The Three Sieves of Socrates

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Someone once asked Socrates:
— Do you know what your friend has told me about you?
— Hold on, Socrates stopped him, you should filter everything you intend to say through three sieves before you say it.
— Three sieves?
— The first is the sieve of truth. Are you sure that what you’re about to tell me is true?
— No, I just heard it.
— So you don’t know whether it’s true or not. Then let’s move on to the second sieve — the sieve of good. Are you about to tell me something good?
— No. The opposite, in fact.
— So, said Socrates, you intend to tell me something unpleasant, but you’re not even sure if it’s true or not. Let’s try the third sieve — the sieve of usefulness. Is it really necessary for me to hear what you want to tell me?
— No, it’s not necessary.
— Well then, concluded Socrates, what you’re about to tell me is not true, good or necessary. So why bother telling me it at all?
Once upon a time in ancient Greece, one of the acquaintances of the great philosopher Socrates came up to him and said: “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

“Hold on a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me, I would like to perform a simple test. It is called the ‘Three Sieves Test.’ ”

“The ‘Three Sieves Test?’ ”

“Yes. Before you say a word about my student, take a moment to reflect carefully on what you wish to say by pouring your words through three special sieves.”

“The first sieve is the Sieve of Truth. Are you absolutely sure, without any doubt, that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“Well, no, I’m not. Actually I heard it recently and…”

“Alright,” interrupted Socrates. “So you don’t really know whether it is true or not. Then let us try the second sieve: the Sieve of Goodness. Are you going to tell me something good about my student?”

“Well…no,” said his acquaintance. “On the contrary…”

“So you want to tell me something bad about him,” questioned Socrates, “even though you are not certain if it is true or not?”


“You may still pass the test though,” said the Socrates, “because there is a third sieve: the Sieve of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”

“No. Not so much.” said the man resignedly.

Finishing the lesson, Socrates said: “Well, then, if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor useful, why bother telling me at all?”



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