try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about Diogenes something good?"
"No, on the contrary..."

"So," Socrates continued, "You want to tell me something about Diogenes that may be bad, even though you're not certain it's true?" The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.

Socrates continued, "You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter, the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about Diogenes going to be useful to me?"
"No, not really."

"Well," concluded Socrates, "If what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even useful, why tell it to me or anyone at all?"

The man was bewildered and ashamed. This is an example of why Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.

Some variants add this twist below, but let's not analyze that.

It also explains why Socrates never found out that Diogenes was having an affair with his wife.

Source: https://www.speakingtree.in/blog/socrates-triple-filter-test

Did this story come from the most reputable historical sources (the same students who transcribed Socrates's speeches/anecdotes) or is it a fabrication or adaptation from another story?

  • 6
    Questions about source are more suitable for History SE. And in case if you want to know whether the twist is true - Diogenes was about 10 years old when Socrates died. – Common Guy Oct 27 '17 at 8:31
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    So you have to edit your question correspondingly. And as said - when Socrates died, Diogenes was about ten yeas old. It is highly unprobable that Xanthippe (Socrates' wife) had an affair with a less-than-10-year-old boy. – Common Guy Oct 27 '17 at 11:07
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    I highly doubt this is sourced back to Socrates. No sources online point to an original source from the time itself, and there are word for word copies of this story online, except it was an unnamed Islamic philosopher. – DenisS Oct 27 '17 at 13:07
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    @DenisStallings could you share the version with the Islamic philosopher? It seems to ring a bell. – Jesvin Jose Oct 27 '17 at 13:21
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    @Nat The affair thing is a joke... Hence "let's not analyse that". Also, the dialogue is between Socrates and an unnamed "acquaintance" who is talking about Diogenes – user568458 Oct 29 '17 at 12:21
16

This was originally an aphorism by a Protestant missionary named Amy Carmichael, who penned it while bedridden in India in the 1930s and 40s.

Perhaps these three sieves will help to keep some words from being spoken that would grieve the Spirit of love and hurt someone whom our Lord loves. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?

Amy Carmichael, Edges of His Ways (Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade, 1955)

The reattribution to Socrates seems to date to around 2003, originally circulated via email.

(edit)

As ChrisW's answer and comments to it attest, this teaching is also found in the Indian Manusmriti:

सत्यं ब्रूयात् प्रियं ब्रूयात् न ब्रूयात् सत्यमप्रियम् प्रियञ्च नानृतं ब्रूयात् एष धर्मस्सनातनः - मनुस्मृति

Speak the truth, speak favorably, do not tell the truth that is not favorable. Also, do not tell untruth that is favorable - this is the eternal religion.

The Manusmriti was actively being read in India in the 1950s, so it could have been an inspiration to Carmichael. ChrisW quotes the Abhaya Sutta; I am not sure that this was being read in India at that time, but it's certainly possible.

  • Could you find when it was attributed to Islamic philosophers, like in Denis's comment? – Jesvin Jose Oct 29 '17 at 18:52
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    @aitchnyu I could not date that to earlier than 2016. Arabic versions available online seem to be translations of the English chain mail about Socrates, and all were posted in 2017. – Avery Oct 30 '17 at 1:50
2

As a counter-point to Avery's answer I wonder whether the aphorism has earlier, Buddhist origins.

Right Speech

The criteria for deciding what is worth saying:

[1] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] "In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings."

— MN 58

This has three sieves which are nearly the same as quoted in the OP:

  1. True
  2. Good and useful ("beneficial")
  3. ("endearing and agreeable")

I think that the historicity of the Pali suttas are fairly well established (i.e. they're certainly not modern) -- originally transmitted orally, this batch codified 3rd century BCE - 2nd century CE.

The Buddha was maybe a contemporary of Socrates (maybe both died around 400 BC, see here and here), though in different places (approx 5000 km apart).

Alexander the Great died later, in 323 BC (after reaching India); and the Stoics were founded a little after that, in the early 3rd century BC -- which is about the same time as when emperor Ashoka created a Buddhist empire and sent Buddhist missionaries (not to mention traders) to the Mediterranean -- some people think that Stoics (even if not Socrates) may have been influenced by Buddhism.

This version would be earlier than the Islamic philosopher Saadi (who was mentioned in the comments) too.

  • The real question is, how many Buddhists were actually reading the Abhaya Sutta after 300 AD or so? (As opposed to chanting the untranslated Pali in ritual settings. Also, I'm being a bit tongue in cheek) – Avery Nov 1 '17 at 23:05
  • I imagine it (as "right speech", part of the "virtue" branch of the threefold training) was told via Dhamma-talks to Buddhist laypeople (I also guess that e.g. Europeans knew at least a little Christian doctrine, even when the Church's language was Latin rather than vernacular). Also (though I don't know whether this is true), see Greco-Buddhism -- Philosophical influences. Some people must have been interested in philosophy! – ChrisW Nov 1 '17 at 23:25
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    Hmm, there is an [arunachala-ramana.org/forum/… scripture) that deals with truth and kindness. I guess Amy Carmichael's story shows she absorbed Indian philosophy during her stay. – Jesvin Jose Nov 2 '17 at 10:41
  • @aitchnyu Thank you, I didn't notice she was bedridden in India. I don't remember any ordinary Christian scripture that so closely matches these filters. Actually I see the version which you quoted has two filters (it says that speech must be true and pleasant). That's slightly different from the Buddha's version quoted above (which says that speech must be true and beneficial, and may be pleasant or unpleasant but should be said at the proper time and with sympathy). – ChrisW Nov 2 '17 at 12:32
  • @ChrisW I believe softening the blow of saying unpleasant facts/news is a big thing here in India. I believe there must be more scriptures and lectures on this subject, from which she created this story. – Jesvin Jose Nov 3 '17 at 12:47

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