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Says Who? and the Sieves of Socrates

Says Who? Says me, as I’m the one writing this blog.

Forget-Me-Nots are a core part of Got-A-Head®?’s Thinking Toolkit. We’ve arranged them in families: Farmer, Pioneer, Scientist, Judge and Coach. The latest addition to the Coach family is Says Who?

Quite a few of our products have been inspired by ancient philosophers. For instance, the starting point for Give it a WhiRL!, where we ask if something works, is it right and do we like it, was the Logos, Ethos and Pathos that appears in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It’s not the same – we’ve put our own twist on it – but it got us thinking, which is what Forget-Me-Nots™ are all about.

When we came across the story of the three sieves of Socrates, we thought that could be a brilliant illustration of Says Who? in practice. We patted ourselves on the back that the novel idea we had come up with chimed with something that Socrates had said so many centuries before.

His three sieves are an exhortation to filter what you hear for truth, kindness and usefulness or purpose. So far so good – he’s saying think about what you hear and judge its worth or credibility before you pass it on to anyone else. Perfect example.

But then we explored a little further… Says Socrates. Did he? A quick search on the internet for the original source immediately throws doubt. While it may well echo the spirit of some of his teachings, written evidence is very thin on the ground.

Firstly, Socrates didn’t write anything down. We would need Plato for that. Plato was his most famous pupil, and pretty much the only one to write down the philosophical teachings of Socrates. The sieves story doesn’t appear anywhere in Plato’s works.

Is there any other evidence? One internet source reckons that it is a modern morality tale no more than 20 years old. I wouldn’t trust that source, as someone else could prove that it was published in the Quaker collection The Children’s Story Garden published in Philadelphia in 1920. Looking further, it appeared in the Children’s New Church Magazine of 1872, too. They didn’t attribute it to Socrates, but the story is the same. Moral, yes. Socrates, no.

Not listening to gossip, or thinking about the truth, kindness and purpose of what is being said is good advice, and something that you may well want to adopt, but it doesn’t appear to have been said by Socrates. Even if it had been true, agreeing with Socrates just because his teachings are well-known and well-respected (at least by some!) isn’t enough. You have to use your own sieves (or maybe you could use other Forget-Me-Nots?) to help you judge the value of what is being said.

We’re not the only ones to say that you should query the truth of what you hear, especially on the internet. Twenty-five years ago, in the very early days of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee said there should be an ‘Oh Yeah?’ button, that would automatically challenge the server for credentials, or proof to back up why something could be considered trustworthy.

Says Who? is the equivalent of an ‘Oh Yeah?’ button, but inside your head, reminding you to check, check and check again.

In this blog, we’ve looked at Says Who? in an outward fashion – checking the veracity of what we’ve heard, or are reading on the internet. It’s really important, though, that it is also used in an inward way. You should be checking your own thoughts and beliefs, holding them up to the light to see if there are any flaws. Are they based on facts (and from what source?) or opinion? Detailed evidence or a gut feeling? You don’t necessarily have to change your mind, but you should be acknowledging, at least to yourself, how valid they are so if someone asks ‘Says Who?’ about what you’ve said, you can say ‘Says Me’ and know it to be worth saying.

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