If ever there was a guy who questioned things, it was Socrates. If you don’t quite get that reference, ask one of the lawyers in the club or anyone who attended law school. Trust me, they know what I mean.
I refer, of course, to his method of instruction, asking finely pointed questions rather than lecturing, leading his students to reach understanding on their own. But Socrates was a world-class questioner when he wasn’t teaching, too. He continued his predecessors’ examination of external world, but introduced the idea that self-examination was most important.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” a phrase often attributed to Socrates, is an excerpt from a longer sentence in which Socrates attempts to explain why the death sentence proposed by Meletus makes more sense than several alternatives, including exile. But that sentence fragment encapsulates Socrates’ belief about the importance of questioning own’s motives and behavior, the philosophy that led us to the notion of ethics. “Know thyself,” as Socrates might have read at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The other two Delphic maxima might have also shaped Socrates’ philosophy: “nothing to excess” and “certainty brings insanity.”
Question everything, in other words, including yourself. Be humble. Socrates, as humble a man as there was, taught that the only way in which he knew more than some others was that he was aware of how little he knew.
Take a good, long look in the mirror before you set out to benefit yourself. Or, in Plato’s version of Socrates’ words: “Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live, I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to every one of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions.”
Look inward before acting outward. That’s pretty good advice.
Sadly for Socrates, his detractors were too uncomfortable with self-reflection to let him slide. Found guilty of failing to worship the Athenian gods and corrupting youth, Meletus’ recommendation was imposed, and Socrates calmly consumed a cup of hemlock tea, paced about until his legs went numb, then laid down and waited for the poison to take him.
Socrates wrote nothing, so what is known of his teachings was record, or at least recounted by others, most notably Plato. But that was 2,419 years ago. If Socrates had only had access to the internet, if he could have posted his ideas on his Facebook feed, it might have been a whole different story.
One such tale that’s been passed around the internet, dating to at least 2003 in an much-forwarded email, is “The story of Socrates and the three sieves,” which goes like this:
One day a man runs up to Socrates and says: “I have to tell you something about your friend who…”
“Hold up” Socrates interrupts him “About the story you’re about to tell me, did you put it through the three sieves?”
The man was not familiar with the three sieves, so Socrates continued: “The first is the sieve of Truth. Are you sure that what you are going to tell me is true?”
“To tell the truth,” said the man, “no, I just overheard it”.
“What about the sieve of Goodness. Will you tell me something good or positive about this man?”
The man shook his head.
“Now, what about the last sieve. Is it necessary to tell me what you’re so excited about?”
When the man bowed his head in shame, Socrates smiled and said “Well, if the story you’re about to tell me is neither true, good or necessary, just forget it and don’t bother me with it.”
But it’s a tale; there’s no record of any such encounter. A slightly different version can be found in “Lady Mary; Or, Not of the World,” written by Church of England clergyman Charles Benjamin Tayler and published in 1845:
“But perhaps we ought to think of the three sieves before we allow ourselves to speak of others,’ observed the Bishop.
“And what is that story?” said Mr. Arden.
“It is not a story,” he replied, “but a maxim which all will do well to attend to when they speak of those that are absent. The maxim is this that before we allow ourselves to find fault with any one behind his back we should ask ourselves three questions. The first, ‘Is it true?’ The second, ‘Is it kind?’ The third, ‘Is it necessary?’”
Socrates would have shunned the misattribution but supported the idea. And doesn’t it sound a bit familiar? To my ear, the three-sieves maxim proposes the same ethical questions our own Four-Way Test puts forth: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
No one’s attributing the Four-Way Test to Socrates. We know exactly where it came from, penned by Chicago businessman Herbert J. Taylor in 1932, not for Rotary but as a maxim to right the ship and save his Club Aluminum Products distribution company from bankruptcy. Taylor vetted it with his managers, who were from different faith communities, and adopted it as a company standard with their blessings. Twenty years later the company had repaid its debts and satisfied its shareholders.
In the 1940s, Taylor became a director of Rotary International and gave the organization the right to use his Four-Way Test, giving RI the copyright in 1954.
In spirit, Taylor’s version isn’t much different than Tayler’s, and I imagine Socrates would have supported them both.